Children’s toys are generally assumed to be bought and played with because they’re fun. Many of them are. But we tend to underestimate how similar children’s social behaviors are to our own. On the surface they’re doing completely different things, but similar patterns still occur. We don’t become an adult and suddenly start behaving completely differently.
Just as adults buy things for reasons that aren’t obvious outside of the social context, so do kids.
When I was between the ages of 4 and 7 my favorite toys were action figures. In order: Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Aliens.
My friends and I did play with these in the way one would imagine — acting out battles and such. But what I remember about it more was the collecting. As far as I can remember, the main thing kids did with action figures was compare their collections. Having the rarest set of figures was the goal.
The most rare Ninja Turtle figure was Shredder, the villain. None of my friends had that figure. We weren’t sure if he actually existed. He was never in any of the stores. I remember begging my parents to go to Toys R Us so we could check one more time. Then out of nowhere my uncle happened to find that toy, and knowing the importance of the toy from my mother, bought it. A hero was made!
Aliens had a very similar story. The alien everyone wanted, but no one had, was the Queen.
In fourth grade the new big thing was Magic: The Gathering. Magic was a set of playing cards that represented various creatures, magical spells, and resources. Using the best deck of 60-100 cards you could construct, you would play against another player. It was a skill-based game, but the quality of your deck was also hugely important. Cards were bought in small packs of perhaps 20. You couldn’t be sure what cards would be inside a given pack. The best you could do was buy as many packs as your parents granted and hope you got lucky.
All of a sudden everyone in my class was forming a deck and playing before class. Almost as important as winning, was the quality of your deck and ability to make good trades. During a big trade discussion there would be extensive evaluation from the sidelines. If someone who didn’t have a good handle on the relative value of the cards found himself with a strong card, you could be certain a battle to see who would successfully trade for that card would occur. A fool and and his cards will soon be parted, as they say. As I remember it, in that classroom the biggest signal of popularity was the quality of your Magic card deck. The playing of games almost seemed like a ceremony performed to make sure that deck quality wasn’t meaningless. That Christmas I asked for nothing but Magic card packs.
At some point I had accumulated a pretty strong deck. I only had one real rival for the title of best deck in the class — that of my best friend at the time. One day I couldn’t find my baggy of Magic cards. I had had it inside my coat pocket in the back of the class that morning, but by the end of the day it was gone (the teacher had forced Magic cards to be put away during class). I was devastated.
A few days later one of the other boys in class, one not known to have a strong set of cards, showed up to school with a suspiciously similar deck to the one I had lost. An exact match. The two of us and a couple card-witnesses had to go down to the guidance counselor’s office to settle the dispute. My emotional week turned to relief when he judged in my favor. This was the first time any of us had seen someone get in trouble for an act that we knew to be against the real rules. I don’t mean rule breaking in general. Kids got in trouble all the time. But for things that we all sort of knew were only against kid-rules: talking in class, being mean, running in the halls, not doing homework, etc. Now we had someone stealing. And stealing the things most important within our little economy.
I remember being shocked by it at the time. What would cause someone to steal? And then if you did steal that deck of cards, how could you not know you’d get caught by bringing them back to the scene of the crime? I suspect the thief might not have realized until after he’d taken them that he’d need to bring them back to the scene either. Outside of our classroom, the cards didn’t hold much value. He had to try and show them off where they were important.
The other really popular elementary school game I remember was Pogs. I wasn’t part of that movement for some reason. Maybe it started in a different classroom than the one I was in that year. I forget. But I do remember that I never joined in. It was too late to catch up to the collections of those that played, so it was best to abstain altogether. Better to remain neutral than participate and lose the game.
I don’t know if I explicitly thought of it like that at the time, but looking back that seems like the reason.
Status in a Simulated World
In school the official rewards and punishments we get are based on what adults decide. It’s a system that rewards boring things like doing your homework. And the rewards are fake. A scratch-and-sniff sticker and a smiley face drawn on your paper only go so far. The often repeated scare stories about how “you won’t get away with that in the X+1th grade!” ring false after the first time it proves untrue.
I think kids often sense the lack of real payoff and turn to inventing a kids-only social hierarchy. One where the teachers and parents aren’t the sole source of power. Collectable toys seem like an evergreen source for these social systems.
I think we can safely say that toy companies understand this. There’s a reason that action figures in a given set aren’t supplied in an equal distribution. It’s not that they produce more of the most popular characters, but the opposite. They drive demand by creating an uneven playing field.
There’s a reason that the best toys in a set must be very rare. And I don’t mean in order to drive extra sales. That’s a convenient bonus. Collectables without rare items are not collected.