Toys: quintessentially the objects of childhood, their role in culture is anything but child’s play. Toys offer a site for young children to learn anything and everything from the commodification of time, through gendered and racial positioning of subjectivities (or the subversion of these positionings), through to social expectations around reading, sharing, and relative wealth and access. The importance of toys to children is vast, gauged by the nostalgia of many adults for their toys, and the role of the toy in popular culture, from Andy Pandy through to Toy Story and Chucky.
As editors, we all approached the matter of ‘the toy’ from different but complementary trajectories. Tama Leaver brought critical analysis to the table, informed by his Chief Investigator (CI) role within the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child, CE200100022.
Lelia Green’s engagement with toys had been heightened by a comparatively new grandparenting role, but also as lead CI (after Donell Holloway’s retirement) of ARC Discovery Project DP180103922 – The Internet of Toys: Benefits and Risks of Connected Toys for Children. For Lelia, this M/C Journal issue was an opportunity to look at the woods and the trees, to locate Internet-connected toys within the wider sphere of childhood toys.
Louise Kay was a key researcher within the EU-funded MakEY – Makerspaces in the Early Years: Enhancing Digital Literacy and Creativity project. Led by Jackie Marsh, also from the University of Sheffield, this Research and Innovation Staff Exchange (RISE) Scheme was part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 initiative. Both Louise and Jackie had also been Partner Investigators on the ARC Internet of Toys Discovery Project, alongside Bieke Zaman and Giovanna Mascheroni.
Complementing the intersecting backgrounds of the editors, the M/C Journal ‘toys’ issue received a wide variety of submissions, including many from north America and some from Europe. Indeed, so many good responses were received that the call for articles has resulted in two separate issues: this one, keeping the thematic title ‘toys’; and a second issue in June under the banner ‘blocks’.
In our feature article ‘Children’s Digital and Non-Digital Play Practices with Cozmo, the Toy Robot’, Louise Kay, Silke Brandsen, Carmen Jacques, Francesca Stocco, and Lorenzo Zaffaroni extrapolate from interviews with families across four different countries that included children playing with the toy robot Cozmo. Rather than limiting their imagination or types of play, the research uncovers a wide range of play types, noting that emotional connections with Cozmo were often at least as important, if not more, that learning coding skills, despite that being one of the main reasons parents buy the robot toy. That said, despite being a market leader, there are some real limitations that come from the way Cozmo is designed and interacts with young people, and the author conclude with notes for future development of Internet-connected toys.
Aleesha Rodriguez and Amanda Levido in ‘“My Little Influencer”: A Toy Ringlight as Proxy to Media Practices and Technopanics’ examine the media panic that arose in response to a toy set featuring a wooden influencer-style ringlight. Despite being a lightning rod of concerns and caricatures about social media and influencers, Rodriguez and Levido argue that these wooden toys could actually be helpful building blocks in developing young people’s early media literacies.
In their article ‘“The Internet of Life”: Enhancing the Everyday through Children’s Use of Digital Devices’, Kelly Jaunzems, Carmen Jacques, Lelia Green, and Silke Brandsen note that in their interviews with 6–12-year-old Australian children, many report that devices such as tablets have become important toys in their lives, whilst being equally aware that these devices have other functions too. Rather than cordoning off an ‘Internet of Toys’, the authors argue that the configuration of an ‘Internet of Life’ might better capture the broad potential uses, and pleasures, that many Internet-connected devices can bring for young people.
In ‘Playing with Barbie: Teaching Inclusivity and Diversity through Play in Indonesia’, Indrati Kurniana, Hersinta, and Katie Ellis explore the role of dolls in creating positive perceptions of disabled people and those with physical impairments in children’s play in an Indonesian context.
Catherine Archer and Kate Delmo use a case study approach and visual narrative analysis to analyse the Instagram accounts of two high-profile child social media influencers, eleven-year-old Australian Pixie Curtis and her eight-year-old brother, Hunter. They argue that this is an unregulated space and highlight key areas of concern on one of the world’s most popular platforms for children and teens, including privacy issues, commodification, and gendered and ‘stealth’ marketing of toys through ‘advertorials’.
In ‘The Future Is Furby: Cute-Creepy Encounters with a Zoomorphic Robot’, Megan Catherine Rose addresses the cute-creepy, nostalgic, queer, and fan-reimagined text that is the Furby toy, morphing across the decades with advances in technology aligning with the advancing ages of the toy’s first – and still loyal – generation of fans.
In ‘Toy, Vehicle, or Equipment? Parents’ and Children’s Constructions of the Bicycle in Childhood’, Erin Sharpe, Jocelyn Murtell, and Alex Stoikos address the different meanings that parents and children assign to bicycles. They note that understandings of the ‘toyness’ of a bicycle may reflect whether parents are present at the time their child is cycling.
Sungyong Ahn, in ‘On That Toy-Being of Generative Art Toys’, addresses the ontology of what it is to be a toy, when the generative art in question is a software application that generates a visual aesthetic. Addressing the machine-learning elements of such creations, Sungyong Ahn suggests that there are parallels between generative art toys and kids’ slime games; differentiating the ‘sticky slime’ of generative art algorithms from the less playful ‘mathematical sublime’.
In ‘American Girl Dolls as Professionals: What Do They Teach about Professions and Professionalism?’, Natalia Rybas argues that the American Girl dolls offer a very particular idea of future professional opportunities for young girls, but that these opportunities are constrained within a very specific neoliberal model of which opportunities will be available, and which will not.
In our final article, Lisa Hackett and Jo Coghlan examine the origins of Monopoly and how it came to be the world’s best-selling commercial board game. They discuss how, for many people, Monopoly is less than enjoyable, which begs the question: why do so many people own the game? The article also gives a fascinating overview of the history of the board game and how it has evolved over time.
The work on this special issue was partially supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council. Professor Lelia Green and Dr Louise Kay (together with Professors Bieke Zaman and Giovanna Mascheroni) were Investigators on the ARC Discovery Project DP180103922 – The Internet of Toys: Benefits and Risks of Connected Toys for Children (2018-22), and they acknowledge Dr Donell Holloway’s past leadership of this grant. Professors Tama Leaver and Lelia Green are both Chief Investigators in the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child (CE200100022), which is led by QUT and also involves Curtin University, Deakin University, Edith Cowan University, University of Queensland, and University of Wollongong. The Centre of Excellence is funded through to the end of 2027. Tama would also like to thank his children for their input in to the design of the cover photo, and for letting their Lego figures be part of it!