The Toymakers of Tomorrow

How much do today's video games owe the toymakers of yesteryear? Has this all happened before but with less silicon? How old is the oldest platform game? Read on, reflect and ruminate...
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Over the holiday period, I took the opportunity to visit the V&A Museum of Childhood in the Bethnal Green area of London. I had been there before, but not since I was a child at the very dawn of the video game age some thirty years ago.

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I was curious to see how the rise of the video game industry would sit in the eyes of the museum academia. After all, video games now cater for the same interests and compete for the same consumers as more traditional toys and games have.

It was a modest museum no larger than your average Toys R Us, spread over two floors surrounding an atrium cafeteria, but its labyrinth of glass cases containing toys and games from the last three centuries and beyond soon captured my imagination–and made me realise that the creative genius of the toymakers of the past has set the stage for the artists, coders and designers who make video games today.

A Time to Put Away Childish Things? Yeah Right.

As I browsed toys from various cultures and historical periods, it was amusingly obvious that, although designed to inspire imagination and delight in children, every example was no doubt enjoyed first by adults.

It’s called the Museum of Childhood, but children’s toys–like video games–have a far broader appeal and even a role to play in the lives of adults. Over the Christmas period, how many parents have taken the opportunity to get back in touch with their inner children by playing with the gifts given to their offspring?

As Irish dramatist and literary critic George Bernard Shaw said:

‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’

‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.’ – George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

From Fingers and Thumbs to Zeroes and Ones

The cornucopia of toys on display each made best use of the materials and talents of the time but the parallels to the design challenges of the digital age were apparent, from the construction of animated avatars…

… and the wire-frame skeletons of vehicles…

…to the painstakingly decorated rooms of a Victorian doll’s house from 1900…

…and the gloriously realised worlds of the intricate multi-levelled Chinese Rock Gardens, circa 1780 (perhaps the world’s first platform game?).

The Childhood Cube was another striking exhibit with clear video game parallels. Originally created for the Millennium Dome (2000-2001) by an abstract painter named Sarah Raphael, it could easily be some conceptual work for a forthcoming puzzle video game or some kind of surrealist adventure.

Just as each exhibit reflected the attitudes and ideology of the era and culture from which it originated–from a baroque puppet theatre of the 1700s to an elaborate Hornby train network of the 1960s–it seems clear that video games are just as much a form of expression which define and comment on a generation as anything produced in the pre-digital age.

Video games are just as much a form of expression which define and comment on a generation as anything produced in the pre-digital age.

Popular entertainment shapes future generations and just as the sight of a beloved childhood toy recalls a cherished memory in today’s adult, so too will tomorrow’s creations be forever remembered by future generations.

The Next Generation

Although the museum had a collection of consoles on display, and Signal StudiosToy Soldiers (2010) featured in the War Games exhibit (more on this in a subsequent article), there was surprisingly little space devoted to the evolution of home entertainment into the digital medium.

Video games have undoubtedly picked up the baton from 20th century icons like the Thunderbirds, Marvel Superheroes, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and with gaming platforms increasingly proving more than capable of delivering entertainment equal to any previous manifestation of tabletop game or make-believe and dress-up/cosplay, childhood entertainment has continued to provide a doorway into the adult world.

It is a doorway which can be passed through in both directions as long as it is held open by the skill, creativity and vision of those Toymakers of Tomorrow.


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Author
Image of Mat Westhorpe
Mat Westhorpe
Broken paramedic and coffee-drinking Englishman whose favourite dumb animal is an oxymoron. After over a decade of humping and dumping the fat and the dead, my lower spine did things normally reserved for Rubik's cubes, bringing my career as a medical clinician to an unexpectedly early end. Fortunately, my real passion is in writing and given that I'm now highly qualified in the art of sitting down, I have the time to pursue it. Having blogged about video games (well, mostly EVE Online) for years, I hope to channel my enjoyment of wordcraft and my hobby of gaming into one handy new career that doesn't involve other people's vomit.