Today in Tedium: Over the weekend, I finally watched a movie I was really curious to see, the HBO Max original 8-Bit Christmas. I mean, obviously, just looking at the thing, it was clear what it was going to be before you even watched it—a film that tapped at your latent nostalgia and tried to convince you that A Christmas Story needed to be updated for the Nintendo era. It is by no means going to sweep the Oscars. (Give Steve Zahn his due, Academy!) But at the same time, I appreciated what it was trying to do. I will say that a common thread of the film played out like this: parents were way too freaked out at the idea of kids being overly attached to technology, a common thread even today. And that made me think about something: Where’s the counter-narrative, the person going rah-rah, tech is awesome, you should let your kids embrace technology more? I can be that guy—and I shall. Today’s Tedium, just in time for the holiday season, argues in favor of tech-friendly toys. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“Often, such concerns stemmed from the parents’ own challenges with their internet use. Some adults felt that they couldn’t control the amount of time they spent online, and those worries were projected onto their kids, as well.”
— Kim Salazar and Kate Moran, research experts at the Nielsen Norman Group, discussing the anxiety that many parents face when their kids dive a little more head-first into their gadgets than they’re ready for. (Salazar and Moran, who have likely met Jakob Nielsen in person, argue that this is a UX problem that designers need to solve for, by taking steps to make technology less addictive and by building things that make parents feel they’re in control.)
Remembering when people thought mechanical toys were as dangerous for kids as they think electronics are now
Whether it’s “You’ll shoot your eye out,” or “you’ve been on your phone for too long,” there is a long tradition of adults jumping on the decision-making of children who are simply trying to engage with the things that interest them.
And back in the day, before these wafers of Gorilla Glass and silicon danced through their heads, one of the things that interested kids deeply were the novel capabilities of mechanical toys, which often baked in inventive ways of using machinery to produce a clever result. (Think a jack-in-the-box, sort of the prototypical mechanical toy.)
Now, I don’t know about you, but seeing a few gears team up to create a result that literally can play music or move around the house sounds like a deeply inspiring thing as a young child, and there were some folks in this category who felt the same. A 1929 story in Popular Mechanics by Arthur Abelli attempted to make the case that certain toys often played direct inspirations to how popular inventors of the time, such as Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, eventually came about their inventions.
Toy-maker Ferdinand Strauss, quoted in the piece, certainly emphasized that this was his goal.
“The desire to know what a toy is made of and why, what it is supposed to do and how it does it, teaches a child many things,” he stated. “History is full of examples of men who received the incentive for their future life work from their playthings.”
But while Strauss, as a toy-maker who specialized in mechanical toys inherently got this, a lot of other people did not, and ultimately, skeptics of the influence of toys on youngsters had a stronger pull on parents and the children they raised.
A common concern, as highlighted by a 1940 news story uncovered by Bklyner in 2015, was the idea that fancy toys actually made youngsters less creative, by making them less likely to use their imagination.
“Mechanical toys to be wound on a spring,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle piece said, “and many other ready-to-hand playthings have robbed today’s youngsters of many of the joys of inventing games which their parents and grandparents knew.”
These weren’t the only such concerns I stumbled upon. Periodically, child experts quoted by newspapers would raise concerns about how machinery-based toys can stunt young children.
“Over-elaborate mechanical toys for the very young makes a child less resourceful,” stated Jessie Stanton of NYC’s Teachers Cooperative School, in a 1941 piece in the Albuquerque Journal. “They fail to develop his imagination because he can only use such toys one way.”
Toy-makers tried their best to manage these concerns. In a 1911 story published in the Boston Globe, some toy-makers took a bit of a halfway approach, attempting to create options for mannequin-style toys that children themselves actually played a role in designing.
“Experts who understand the proper amusements of children, strongly disapprove of mechanical toys of any kind,” stated Agnes Kent, who helped highlight the value of toys that a child plays a role in creating themselves. “The simpler a child’s toy, the better. The best plan is to encourage a child to make his own toys.”
When I saw the adults in 8-Bit Christmas going on and on about the negative effects of video games, things they clearly never tried for themselves, the criticisms felt very similar to me in tenor, if not in content. One gets the sense that concerns about creative stimulation, or lack thereof, often shape the decision-making around the toys we give kids … or the ones we don’t.
If we go by the Ferdinand Strauss theory of toys deeply inspiring what we would become, it’s arguable that a lot of the very kinds of people who played video games in the ’80s and ’90s are now designing the next generations of computing and innovation, because the sparks in their brains fluttered about and inspired them.
We weren’t just wasting our time killing goombas, were we?
“Children who played video games more were more creative, by every measure, than children who played them less, regardless of gender or race.”
— A finding from a 2011 study, done by Michigan State University (go Spartans!) that found a correlation between video games, the mechanical toys of their time, and creativity. (To be fair to skeptics of heavy computer or internet use, the study did not find those processes had any correlation with creativity.) Linda Jackson, one of the authors of the study, made the case that it should encourage game-makers to take steps to identify why games boosted creativity. “Once they do that, video games can be designed to optimize the development of creativity while retaining their entertainment values such that a new generation of video games will blur the distinction between education and entertainment,” she said in a press release.
Why Sony’s decision to design electronics for the kid market in the ’80s was kind of inspired
Another company that commonly comes up in conversations about video games is Sony, for understandable reasons. After all, PlayStations danced like sugar plum faeries through the heads of many a Tony Hawk fan back in the day.
But to take a step back from video games for a second, I want to highlight a marketing effort that the company took part in years before it started selling video game consoles. Back in the late ’80s, the company decided to develop a line of electronics, including radios, stereos, walkie talkies, and electronic sketch pads, for a target audience of young children. The idea was to build for kids, yes, but to create something that would inspire those kids to think Sony was awesomee.
The name of the product line? “My First Sony.” And wow, the commercials really screamed “kid fodder,” complete with off-key singing six-year-olds.
In a piece from earlier this year about the product line, Engadget writer Kris Naudus described her interest in the product as something of a “bridge” between the kid-style electronics she had been playing with previously, and having traditional electronics like, say, a Walkman.
“But when it was time to upgrade, I still wasn’t quite ready for an ‘adult’ boombox,” she wrote. “Luckily, Sony had just started up its My First Sony line, and the tape player my parents bought me was my first introduction to the storied electronics brand.”
As the 1997 book Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman explains, this was the explicit stated goal of the product line, to offer an introduction to kids who may end up buying Sony products their whole lives. Thomas A. Harvey, who was president of Sony’s consumer audio products division, explained that the concept was conceived and put to market in just a year, with the intended goal of creating an affinity with children almost from the beginning:
Once we had the name My First Sony we asked ourselves: why should we send a message to a child that Sony manufactures cheap radios? If we could create a product that made a long-term, favourable impression on children and be comparable in quality with the rest of the Sony line Americans know so well, we’d be building brand loyalty at a young age.
Harvey wrote that the company explicitly chose some product decisions with the goal of making the devices open-tent products. For example, rather than favoring colors that boys liked (orange and black) or colors that girls liked (pink and purple), they went for a broad, basic color palette of red, blue, green, and yellow. Also, rather than putting brands on the devices, they chose to keep the branding simple, but approachable, even going so far as to design the packaging so that parents could see what it did without needing to open the box.
Even the pricing was heavily considered, with a sub-$100 price range for most products, with the goal of ensuring that it was inexpensive enough that mothers, who according to Sony’s market research made more than 60 percent of buying decisions, would be willing to purchase it without needing to get their spouse involved in the purchasing decision. (“Once you reach $100, the fathers start getting involved,” Harvey wrote.)
And one last thing they did, per Harvey, was make the products long-lasting.
“My First Sony is an electronics line for children. Adult electronics is gimmicky—we’re pre-conditioned to look every year for a new model of the product we own,” he wrote. ”But with children, as long as the product meets their demands, they won’t need another one for four or five years.”
This was a clever style of marketing for 1987, as it raised up Sony’s brand with an audience that could potentially be buying Walkmans their whole lives. Yes, they didn’t actually end up doing that, buying PlayStations and fancy headphones instead, but it wasn’t because of this clever kid-first marketing effort from a time when Sony was on top of the world.
The year Charles E. Vela, an engineer working at the National Academy of Sciences and the MITRE Corporation, first coined the now-prominent term STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to describe a type of academic discipline. Vela is Hispanic, and the initiative was launched in part to encourage education in these subjects for underserved communities; fittingly, Vela launched the Center for the Advancement of Hispanics in Science and Engineering Education to help emphasize this work. (He also launched STEM education centers at a number of major universities, starting with the Catholic University of America.) “The basic concept is that a child is more amenable to learn complexities at an early age,” Vela wrote on his website earlier this year.
How Radio Shack electronics kits separated the men from the boys when it came to learning about technology, or how a Radio Shack electronics kit forever stunted my growth
One summer, when I was 11 or 12, I spent every day trying to throw a basketball into a hoop. It was a way to kill time when I was a kid and I spent a lot of my young life watching the Detroit Pistons during their glory days, so basketball was an interest of mine. I shot a ball from about a free-throw distance. I missed most of the shots and eventually got frustrated and gave up, going back in the house to find something else to do.
Another interest of mine was electronics, and I had a deep interest in getting my hands dirty with learning the processes around how electronics worked. As a result, around that same period in my life, I had convinced myself that I really wanted a Radio Shack electronics kit for Christmas.
You know the type. Hundreds of connectors, a promise of 150 or 200 projects in one. No solder, but lots of little wires that need to be plugged into little holes. They were intended to encourage kids to learn something about building a radio, or a primitive digital game, or some kind of counting project. They were to their era what the Raspberry Pi is to the current moment. And as a kid weaned on Nintendo who hadn’t had a chance to try out his first computer, I really wanted one.
In a lot of ways, these kits were self-educational. They were the introduction to electrical engineering that lots of kids didn’t really get from their science classrooms at the time, so they had to uncover opportunities of their own. When describing one a few years back on Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow said the device “occupied literal years of my time when I was a boy.”
And I had dreams to use this thing, loaded with tons of batteries, to power my aspirations. I wanted years of my life occupied by this device.
To give you an idea of what they can do, here’s a video from RetroSpector78 that appears to have the same kit I remember getting as a kid.
But, at least for me, the kit was disappointing—it felt like missing 300 free throws in a row. When I found myself presented with one around Christmas after a solid couple of months of pestering one holiday season, I spent hours trying to get the dang thing to go together. I followed the booklet, did exactly what it told me to do, painstakingly put in dozens of wires, and … poof nothing.
As a kid, that was the most goddamn disheartening thing. I felt like I found something I was excited to do, and instead of it working, I just found myself really depressed by the end of that process. I didn’t know where to go from there. There was no additional yak to shave!
Kids that did manage to figure it out grew up to be Cory Doctorow. But me? I’m stuck in a state of constant disappointment about the one that got away. It added in a bit of self-doubt about my electronics skills that I’ve never been able to kick.
In a way, I wonder if that moment changed my life in some small way, whether for the better or for the worse. That small moment of discouragement meant that despite my deep interest in electronics, I had convinced myself I wasn’t good enough to be someone who worked with computers. It was a shot to the ego that I never truly recovered from.
I sort of wonder to myself—this Radio Shack kit that I dreamed of turning into my own makeshift radio station, is it something I need to go back and defeat just to get closure nearly 30 years later?
Sure, “40-year-old guy tries to beat a Radio Shack electronics kit that stymied him as a child” makes for a pretty pathetic headline. But in a way, I get the feeling that my lingering frustration with this object reflects a missing STEM education experience in my life that I wish I would’ve had.
Now, I’m stuck writing about it instead of building my own radio station out of batteries and wire.
Look, I know the arguments about limiting technology use among kids. I’ve heard them many times in my life.
But I wonder if all these arguments made about technology being the boogeyman for young children are borne not out of genuine possibility but out of fear that, for some reason, the next generation will outpace us and get a better grasp of the way the world works.
That’s not to say that those limitations don’t have their place—everything in moderation, right?—but simply being skeptical for the sake of skepticism feels like the wrong move.
Sure, new trends make us uncomfortable (ask me about my feelings on Web3 sometime) but I do think that it’s worth accepting the reality that newer generations of technology are inevitable and younger generations will be faster to embrace them than current generations have been.
If you’re going to take a kid’s phone away, are you doing it to encourage a more moderate approach, or are you doing so as a reaction to your own discomfort with technology? Either answer is fine, but make sure you know that answer before you take it away, and understand why that might be the case … and why there’s a case to let them have it, and even find ways to encourage what they do with that device.
Without spoiling it: The thing about 8-Bit Christmas, despite the Nintendo-tinged nostalgia of the plot, is that at its core, it’s a very conservative film in terms of its underlying message, and the lesson of the plot isn’t that the kid spent most of his formative years playing Metroid all day.
There’s nothing wrong with playing Metroid all day, as long as you know how to put the controller down and use that problem-solving stimulation for something else. Lots of kids did that. Some of them grew up to be pretty successful people.
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