Imaginary Games

March 1, 2010

I’m writing my Masters thesis right now and I’m all immersed in empirical data and academic papers, so I wanted to take a break and write about this the way I think about it.

I don’t know why, but I remember the imagination games I played as a kid very well. It might be because my sister closest in age is a genius storyteller and she made them memorable. I’m also a very “what if” sort of thinker, generally very happy to be immersed in imaginary worlds but especially when I was a kid and sometimes needed a retreat from the real world.

Here are a few of the games we played, between 6 to 12 years old:

“Mage Bears” (we had a whole collection of those tiny “birthstone bears”–basically, 3-inch-ish tall stuffed bears in different colors matching the color of the gem for their month. We named them all accordingly–Sapphire, Garnet, Ruby, Diamond, Emerald, etc. As I list them, I can remember each one’s distinct personality! Each one had a pretty specific persistent personality and history that seemed to appear almost immediately after we introduced it, with occasional adjustments and disagreements (my sister’s frequent complaint being that I made a particular character “too irritatingly perfect.”) We had some we favored and some that didn’t come into the stories as often. Some of them had magical powers–the “mage bears” and some did not, and a lot of the plot revolved around the training of the young mage bears by the older ones and subsequent magical accidents and problems to solve. Another frequent plot point was various romantic triangles among the characters and the ensuing drama.

Clowny and Beep: The story centered around two tiny glass clowns. Each one had a disproportionately large three-story house (an entire bookshelf). Beep lived in my room, Clowny in my sister’s room. My sister’s room also housed their “village” full of other characters: a tiny pompom that lived in a plastic box, a giant ladybug, tiny ceramic animals, and a “grocery store” full of tiny bins of “food” (mostly ground-up candy, making the Fisher Price plastic cabinet they were housed in smell rather distinct). They had their own form of currency: called “kabobs” and made out of sequins. Funny memory: because we only had so many paper bags for the grocery store (folded out of origami paper), customers could get a small refund for bringing back their bags (this was invented to solve the supply problem, at the time we’d never heard of deposits for bags or bottles, nor the whole “green” movement). Clowny was a mad scientist and had an underground lab, and also kept farm animals. I can’t remember what Beep did for a living (a lawyer?). We got a huge kick of pretending they called each other on their little phones by saying “beep beep beep beep beep beep beep…Beep?”

Papabla and Telly: Papabla was my sister’s favorite stuffed bear, Telly was mine. They had sort of a Calvin-and-Hobbes dynamic, with Papabla being long-limbed and tall, Telly being short and stout. Telly’s parents were lost at sea and Papabla’s missing for some other reason, so my sister and I acted as what we called “legal guardians” (kids of divorced parents pick up the terminology!) The bears had little backpacks full of school accessories like tiny handmade notebooks, pencils, and paints. They would go to school and meet other stuffed animals, and we would invent assignments for them. Related to this game was what my sister and I did while they were at school: she was a marine biologist and I was a designer, but somehow we worked in the same office. We had a shockingly horrible boss who my sister had fun inventing different lipstick colors for every day. Our office was very high-tech: we could send each other drinks and messages via little transporter cubbies in the walls. We delighted in complaining about work–we must have gotten this from movies, because our parents never really did this. One of our favorite plots was to get together for “coffee” (or was it tea?) and at one point one of us would announce “I quit my job,” after which the other would pretend to spit coffee everywhere in shock. Again, I have NO idea where we got this, but it never got old.

Other stories: Mrs. Tambrila and the Eternal Houseguests (my sister’s dollhouse with a family of Russian dolls, with my characters being visitors to the house, occasionally living in the attic). There was a game with a group of tiny beaded magical alligators, and then the traditional Polly Pockets and Barbies. And then there were some my younger siblings played later, including one involving warring factions of plastic frogs and lots of games around superhero-inspired characters. We also had a huge number of games where we acted out the characters rather than having physical toys.

When we wanted to decide what to play, we had a hierarchy of decisions to make that would help us pick a game. First: toys or acted-out characters? Setting: past, present, or future? Were we allowed to use magic? “R or no R?” (R was a codename for “romance”…ie. would imaginary boys be present in the story, or would we conquer the bad guys on our own?!)

One thing I notice: the characters in each “world” didn’t interact with each other. This doesn’t seem to have been an issue of scale or what the toys were designed for, because most of the games involved an extremely miscellaneous assortment of character toys. I also don’t think I ever used “multivocality”–different voices for each character, but relied on “he said, she said” like we were narrating a story.

I stopped playing the year I turned 13. I have a ton of fun with my younger siblings now, but I can’t seem to play imaginary games anymore. There’s still something I’m fascinated about, though, and I’ve been trying to pin it down and learn something about it in my thesis. It’s this idea of character-perspective: the toy you are playing with has a personality and while you’re playing, you see things from its perspective. You make objects for it at the right scale and physically look at the world from its level. A little bit like Toy Story and the Velveteen Rabbit and other books where toys come alive. This has two dimensions: one is this idea of the toy coming alive and having a real personality, the other is this perspective-shifting you do when you play, seeing what the toy character sees.

You know how there is a whole field of user interface design: how to design computers or robots to relate effectively to humans? I started thinking of toy-computer interactions or user interfaces for toys–what if the toy characters had working technology? This came out of a project I was doing on remote communication interfaces for kids, where I built two dollhouses with tiny working phones (they were hooked up to a computer running Skype) and a “mail system” (tiny letters could be placed in a mailbox and were transmitted to the remote dollhouse and printed out the mail slot on a tiny photo printer). Later, by popular request, I added a video system–first a decontextualized one, just a video window at the right scale for the toys to see each other, then one which made the video screen look like a tiny computer screen sitting on a computer desk.

My thesis is about perspective-taking in that sense, how when kids play they learn to see the world from another’s point of view–both socially and cognitively.

The kids I tested with liked them a lot, but none did what I expected, which was to invent extended stories and develop character personalities like I remember doing. I’ve been reading and reading but I’m a little stuck on how people get real results sitting a kid down in front of an unfamiliar toy for an hour. They just can’t possibly have time to get to know the characters in that time! Or do they not play that way anymore? A few of the kids reported not playing imagination games at home…they played computer games or Webkinz. I have a lot of papers I’m making my way through on kids’ play, but what I’d really like to find is transcripts and recordings of play sessions, to find out exactly what the stories are today.

April 15, 2010
So I’ve done a lot more reading, and found play session transcripts. I need to do more, but it seems that going into as much depth as we did is relatively rare. This may have something to do with the fact that the majority of kids stop imagination play younger than we did (by 7, whereas I played until 13), so it’s possible by the time their language and cooperation skills make it possible to develop anything that complex, they have moved on to other types of play and pastimes. What I don’t know is–would it be good for more kids to play more deeply? To play longer? Is it something that can be encouraged? Or are they already developing at the pace that is right for them, and this is not needed for all kids? Is the accessibility of technology at younger and younger ages making something about play and imagination get lost in the process? Is this appropriate for the skills needed in this current technological age, so it’s not a bad thing? Is there a difference in terms of what it does for kids developmentally between creativity as applied to construction activities (on-screen or off-screen), for eg. building with legos and programming (“constructionism”) and creativity as applied to stories and narrative? I know that you can tell stories with these building toys, and that there are even story-building toys (again on and off the computer), but is there a fundamental difference in the type of creation that is happening? I touch on this in my thesis but I’m not yet fully satisfied with the answer.