The other day I flew back to Cambridge at the request of Scot Osterweill, the research director for The Education Arcade, in order to participate in the Sandbox Summit, a fascinating gathering of game designers, toy makers, television producers, children’s book authors, and educators drawn together through their shared interests in “how media is changing our play and how play is changing our media.” I had been asked to give a keynote address which would share some of my thoughts about transmedia entertainment in a way that might be relevant to people who were shaping children’s culture.
As I was pulling my thoughts together for the talk, I stumbled onto an article in I09, one of my favorite blogs about geek culture, which listed the “ten most unfortunate Masters of the Universe Toys.” I shared the blog post with my son, now 29, who had grown up as part of the “He-Man” generation and we both took great pleasure in realizing that he had at one time had almost all of their examples in his collection and that we both remembered all of these toys. There was, for example, Moss-Man, an action figure covered in green fuzz; Stinkor, an action figure that smelled and looked like a skunk; and Mosquitor, an action figure which contained a red blood-like fluid.
And I began to ponder why these toys had been such a memorable part of his childhood and what it meant that the generation of young men and women who were, in many cases, controlling the production of transmedia entertainment had come of age playing with this particular media franchise. In some ways, contemporary transmedia is being produced by kids who grew up playing with He-Man to be consumed by kids who grew up playing Pokemon.
Peggy Charren, who formed Action for Children’s Television and lobbied the Federal Communication Commission to regulate childrens programming, would have had an explanation. At the time, she argued that Heman and similar programs were simply “half hour commercials” which had no redeeming value, because they “blur the distinction between program content and commercial speech. Children are attracted to the concepts of the shows and don’t fully understand the selling intent behind them… [This has become] a gold mine to station managers and toy manufacturers, but a commercial nightmare to most parents.” She and her allies argued that the stories and characters, she feared, were being sacrificed in order to turn the cartoons into advertisements for tie-in toys and as a consequence, these toys were going to stifle youngsters’ imaginations. Charren’s critique of these toys has taken deep roots among the professional classes, as was reflected by the many different ways these concerns got evoked by speakers at the Sandbox Summit. I do not mean to make light of these concerns, though I have also always found myself resistant to the language used to critique these toys, which often assumes that the play around these fictional narratives necessarily reproduces the terms of the original stories without creating a space for the child’s own imaginative contributions.
There is no denying that Mattel had a clear commercial interest in producing the program and extending our experience of watching the show into a line of associated toys. And the same can be said of contemporary transmedia entertainment content which is often funded by the branding and promotional budget for the media property. Minimally, transmedia extensions are selling the “mother ship.” Often, they are creating alternative sources of income – they are products in their own right just as the He-Man dolls are.
Yet, I don’t think we can reduce the experience which young people had playing to He-Man to simply the selling and buying of commercial commodities, however distasteful such toys seem to many academic parents. After all, all of us have bought many commodities in our lifetime, most of which we forgot as soon as we had consumed them, yet these particular toys have become part of the shared memories of my son’s generation in part because they were tokens of stories and entertainment experiences which were deeply meaningful to them. More than that, though, these toys became resources for their own imaginations, tokens which they used to claim a space for themselves within the stories.
Whether they fully recognized it or not, when media producers sold these toys to our children, they also told them things about the nature of the story – the story you saw on the screen was not complete and self contained; these characters had a life beyond the stories we’ve been sold and told, and what happens next is literally and figuratively in the hands of the consumer. These toys were in effect an authoring system which encouraged young people to make up their own stories about these characters much as the folk in other time periods might make up stories about Robin Hood or Pecos Bill.
Children have long played with the core narratives of their culture, as might be suggested by the fact that Tom Sawyer played Robin Hood, Anne of Green Gables King Arthur, and Meg of Little Women Pilgrim’s Progress, each central stories of their own time. In the 20th century, mass media displaced many traditional stories, but it does not follow from this that children’s play with narrative was none the less meaningful to them as a way of trying on adult roles and asserting their own ability to build on and revise core stories that matter to them.
As a father during that period, I have vivid memory of the intense pain of stepping barefoot on some molded piece of plastic when I was called into my son’s bedroom at night to comfort him about a bad dream. I’d pick up the plastic shield, sword, or pick ax, and grumble, “grrrmble snarl Teela” and my son, a stickler for details, would correct me, “No, Dad, that belongs to Sorceress.” These details mattered. I often reflected at such moments (or at least I did when the pain of my punctured flesh subsided!) on the ways that this attachment to distinctive shields, say, mirrored the detailed descriptions of the shields and weapons of the different Greek heroes found in Homer, suggesting that heraldry in some forms remains an active element in stories across history.
The accessories were extensions of the characters, reflections of their personalities, artifacts of their stories, and signs of their capacities for action. Each character was connected to every other character through complex sets of antagonisms and alliances and each character bore their own mythology which could become the point of entry for a new as yet unrealized story. He-Man was teaching his generation to think not just about individual stories but about the process of world-building and part of the pleasure of collecting these toys was to demonstrate their mastery over the lore of these worlds.
In some cases, the characters would be deeply embedded in the aired episodes and in other cases, they would exist only in the background or only in one episode and often these were the characters most vividly remembered because they became the child’s own possession, their backstory fleshed out from their own imagination, their personality constructed from their own playful performances. Each of the characters had different personalities (and thus demanded different voices) and over time, you would learn their verbal ticks, the quirks of their personality, and the sound of their voice, even though no two children would necessarily perform these characters in the same way. We might think of these characters as in effect avatars, an extension of the child into a virtual or imagined world, and see these constant shifts between personalities as a predecessor of what we would describe as identity play in adolescence.
Of course, the performance doesn’t end there. The child themselves might become He-Man or some of the other characters through Halloween dress-ups and the web is full of yellowing family photographs of children of my son’s generation physically embodying the heroes of their programs. Their mothers (or in my son’s case, their grandmothers) might be coaxed into decorating birthday cakes with images copied from He-Man coloring books. And those lacking coloring books (or possessing artistic temperaments) would draw their own pictures of these characters which gave another tangible form to their fantasy lives. My son wrote countless stories which he dictated to his mother and I about He-Man and in the process, he moved from playing with physical objects to playing with words and with the basic building blocks of narratives.
In many ways, Masters of the Universe was already a transmedia story, at least as much as the technology of the day would allow. He-Man not only appeared in the Filmnation-produced cartoons but his story was extended into the mini comic books which came with each action figures, on the collector cards and sticker books and coloring books and kids books, each of which gave us a chance to learn a little something more about Eternia, Castle Grayskull, and the other places where these stories took place.
And of course, He-Man was only one of the many media franchises which were producing action figures. My son collected figures from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the World Wrestling Federation, not to mention a smathering of Transformers, Thundercats, Silverhawks, and many other toy lines. Once they were removed from their packages, these toys could be mixed and matched to create new kinds of stories, which might involve meet-ups and cross-overs unlikely to occur in commercial media (though there was at least one DC comic where Superman and He-Man combined forces) but almost inevitable once kids got their hands on the toys.
Sometimes an action figure would stand in for another character not yet acquired much as an actor plays a fictional role and in other cases the pleasure was in experimenting with the boundaries between texts and genres, with the mixing of characters forcing them to rethink the scripts. The cross-over points to the generative dimensions of this action figure play – the ways that kids would move from re-performing favorite stories or ritualizing conventional elements from the series to breaking with conventions and creating their own narratives.
I never understood the parents who feared such toys would stifle my son’s imagination because what I observed was very much the opposite – a child learning to appropriate and remix the materials of his culture. The fact that these stories were shared through mass media with other kids and that they were some vividly embodied in the action figures meant that it was easy for children to have intersubjective fantasies, to share their play stories with each other, and to pool knowledge about the particulars of this fictional realm.
So, is it any surprise that as this generation has grown older, they have continued to use these stories, characters, even the toys themselves as resources for their own creative expression? The web is full of amazing fan art in which artists lovingly recreate the assemblage of action figures and accessories they enjoyed as a child, much as earlier generations of artists sketched or wrote stories about the stuffed toys of their childhood imagination. (Think Winnie the Pooh or Raggedy Ann and Andy for earlier kinds of toy focused stories.)
There is a whole genre on YouTube of action figure movies, movies which may lovingly recreate the specific images the filmmakers remembered from the source material but may also playfully evoking the mixing and matching of characters that were part of toyroom play.
This same aesthetic of action-figure cinema gave rise to Adult Swim’s successful Robot Chicken series, which also mixes and matches characters or recasts them to achieve desired effects. Here’s one of their spoofs of the He-Man characters.
And I am particular fan of the web-based Skeltor Show, which remixes and remasters footage from the original He-Man cartoons for irreverent comedy.
All of this suggests that these toys left a lasting imprint on the imaginations of the generation that grew up playing with them.
When I speak to the 20 and 30 somethings who are leading the charge for transmedia storytelling, many of them have stories of childhood spent immersed in Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars, playing with action figures or other franchise related toys, and my own suspicion has always been that such experiences shaped how they thought about stories.
From the beginning, they understood stories less in terms of plots than in terms of clusters of characters and in terms of world building. From the beginning they thought of stories as extending from the screen across platforms and into the physical realm. From the beginning they thought of stories as resources out of which they could create their own fantasies, as something which shifted into the hands of the audience once they had been produced and in turn as something which was expanded and remixed on the grassroots level.
In that sense, the action figure is very much the harbinger of the transmedia movement.