The Death of the Action Figure

Kids today have a baffling level of detachment from creativity. Instead of grasping action figures and creating their own scenarios they are digitally manipulating video game characters though some programmer’s story. They don’t have the same experience I had as a child in the 1980’s, having to make up my own stories.

I’m not some sour old man, opining about the evils of video games. I grew up in the Nintendo-age. Hours of my childhood were spent rescuing Princesses, slaying monsters and reveling in the shock that Samus was a girl. However many more hours I spent playing with action figures.

As the youngest of three children and a complete accident I was the only child in the house. I had no siblings to play with. In the hours I couldn’t be out running around with my friends I was in my bedroom reenacting the JFK assassination (I know, weird) with Storm Shadow delivering the kill-shot from behind a blocky knoll constructed of Legos.

I would spend more time setting up battles for my toys than actually playing them out. First I had to construct some kind of reality where Transformers, G.I. Joes, Thundercats and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles could somehow co-exist. This usually involved some form of magical hi-jinks on Skeletor’s part. In my head I would work out complicated scenarios in which heroes would fight heroes (a common trope in comics) until they realized they were on the same side. They would then band together to take on the more imposing villainous force. In the ensuing conflicts lives would be lost, relationships tested and bonds forged in battle and imaginary blood.  Good, more often than not, triumphed over evil.  Some battles were left unfinished as my bedtime approached.  The next day I would pull out all my toys and a new scenario would take place, every day held some new adventure for my little plastic pals.

I used every surface and item at my disposal.  My ceiling fan became a helicopter, hanging from it’s chain a cadre of paratroopers ready to unleash hell on my enemy stronghold constructed of old shoe boxes.   I used wax and old parts of a phone to upgrade toy vehicles with time machines and hyper-drives.   Window sills were shooting platforms, shelves became mountains and my bed was an ocean easily made more real by my blue comforter.  My imagination ran wild with ways to improve upon yesterday’s adventures.  I came home from school every day ready to see what I could come up with, after I finished my homework of course.

Walking through toy stores in the shadows of my mind I can see the past. Aisles filled with action figures from comic book heroes to Saturday morning cartoons. Now those same aisles are filled with computerized entertainment and card-based games. The action figure aisle (singular) usually consists of  toy tie-ins of whatever movie was recently released. Even with today’s action figures children are given a pee-arranged structure in which to copy. The movies serve as guides in which to play.

Although it wasn’t apparent to children of my generation, the cartoons of the 80’s and early 90’s did serve as 22 minute toy commercials. Even the death of Optimus Prime in the Transformers movie was just a shameless cash grab.  It was an attempt for Hasbro phase out old characters and reintroduce new ones in order to sell more product. Yes, the cartoons were just marketing grabs at our parent’s disposable income but they were also many a child’s intro into their own psyche.

As a kid cartoons told simple stories. Good guys and bad guys were easily discernible and good pretty much always triumphed in the end.  The stories weren’t all that important, the characters were.  Optimus Prime was virtuous, Cobra Commander was insane and Michelangelo was “special”.  These characters were archetypes commonly found in every great story; the hero, the villain and the fool.  Children picked up on these and played with their toys and created scenarios in their minds based on these character traits.  The stories were up to us.

The sheer number of cartoons and characters available meant there was a great variety of toys to purchase and play with. I saved every penny I could from doing chores, aging or losing teeth in order to purchase cool new figures. In my imagination and with my parent’s funding I was able to see who would win a battle between Spider-Man and the Joker, Wolverine vs. Megatron, even C-listers the Silverhawks vs. the Visionaries.Yes, I was a spoiled (lucky) child but these toys were sparking the very same creativity I use to this day. Every article I write, every crazy story I dream is born out of the play I did as a child.

I don’t feel any contempt for children of the modern age, I feel pity for them. They all live in this digital wasteland where all play is tightly controlled and coordinated. Their cartoons are almost uniformly educational or blatant marketing gimmicks. Instead of selling toys they sell cards. Again, a game in which the story is already laid out bare. Kids now do not have the same access to their mind and the creativity that can be expressed through free association. Our next generation is one of collectors.

Does this mean there will be no creativity in the future? Are we all doomed to be a society of soulless consumers (or i-Consumers)? Of course not, not every kid who grew up with toys developed some creative side. As long as their are human beings there will be new, fresh and innovative ideas. I just mourn for the loss of the opportunity for our youth to find that in their own minds and not gifted to them by a video game.

I find the death of the action figure akin to recent developments in N.A.S.A.. When I was a kid a space shuttle launch was something we stopped everything to marvel at. I can remember sitting in my second grade class watching the Challenger explode over Earth, it’s an indelible memory. Yes, it was a tragedy but my point is that for a time schoolwork stopped and children across the country watched history and tragedy. The final shuttle mission of the current generation was widely ignored. Interest in space, the vast unimaginable reaches of space is now commonplace. The great questions; is there life out there, could we survive on another planet and others are now just shrugged aside. Kids have already seen all they need to see of other worlds on their PlayStations.

Video games while fun are demystifying outer space, war and crime. What I had to imagine on my bedroom floor as a kid is now presented in almost photo-realistic brilliance in high definition. Imagination doesn’t have to be accessed in the mind, it can be had at the press of the Start button on a joystick.

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2 thoughts on “The Death of the Action Figure

  1. I to mourn over the almost extinct adventures of playing with action figures, although my bed was mostly a wrestling ring, war zone, Jurassic park, or TMNT lair (where Michelangelo wasn’t as “special” but bad ass lol). I agree that the imagination process of “playing” has been strategically replaced by marketing making this generation of kids more dependent on already scripted story lines. Great article b keep em coming!

  2. Thanks. I can almost remember the exact day I stopped being able to just sit down and be content playing with toys. It sucks that your brain just switches your childhood off. I still act like a kid sometimes and enjoy some of the same things I did as a child but I’ll never experience the world through those eyes.

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