Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Childish things: the decline of toys and the fall of man

Jerry Stratton, June 23, 2021

Childish things

All my life, nobody has ever told me not to put glue in my hair. Yet, somehow, I knew. — Eddie Zipperer (Somehow I knew)

The topic of toys changing over time is literally what this blog is named after. Mimsy Were the Borogoves is a Lewis Padgett short story about toys from the future lost in our time. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend searching it out. You can find it under the name Lewis Padgett in general collections, or in collections of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.1

And yet despite its name, while I’ve written occasionally about education I write very little about toys and other childish things, and how they relate to the changing nature of education.

There is always the risk when writing about how things in the past were better, to imply it was better because it was the past. As a member of a retro community for 8-bit computer users, I am very well aware that as much fun as some parts of the past were, it was objectively not better. I would never want to give up my iMac for a TRS-80.

I have occasionally blogged about the degradation of play-time, and started thinking about it again while watching the MeTV cartoon series, Toon in with ME. The show highlights five cartoons every weekday morning, some of them dating back to the thirties. One of the things I find amazing is just how much cartoonists of the forties, fifties, and sixties expected the viewer to know, not just about popular culture but about classical culture and history.

It reminds me a lot of a science fiction story I read recently. Murray Leinster wrote “Sidewise in Time” in the thirties, and thought nothing out of the ordinary about having a random kid on the streets of New York City know Latin.

These cartoons weren’t meant for just children; they were meant for all audiences. This is especially true of the older ones, such as Popeye. Initially, they were played at movie theaters. It meant that children were treated, not as adults—the cartoons were specifically for all audiences—but capable of becoming adults. And this has a very different educational outcome than treating them as children. Creating child-only entertainment ends up meaning that we do not engage their capability of becoming adults. And that’s fine as long as all-audience entertainment also exists. More and more, it doesn’t. “Age appropriate” is or has pushed out “all-age” entertainment—what I would call, aspirational entertainment, that allows children to aspire to act as adults.

So much of children’s entertainment from the past has gone through this transformation. Cartoons. Books. Toys. Television shows. Even as late as the cusp between the seventies and eighties, a “children’s” show such as the Muppets could be shared by children and adults. We often joke about how movies such as Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today. But neither could the Muppets be made today. It would have to be slotted as a children’s show, a pre-teen show, a teen show, a young adult show, or an adult show, and various jokes removed or altered according to what we think that demographic is capable of.

There were common toys in the golden age of toys that are fundamentally different from the common toys of today—even toys that share the same names. From LEGOs to Tinkertoys to dollhouses these toys all required adult-like decisions. You didn’t buy a set specifically to build one thing. The sets were meant to build anything. The decision of what to build and how to build it were part of the play. Toys for older children, such as chemistry sets, advanced that. To make use of them the child had to make decisions not just about what they were going to create, but how they were going to go about creating it.

Marc Andreessen Rainbow letter

A direct link between the 8-bit world and the modern web: Marc Andreessen co-authored the first real web browser and went on to be one of the main forces behind Netscape and what became the modern web.

Those 8-bit computers I mentioned did pretty much nothing out of the box. Yet they were often advertised and purchased as toys for children. They were meant to be programmed by children as well as by adults. And they were, building a generation of innovative programmers. The generation that started with “Hello, World” ended building the modern Internet.

Whether a building or a gadget or a BASIC program, these toys were fundamentally about creation from raw materials.

Children had to plan how they were going to engage the toy. The toy did not do the planning for them.

I suspect that this is why Dungeons & Dragons found such fertile ground even among preteens. Kids were already conditioned, as the kids in Padgett’s story, to make the kinds of decisions that made Dungeons & Dragons so compelling. D&D was never a complete game. It was never any more than raw materials.

Turning roleplaying games into games that resemble modern lego kits makes them fundamentally not roleplaying. Roleplaying is about choices about how to engage the game world. The more decisions the game makes for the players, the further it strays from being a roleplaying game.

This is where I think story games fail and have failed since Dragonlance. They’re about outcomes, not about the choices made on the journey. They’re like a Lego set with only one combination of bricks.

In the same way that older entertainment preconditioned children to become teens and adults who would enjoy original D&D and AD&D, modern entertainment produces adults more compatible with the slotted paths of 5th Edition.

The child who knows exactly what they are going to do at 3 PM, at 5 PM, and at 7 PM, and knows who is going to take them there, will become an adult who expects the same regimentation of both time and delivery from their adult playtime—and their adult lives.

Many of these toys literally cannot be made any more. And if they cannot be made, they cannot be chosen for play, except by escaping into the past.

The epitome of such toys is the Jart. If you were to describe the jart without naming it—opponents standing next to colorful plastic rings, tossing heavy, aerodynamic javelins toward each other—you would never believe it ever existed as a toy. It’s understandable that open-ended chemistry sets and heavy winged projectiles are no longer available. Playing with jarts was in fact dangerous, and people were injured and killed with them.

On the other hand—most of us used them in a sane manner. We evaluated them, made the choice about how to use them, and had fun. It may be too much to expect all children to exercise those faculties. But I fear that because we’ve gone so far into banning even less dangerous toys, many adults have never exercised those faculties. The skill isn’t there, and it isn’t there because they didn’t have the option of impaling themselves on jarts or blowing themselves up with Gilbert Chemistry Sets.

The problem with jarts is not that they’re a heavy, dangerous projectile, nor that they were used by children. Children from four on up play baseball and softball, learn martial arts, and even today own and use firearms for target practice, sport shooting, and hunting, without maiming and killing each other. The superficial problem with jarts was that the natural way to use them is to use them like horseshoes—opposing teams at each end. And the underlying problem is that they weren’t marketed as what they were: sporting weapons.

And the reason for that is that even when jarts came out, we were becoming more uncomfortable with children using adult games. The R. B. Jarts, Inc. solution was to contract Javelin darts into one word, hiding that they were javelins, and make them colorful, hiding that they were a serious sport. The correct solution would have been to acknowledge what they were, and let parents and children make the appropriate decisions about how to use them, just as they did then and do today when using firearms.

Nonsense about education

Decisions become difficult partly because, as with jarts, there’s less and less sense that decisions even need to be made, that tradeoffs always exist and that it is the responsibility of humans to acknowledge tradeoffs and choose among them. That’s part of taking part in civilized society. It’s part of what civilization means.

Without the sense that decisions are a matter of choosing between tradeoffs, people begin to demand no tradeoffs. Which generates divisions both when they don’t get everything and when those they want everything from are forced by law or social pressure to provide it.

The old admonishment to put away childish things misses, in a very important sense, a critical point: we can never put away childish things. The way we interact with toys and other people as children lays the foundation for how we interact with life.

When our toys are decision-oriented, we move from lower to higher quality play. Our chemistry set becomes a chemistry lab. Our train set becomes an administrative plan. Our jarts become basketballs, baseballs, and shot-put balls. Our 8-bit computers using hand-typed games become modern computers running web sites and point-of-sale terminals and business software. Our toy building blocks become overpasses and skyscrapers.

But when our toys are not decision-oriented, progress is lost. Our unopened Star Wars collector sets sitting on the headboard of our bed become the unopened Transformers sitting on the bookshelf of our living room. Our tiny-screen dollhouses become tiny homes. Our video games remain video games.

Tim Allen said in a 2021 commencement speech that “we’re all communist when we’re born.” The more we are forced to make decisions, the more we become adults. As we learn decision making, we learn freedom. The corollary is that if we don’t become adults, we remain socialists. We don’t learn decision-making, and we demand the same regimentation as adults that we received as children.

Our deadly response to the COVID-19 virus would have been literally unthinkable even two decades ago. Today, far too many of us have come to prefer decisions made by self-appointed political experts over the freedom to take our own particular circumstances into account. The result, as Benjamin Franklin predicted, was both less freedom and more deaths. But it’s difficult to blame those who gave into the fear, despite the seemingly incontrovertible evidence of contained environments such as the Diamond Princess outbreak, or the obvious risks to vulnerable populations of a system-wide shutdown of services and production.

If your toys have not taught you to sift evidence, weigh risks, and make decisions, the world is a very frightening place. Without those tools, the tools of civilization, the world becomes a jungle of capricious demons and inscrutable spirits of the wild. Who with that primitive worldview would not give in to the demands of a heroic priesthood, even if that priesthood continually fails, and continually moves the goalposts to obscure that failure?

In response to What children don’t do, adults don’t know: What children learn, the adult they become understands better.

  1. “Lewis Padgett” was one of many pseudonyms that Kuttner and Moore used for their collaborations.