December 29, 2011
The New York Times
By PEGGY ORENSTEIN
NOW that the wrapping paper and the infernal clamshell packaging have been
relegated to the curb and the paying off of holiday bills has begun, the toy
industry is gearing up — for Christmas 2012. And its early offerings have
ignited a new debate over nature, nurture, toys and sex.
Hamleys, which is London’s 251-year-old version of F.A.O. Schwarz, recently
dismantled its pink “girls” and blue “boys” sections in favor of a
gender-neutral store with red-and-white signage. Rather than floors dedicated to
Barbie dolls and action figures, merchandise is now organized by types (Soft
Toys) and interests (Outdoor).
That free-to-be gesture was offset by Lego, whose Friends collection, aimed at
girls, will hit stores this month with the goal of becoming a holiday must-have
by the fall. Set in fictive Heartlake City (and supported by a $40 million
marketing campaign), the line features new, pastel-colored, blocks that allow a
budding Kardashian, among other things, to build herself a cafe or a beauty
salon. Its tasty-sounding “ladyfig” characters are also taller and curvier than
the typical Legoland denizen.
So who has it right? Should gender be systematically expunged from playthings?
Or is Lego merely being realistic, earnestly meeting girls halfway in an attempt
to stoke their interest in engineering?
Among the “10 characteristics for Lego” described in 1963 by a son of the
founder was that it was “for girls and for boys,” as Bloomberg Businessweek
reported. But the new Friends collection, Lego says, was based on months of
anthropological research revealing that — gasp! — the sexes play differently.
While as toddlers they interact similarly with the company’s Duplo blocks, by
preschool girls prefer playthings that are pretty, exude “harmony” and allow
them to tell a story. They may enjoy building, but they favor role play. So it’s
bye-bye Bionicles, hello princesses. In order to be gender-fair, today’s
executives insist, they have to be gender-specific.
As any developmental psychologist will tell you, those observations are, to a
degree, correct. Toy choice among young children is the Big Kahuna of sex
differences, one of the largest across the life span. It transcends not only
culture but species: in two separate studies of primates, in 2002 and 2008,
researchers found that males gravitated toward stereotypically masculine toys
(like cars and balls) while females went ape for dolls. Both sexes,
incidentally, appreciated stuffed animals and books.
Human boys and girls not only tend to play differently from one another — with
girls typically clustering in pairs or trios, chatting together more than boys
and playing more cooperatively — but, when given a choice, usually prefer
hanging with their own kind.
Score one for Lego, right? Not so fast. Preschoolers may be the self-appointed
chiefs of the gender police, eager to enforce and embrace the most rigid views.
Yet, according Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of “Pink Brain, Blue
Brain,” that’s also the age when their brains are most malleable, most open to
influence on the abilities and roles that traditionally go with their sex.
Every experience, every interaction, every activity — when they laugh, cry,
learn, play — strengthens some neural circuits at the expense of others, and the
younger the child the greater the effect. Consider: boys from more egalitarian
homes are more nurturing toward babies. Meanwhile, in a study of more than 5,000
3-year-olds, girls with older brothers had stronger spatial skills than both
girls and boys with older sisters.
At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the
environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes
or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting —
stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact
on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing,
cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more
beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex
friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as
Traditionally, toys were intended to communicate parental values and
expectations, to train children for their future adult roles. Today’s boys and
girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees,
romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such
collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasize, reinforce, or even create,
gender differences? What do girls learn about who they should be from Lego kits
with beauty parlors or the flood of “girl friendly” science kits that run the
gamut from “beauty spa lab” to “perfume factory”?
The rebellion against such gender apartheid may have begun. Consider the latest
cute-kid video to go viral on YouTube: “Riley on Marketing” shows a little girl
in front of a wall of pink packaging, asking, “Why do all the girls have to buy
pink stuff and all the boys have to buy different-color stuff?” It has been
viewed more than 2.4 million times.
Perhaps, then, Hamleys is on to something, though it will doubtless meet with
resistance — even rejection — from both its pint-size customers and
multinational vendors. As for me, I’m trying to track down a poster of a 1981 ad
for a Lego “universal” building set to give to my daughter. In it, a
freckle-faced girl with copper-colored braids, baggy jeans, a T-shirt and
sneakers proudly holds out a jumbly, multi-hued Lego creation. Beneath it, a tag
line reads, “What it is is beautiful.”
September 13, 2007
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 7:40 a.m. ET
The New York Times
RICHARDSON, Texas (AP) -- David Hanson has two little Zenos to
care for these days. There's his 18-month-old son Zeno, who prattles and smiles
as he bounds through his father's cramped office. Then there's the robotic Zeno.
It can't speak or walk yet, but has blinking eyes that can track people and a
face that captivates with a range of expressions.
At 17 inches tall and 6 pounds, the artificial Zeno is the culmination of five
years of work by Hanson and a small group of engineers, designers and
programmers at his company, Hanson Robotics. They believe there's an emerging
business in the design and sale of lifelike robotic companions, or social
robots. And they'll be showing off the robot boy to students in grades 3-12 at
the Wired NextFest technology conference Thursday in Los Angeles.
Unlike clearly artificial robotic toys, Hanson says he envisions Zeno as an
interactive learning companion, a synthetic pal who can engage in conversation
and convey human emotion through a face made of a skin-like, patented material
Hanson calls frubber.
''It's a representation of robotics as a character animation medium, one that is
intelligent,'' Hanson beams. ''It sees you and recognizes your face. It learns
your name and can build a relationship with you.''
It's no coincidence if the whole concept sounds like a science-fiction movie.
Hanson said he was inspired by, and is aiming for, the same sort of realism
found in the book ''Supertoys Last All Summer Long,'' by Brian Aldiss. Aldiss'
story of troubled robot boy David and his quest for the love of his
flesh-and-blood parents was the source material for Steven Spielberg's film
''Artificial Intelligence: AI.''
He plans to make little Zenos available to consumers within the next three years
for $200 to $300.
Until then, Hanson, 37, makes a living selling and renting pricey, lifelike
robotic heads. His company offers models that look like Albert Einstein, a
pirate and a rocker, complete with spiky hair and sunglasses. They cost tens of
thousands of dollars and can be customized to look like anyone, Hanson said.
The company, which has yet to break even, was also buoyed by a $1.5 million
grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund last October. The fund was created
by Gov. Rick Perry in 2005 to improve research at Texas universities and help
startup technology companies get off the ground.
Hanson concedes it's going to be at least 15 years before robot builders can
approach anything like what seems to be possible in movies. Zeno the robot
remains a prototype.
During a recent demonstration, Zeno could barely stand and had to be tethered to
a bank of PCs that told it how to smile, frown, act surprised or wrinkle its
nose in anger.
Robotics, Hanson believes, should be about artistic expression, a creative
medium akin to sculpting or painting. But convincing people that robots should
look like people instead of, well, robots, remains a challenge that robot
experts call the ''uncanny valley'' theory.
The theory posits that humans have a positive psychological reaction to robots
that look somewhat like humans, but that robots made to look very realistic end
up seeming grotesque instead of comforting.
''Nobody complains that Bernini's sculptures are too darn real, right? Or that
Norman Rockwell's paintings are too creepy,'' Hanson said. ''Well, robots can
seem real and be loved too. We're trying to make a new art medium out of
So just how did Hanson end up with two Zenos, anyway?
It all goes back to when his wife, Amanda, gave birth to their first child and
Zeno the robot was already in the works.
They rattled off several names to their baby boy, but it wasn't until they
whispered ''Zeno'' that ''this look of peace fell over his face; it was like
soothing to his ears,'' Hanson recalled.
''There was no way we could give him any other name. He chose Zeno as his
name,'' he said.
That was just fine with Amanda.
''I thought that it was very endearing, very sweet,'' she said.
The similarities go beyond the name. Though Zeno the robot was built to resemble
the animated Japanese TV show character Astro Boy, his plastic hair and
saucer-shaped eyes bear a striking resemblance to the curly locks and wide-eyed
smile of the real Zeno.
''So by coincidence they're both Zeno, and in other ways this robot has become
more of a portrait sculpturally of the son, although it's almost coincidence,''
said Hanson, whose previous jobs include working as a character sculptor for The
Walt Disney Co. ''We didn't consciously sculpt this robot to look like him. It's
the way things filter through the hands of the artist.''
Hanson says one of the robot Zeno's biggest advancements is that its brains
aren't inside the robot. Instead Zeno synchs wirelessly to a PC running a
variant of Massive Software -- the same Academy Award-winning code that enabled
the fantastical battles among humans, orcs and elves in the ''Lord of the
Like some modern version of Geppetto's workshop, Hanson's office is crammed with
rows of shelves stacked with books about robots next to toy robots and plastic
skulls. Notes ranging from mathematical formulas to design sketches cover
several white boards like high-tech graffiti.
There are scattered bits from Hanson's previous creations, including Albert
Hubo, a white robotic body topped with a realistic head of Albert Einstein that
has graced magazine covers and even shaken hands with President Bush.
Hanson has been recognized for his work, garnering accolades from the
Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence in 2005 and a ''best
design'' award at the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Triennial last
But Hanson is most proud of the real Zeno, a rambunctious toddler who frolics
with free rein among priceless electronics.
''If the robots become popular I suppose it will pose an identity crisis for my
son,'' Hanson said. ''But I think that the amount of love that he receives will
make him feel like an individual no matter what.''
June 6, 2007
The New York Times
By MATT RICHTEL and BRAD STONE
Presleigh Montemayor often gets home after a long day and
spends some time with her family. Then she logs onto the Internet, leaving the
real world and joining a virtual one. But the digital utopia of Second Life is
not for her. Presleigh, who is 9 years old, prefers a Web site called Cartoon
The site lets her chat with her friends and dress up virtual dolls, by placing
blouses, hair styles and accessories on them. It beats playing with regular
Barbies, said Presleigh, who lives near Dallas.
“With Barbie, if you want clothes, it costs money,” she said. “You can do it on
the Internet for free.”
Presleigh is part of a booming phenomenon, the growth of a new wave of
interactive play sites for a young generation of Internet users, in particular
Millions of children and adolescents are spending hours on these sites, which
offer virtual versions of traditional play activities and cute animated worlds
that encourage self-expression and safe communication. They are, in effect, like
Facebook or MySpace with training wheels, aimed at an audience that may be
getting its first exposure to the Web.
While some of the sites charge subscription fees, others are supported by
advertising. As is the case with children’s television, some critics wonder
about the broader social cost of exposing children to marketing messages, and
the amount of time spent on the sites makes some child advocates nervous.
Regardless, the sites are growing in number and popularity, and they are doing
so thanks to the word of mouth of babes, said Josh Bernoff, a social media and
marketing industry analyst with Forrester Research.
“They’re spreading rapidly among kids,” Mr. Bernoff said, noting that the
enthusiasm has a viral analogy. “It’s like catching a runny nose that everyone
in the classroom gets.”
Hitwise, a traffic measurement firm, says visits to a group of seven
virtual-world sites aimed at children and teenagers grew 68 percent in the year
ended April 28. Visits to the sites surge during summer vacation and other times
when school is out. Gartner Research estimates that virtual-world sites have
attracted 20 million users, with those aimed at younger people growing
Even as the children are having fun, the adults running the sites are engaged in
a cutthroat competition to be the destination of choice for a generation of
Americans who are growing up on computers from Day 1.
These sites, with names like Club Penguin, Cyworld, Habbo Hotel, Webkinz,
WeeWorld and Stardoll, run the gamut from simple interactive games and chat to
fantasy lands with mountains and caves.
When Evan Bailyn, chief executive of Cartoon Doll Emporium, said that when he
created the site, “I thought it would be a fun, whimsical thing.” Now, he says,
“it’s turned into such a competitive thing,” adding that “people think they are
going to make a killing.”
Even Barbie herself is getting into the online act. Mattel is introducing
BarbieGirls.com, another dress-up site with chat features.
In recent months, with the traffic for these sites growing into the tens of
millions of visitors, the entrepreneurs behind them have started to refine their
Cartoon Doll Emporium, which draws three million visitors a month, is free for
many activities but now charges $8 a month for access to more dolls to dress up
and other premium services. WeeWorld, a site aimed at letting 13-
to-25-year-olds dress up and chat through animated characters, recently signed a
deal to permit the online characters to carry bags of Skittles candy, and it is
considering other advertisers.
On Stardoll, which has some advertising, users can augment the wardrobe they use
to dress up their virtual dolls by buying credits over their cellphones. At Club
Penguin, a virtual world with more than four million visitors a month, a
$5.95-a-month subscription lets users adopt more pets for their penguin avatars
(animated representations of users), which can roam, chat and play games like
ice fishing and team hockey.
Lane Merrifield, chief executive of Club Penguin, which is based in Kelowna,
British Columbia, said that he decided on a subscription fee because he believed
advertising to young people was a dangerous proposition. Clicking on ads, he
said, could bring children out into the broader Web, where they could run into
Mr. Merrifield also bristles at any comparison to MySpace, which he said is a
wide-open environment and one that poses all kinds of possible threats to young
To make Club Penguin safe for children, the site uses a powerful filter that
limits the kinds of messages users can type to one another. It is not possible,
Mr. Merrifield said, to slip in a phone number or geographic location, or to use
phrases or words that would be explicit or suggestive. Other sites are also set
up to minimize the threat of troublesome interactions or limit what users can
say to one another.
“We’re the antithesis of MySpace,” Mr. Merrifield said. “MySpace is about
sharing information. We’re all about not being able to share information.”
Other sites are more open, like WeeWorld, which permits people to create
avatars, dress them up and then collect groups of friends who type short
messages to one another. The characters tend to be cute and cartoonish, as do
the home pages where they reside, but the chatter is typical teenager.
“There’s a lot of teasing and flirting,” said Lauren Bigelow, general manager of
WeeWorld. She said that the site had around 900,000 users in April and is
growing around 20 percent a month.
Ms. Bigelow said that 60 percent of WeeWorld users are girls and young women, a
proportion that is higher on some other sites. Stardoll said that its users are
93 percent female, typically ages 7 to 17, while Cartoon Doll Emporium said that
it is 96 percent female, ages 8 to 14.
Some of the companies are aiming even younger. The Ontario company Ganz has a
hit with Webkinz, plush toys that are sold in regular stores and are aimed at
children as young as 6. Buyers enter secret codes from their toy’s tag at
webkinz.com and control a virtual replica of their animal in games. They also
earn KinzCash that they can spend to design its home. The site draws more than
3.8 million visitors a month.
Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who
studies the social aspects of technology, said that the participants on these
sites are slipping into virtual worlds more easily than their parents or older
“For young people, there is rather a kind of fluid boundary between the real and
virtual world, and they can easily pass through it,” she said.
For some children, the allure of these sites is the chance to participate and
guide the action on screen, something that is not possible with movies and
“The ability to express themselves is really appealing to the millennial
generation,” said Michael Streefland, the manager of Cyworld, a virtual world
that started in South Korea and now attracts a million users a month in the
United States, according to comScore, a research firm. “This audience wants to
be on stage. They want to have a say in the script.”
But Professor Turkle expressed concern about some of the sites. She said that
their commercial efforts, particularly the advertising aimed at children, could
be crass. And she said that she advocates an old-fashioned alternative to the
“If you’re lucky enough to have a kid next door,” she said, “I’d have a play
date instead of letting your kid sit at the computer.”
marketing viewpoint, the birth of Transformers toys in 1984 was an orchestrated
act of genius. It not only launched one of the most successful playthings ever,
it propelled a massive change in toy selling. Today, marketing rules; toys and
the entertainment industry have become two sides of the same coin. The
groundwork of all that was laid with the birth of Transformers.
the world's second biggest toy company, had licensed Diacron, a puzzle toy with
cars and planes that transformed into robots, from the Japanese company Takara.
The Japanese had tried to sell it on the American market for a year. When it
failed, they handed licensing rights to legendary toy man Henry Orenstein, who
took the toy to Hasbro.
Convinced it could still be a success, Stephen Hassenfeld, Hasbro's CEO, the man
regarded by many as the architect of the modern toy industry, had made the
decision to market the toy instinctively. Now Hasbro had to make it work. Just
how was thrashed out in an after-hours car ride between Hasbro's Rhode Island
headquarters and New York City: the toy company's marketing chief and the three
heads of Hasbro's ad agency Griffin Bacal brainstormed for three and a quarter
One after another, decisions emerged. The toys would no longer be
three-dimensional puzzles but characters in a story, with cars (the Autobots)
being the good guys, and planes (the Decepticons) the bad guys. Joe Bacal came
up with the name Transformers against initial opposition from the others. A
back-story was created: Transformers had all come from Cybertron, a distant
planet, where civil war raged between giant alien robots, under siege and
desperate for fuel supplies.
By the time they reached New York, Diacron was no longer a stand-alone puzzle.
As Transformers, it had broken away from its role of toy as object. The play
pattern was spelled out. So too was the inducement to keep buying Transformers
merchandise - playtime now would need lots of characters and props.
The remaining problem was how to sell such a fantasy toy effectively on
television - the use of animation in advertising in the US at that time was
strictly controlled. The Griffin Bacal agency had the answer. They made
Transformers the subject of a comic book, and then advertised that instead to
create awareness of the Transformers brand: there were no guidelines for
commercials for comic books, because comic books never advertised on television.
Griffin Bacal's ingenuity drove a coach and horses through the rules. Now the
commercials could include all the animation they wished.
There was one more ingredient. Over a decade before, the Federal Communications
Commission had cracked down on attempts by toy companies to introduce toy-led
programmes. But now, under the Reagan administration, that changed. Transformers
was free to become a "programme-length commercial".
A watershed had been crossed. The old idea of basing toys on characters in books
or movies or programmes was turned upside down. Now the toy came first. The
borders between programme and product became forever blurred, and in 1984 the
Transformers TV series was launched.
Transformers sold $100m worth of toys in its first year - the most successful
toy introduction in history at that point. Despite ups and downs since, constant
marketing-led initiatives - new TV series spinning off new toys - have ensured
it has never been out of production, a triumph in a business where a successful
toy is one that lasts more than a year.