Play Does Not Discriminate

As I’m preparing for this holiday season, I am of course pondering gifts for my four nephews.  One sister has started a family board game night tradition, which evoked from me a window-rattling “squeee” of joy.  I would never try to force my hobbies on the boys, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t perched like a buzzard on a rock, waiting for the first sign of geekness.  Oh, children, the worlds your Uncle Brent will share with you now…

But we can talk about the corruption mentoring of my nephews another time.  Searching for games and toys for the nephews inevitably got me thinking, in an abstract way, about gender identity and play.  Because during my search I had a stray thought that went something along the lines of, “Well, they’re all boys so this will be easy.”  And it pinged as a vaguely bad thought in my head, but being a stray thought I caged it to be pondered later, perhaps in the wee hours of some cold morning over a cup of coffee.

Then yesterday I was reading through the Twitters when a message from my pal Alina Pete (of Weregeek fame #humblebrag) popped up:

In fact, Lego was one of my favorite toys, & I didn’t need nor want no stinkin’ Polly Pocket look alike *frothfoamrant*…

Included in the message was a link to this GeekDad article over at Wired, about the new Lego Friends line targeted at girls.  Take a second to read it, and then come back… Excellent, moving on!  Now normally I might have read the article and dismissed it with a casual, “Oh, Lego, why?”.  But the article, coupled with Alina’s reaction to it, set that stray thought to barking up a storm.  So much so I pulled it out last night and gave it a good pondering.  And the undeniable truth of it is my stray thought is the reason Lego thinks this is a good idea.

No, I don’t mean Lego is reading my mind.  But Lego is certainly trying to read the minds of consumers; that’s sort of what market research and testing are for.  And thousands upon thousands of stray thoughts just like mine have led Lego, and several other toy and game companies, to the same conclusion: that toys and games, and therefore play, should be divided along gender lines.

And I for one want to call bullshit.

Play does not discriminate.  Unless the idea is imposed externally, the activities from which a child derives joy are never gender divided by children.  I know this from my own experience.  When I was five-years-old I had a small collection of the 12″ GI Joes; a couple of the dolls, some clothing sets and a vehicle or two.  But I played the hell out of those toys, because there wasn’t a lot to do in a mining town in northern Manitoba.  One day I was playing with my Joes in the sandbox, when I was joined by a few girls of varying ages around my own, laden down with a tonne of Barbies and Barbie accessories.  I couldn’t tell you their names now, but as there were only about 30 kids in all of South Bay we knew each other from around the playground, Sunday school and the like.  So naturally we started playing together.

Now, I can’t speak for my playmates at the time, but if memory serves my five-year-old self and my friends had a blast.  Dressing each others dolls, putting the Joes in dresses and the Barbies in fatigues, making up stories; you know, as kids will do.  We laughed at GI Joe in a dress because we knew it would be funny to see our dads in a dress, same as we laughed at Barbie topless, because we all had a vague understanding that topless girls were “wrong”, and therefore hilarious!  It wasn’t until much later, after we traded northern Manitoba for northern Alberta, that I got indoctrinated into the “right” toys to play with.  I won’t go into that with much detail, but it did come about from me asking if I could buy some Barbie dresses for GI Joe…

I don’t pretend to be an expert in child development, or child psychology.  But I damn-well know about play, my friend, and I will tell you this: play does not care about a child’s gender.  Joy, imagination, problem solving, situational awareness…all the things that play can develop, none of those things require a particular set of genitalia.  I would love it, as a personal favour to me, if the toy and game companies would stop making products for boys and girls and worked on making toys for children.  I don’t expect it, because let’s face it, if you called Lego or Hasbro right now they’d be all, “Brent who?”.  But I can dream.

But I do recommend, as you gift buy this holiday season, giving some thought to the gifts you buy.  I’m not suggesting you not buy Barbies for your daughter or niece, or return the kick-ass action figures you got for your son/nephew.  But maybe slip your niece a basic Lego set, too.  Or start teaching that boy to cook with an Easybake oven (I don’t even know if they make these anymore, but you get my drift).  And if all that seems a bit much, I heartily recommend board- and card-games as an excellent alternative.  There are a slough of games on the market that are hours of fun, and no gender bias for miles.

Okay, that’s my two cents.  What do you think?  Do you think gender bias in games and toys is a big deal, or the latest windmill to be tilted?  Comments are just below, and I’d really love a discussion on this.

And putting my writing where my mouth is, on Monday I’ll suggest a variety of games, toys and books that I think will make awesome gifts.  See you then!

4 thoughts on “Play Does Not Discriminate

  1. Ryan Ro I think the thing is, I don’t agree with your skepticism of LEGO entirely. Based on the amount and KIND of play research they’ve done. The bloomberg article is fascinating. I don’t disagree with your post either though. When I was small I played barbies with my girlfriends and many of them played with Transformers too. I once asked mom for a ken figure to go with my girlfriend’s barbie. My father furiously demanded it be returned. So, no, I don’t want to stringently enforce gender stereotypes (I will be more than happy to take Leila down every aisle in Toys R Us, pink or blue or whatever).

    I find the LEGO thing interesting because in theory LEGO isn’t for boys OR girls, and how they found that early on with Duplo or regular bricks, it was pretty equal. But getting into the more 7-12 sets it is more action/adventure oriented… and the girls weren’t interested. The little girls themselves seem to be saying I don’t want that LEGO, it’s not interesting. And the reasons for it – different ways of interacting with their playtime – make sense. Obviously there is some “other little girls don’t play with LEGO, it’s for BOYS, so I won’t”, and that sucks.

    I read the same articles and had different responses. The Wired article didn’t bother me at all. I particularly like “One of the things Lego “discovered” in its research was that girls like to project themselves onto the figures and become part of the story.” And when LEGO is mostly Jedi and firemen and whoever it becomes more difficult for a girl to ‘project’ herself into the story.

    I want to see little girls play with any and all LEGO they want, and not just the “girls” LEGO because it’s “FOR GIRLS.” But if little girls don’t want to play with LEGO for whatever reason past 5, I think LEGO is doing a great thing trying to reach out to them and continue that LEGO love affair. If they can find some success with this over the next couple years and then engage the new audience by say, making the overall City line less “boy-centric” (jets, trucks, firemen, etc), that would be solid. Or engage them in the awesome “Creator” line-up. Plus the set in the Wired article is great – it’s a workshop. With TOOLS. And SCIENCE. Maybe that’s “girl” LEGO but that’s awesome.

    I want to allow boys and girls to become boys and girls and equally not be forced into some kind of false ‘equality.’ if girls are more interested in this or that and not giant robots, let them. And I think more girls would be. But I do strongly agree that they should not have that choice removed from them.

    What I know, for Suzy and I with Leila, is that I never want to make the “choice” for her. “No that’s a boys toy.” And vice versa (and probably more difficult for people to do/accept) is tell a possible son “no that’s a girl’s toy.” Toys R Us will be the entire store for her, not just the pink aisles. But if she wants My Little Pony and not GI Joe, I’m totally good with that. I just don’t want to make the choice for her even as she’ll develop her own personality, her feminine side will develop, and things I can’t do anything about shape her (peers, wanting to fit in, this and that). Hopefully she can march to her own drum like poppa and momma.

    • Thanks, Ryan! I agree with you that forcing a false equality is not desirable, and I hope it didn’t seem that I was implying that was needed. But I do feel that, with perhaps a few exceptions, there is a lot of false dichotomy in the toy and game world. Gender distinctions are made that frankly seem pointless. Continuing the LEGO example, yes, I agree that they may just be trying to find a way to appeal to girls as they get older. But couldn’t that be done by building a more interesting toy in general, rather than using LEGO to reinforce already existing stereotypes? I don’t think it is a simple issue, by far. And I realize that there is a need to let children develop their own gender identity; making only “gender neutral” toys would be just as interfering to that process. Mostly I wanted to write about it because, well, it’s LEGO. As someone else noted, “I thought they already had “LEGO for Girls”. It’s called LEGO.” It just seemed odd they world take that tack, and it seemed to be a symptom of a somewhat larger problem.

      And LotR LEGO is about the coolest thing I’ve heard of this Christmas…

      • COMING IN SIX MONTHS: LEGO DUMBLEDORE AND LEGO GANDALF HAVE A TEA PARTY. So next PureSpec, I want to do something with LEGO and fantasy. Mostly as an excuse to set up all my sweet HP and LOTR sets up in front of tons of awesome nerds.

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