"Toys have become small plastic tablets of moral code that we hand down to the next generation"

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Opinion: toy makers have designed a disturbingly codified world for children that says more about adult self-loathing than how kids really want to play, says Sam Jacob.


Last October there was a flare up at the intersection of toys, art and politics. Lego refused to accept a bulk order from Ai Weiwei who had wanted to use the bricks for an exhibition in Melbourne. At the time, the Danish mini-fig giant said the decision was because Ai's work was "too political".

Troy Taylor, Lego's head of marketing in Australia explained: "We refrain, on a global level, from actively engaging in or endorsing the use of Lego bricks in projects or contexts of a political agenda."

Lego has now reversed its policy on bulk purchases and won't ask customers what they intend to build with the bricks. But they will ask that customers make clear the group does not support or endorse the message of their constructions.

Like any global corporation, Lego is naturally sensitive to the politics of international trade. Perhaps its initial refusal was, as Ai suggested, linked to a fear of jeopardising the timing of an agreement to build Legoland Shanghai. Perhaps it was a general fear of its product being used as a medium for non-corporate messages. In other words Lego subscribes to an idea of innocence. It imagines that its product is politically inert.

But take a look at Lego's current product lines, and you'll find something that looks like nothing less than a manifesto for a peculiarly cute form of totalitarian late capitalism. Lego already (and inevitably) carries clear and distinct political messages.

From the original unit of its brick – conceived as a medium of androgynous free play where the child's agency and imagination was central to the act of play – the supercharged contemporary version of the Scandinavian corporation has now constructed a universe striated with societal expectation.

This is a place with clear gender roles, ideas of work, with social and familial codes. Even ideas of what cities should be and how they should work. Just think of the huge size of the Lego City police force and the extent of its equipment. Lego City is a place with serious paranoias.

Lego now presents the world as a kind of social fate. The models it asks us to make are prescriptive instead of imaginative. The child – once creator – has become labourer. The playroom becomes the last part of the assembly line, a place where a persuasive representation emerges that suggests that no other world is possible: the End of History in injection-moulded plastic.

All design is political but toys have a particularly sharp and serious ideological intent. They have become small plastic tablets of moral code that we hand down to the next generation. Solid stories that tell us how to be human, models of the world that shape us into functioning members of society.

These are not the monumental stone tablets of the Old Testament – they're candy coloured and wrapped up in languages of love, innocence and joy. Which makes them all the more dangerous.

This is exactly what you'll find in KidZania, a kids theme park whose main subject seems to be the banality of adult life. Here children take jobs in (often) branded units – perhaps recycling with H&M, dentistry (where a frighteningly realistic rubber dummy sits forever reclined in the chair), as airline pilot or stewardess, radio presenter, hotel receptionist, fireman, police officer, supermarket checkout clerk, fashion model and so on.

For each job you earn Kidzos, the local currency that you can deposit at the CBK (the Central Bank of KidZania), which is a very realistic simulation of a real world bank: massive queues and malfunctioning ATMs. The only place to spend your hard earned Kidzos is at the company shop where prices far exceed wages.

Welcome to the future, children everywhere.

There are moral lessons everywhere. Intended, and unintended too. A cinema catches fire with uncanny regularity, only for a fire truck and tiny firemen to arrive just in time to put it out. It seems a perfect performance of the futility of contemporary life. Even hard work, this recurring ritual says, can't change anything.

Nothing is innocent. Especially innocence itself. Innocence is a state that we construct artificially. To imagine the possibility of innocence we need to be corrupted. In other words it is corruption that animates our prelapsarian visions.

Perhaps that's what's so tragic about contemporary toys. Driven by the self-loathing of adulthood, we refuse to admit the possibility of corruption, boredom, fear and all of the other failures of real life. We have erased the horror that once stalked the stories we told our children and replaced it with safe and sterile reassurance.

But despite the best efforts of corporatised play, the reality that they try to present soon breaks down.

Precisely because the worlds of KidZania, Lego and all the others are so political, so richly saturated with the signs and symbols of adulthood, they also offer us the ability to dismantle the world they present.

We see it in art projects – that spoof Danish border control Lego set that is currently doing the rounds on social media. Or projects like Superfold's Ogel Play Slum "the construction toy for the 21st century". Ogel is Lego backwards, and that's the logic of the project too.

"Given that one billion people live in informal settlements, or slums, across the world, the same population as that of Europe, shouldn't they be simply recognised as a dominant typology of human dwelling, and be granted a place within the world as represented by toys such as Lego?" they ask.

"Today's slums are a product of the neoliberal economic policies pursued by the Bretton Woods institutions since the 1970s," explain the designers. "If the Lego city celebrates the urban achievements of Scandinavian Social Democracy, perhaps we need to celebrate the achievements of the neoliberal era too."

And of course, Ai Weiwei was doing something similar to raise Lego's hackles by using the apparently innocent brick to deliver political messages. He'd done it before, with Lego portraits of political exiles and prisoners of conscience in a installation in Alcatraz (2014). But the piece that got Lego riled was titled (wait for it) Letgo Room (2015). Shown at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne it depicted Australian political activists, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. All made, eventually, from bricks donated by the public.

What really happens in the toy box is far more exciting that the things advertised on the packaging. The signs and symbols churn like a primordial cultural soup. Action Man puts on a dress, Barbie gets a crew cut.

What if we built this fluidity into toys? Would this transform the messages that they send? What if Lego kits came already built and the job of the child was not to construct them but deconstruct them? Would taking apart a Police station to build an anarchist commune suggest both the endless possibilities of the world and the relationship between power and politics?

Perhaps the design of toys has very little to do with children at all. The kids, as they say, are alright. Maybe its us who we really make toys for. It's our hopes, dreams, fears, sins, guilt repression and sense of loss that reside inside them.

It is us that their innocent image of the adult world tries to reassure. So that means that it is us that needs to overthrow the tyranny of "adulthood", to accept our corrupted state in order to imagine a richer idea of innocence.

The first step would be to recognise the seriousness of the toy. To accept the deep politics and ideology present within them. Then to embrace the impossibility of total innocence. To turn from these straightjacketed fantasies that force us to endlessly remake the world in our own image.

Instead we could use toys as a way to explore the liberative possibilities of corrupted play. And in redesigning toys in this way we would help our grown-up selves rather than our children. Help us to test alternatives to our own reality and help us develop into the rounded, fulfilled and happy humans we hope our children will become.


Sam Jacob is principal of Sam Jacob Studio, professor of architecture at University of Illinois at Chicago, director of Night School at the Architectural Association, and the editor of Strange Harvest.

  • Kevin Schoonmaker

    Cynicism is blinding; I think kids ask more outlier questions than you give them credit for.

    • Sim

      Kids may be asking questions, but what quality and insight and wisdom do the answers that we give them have? How much attention do people pay to those questions? Who answers these questions (kids today are often in daycare for long periods of time).

  • Qubits Toy Co.

    I am an architect, I designed Qubits Toy which is in the same industry as Lego. Everyone seems transfixed on bricks. That is a sad statement regarding design and architecture.

  • Arjay Cee

    I appreciated much in the essay Sam. It is axiomatic that toys have long modelled the adult world in idealised form for children. Dolls and guns archetypally – and as of the last century, board games based on glorifying predatory capitalism – teach them the cutthroat arts young, it would seem.

    Your thought experiment, though, of a deconstruction toy asking kids to “take apart a police station to build an anarchist commune” sounds like a horror. And not because I don’t like the idea of anarchist communes made from the remains of cop shops (oh, far from it). No, here you would fit play into an agenda no less programmatic than the one you excoriate in Lego’s little happy-happy Huxleyland. And in any case, you don’t really have the courage of your game: I’m sure you’d object if a toy promoted the dynamiting of Sam Jacob Studio efforts on the ground that works of yours such as Selfridges Oxford are exemplars of wasteful and avaricious elitism. Just saying, old sport.

    Childhood play indeed should be about “suggest(ing)…the endless possibilities of the world,” and that is much less about your very next phrase – “the relationship between power and politics” – and instead much more about raw, unguided, unmetered imagination. Play not burdened with expectation (i.e. the exact opposite of work) can lead to a discovery, in those lucky enough to finally possess one, of a genuine self.

    In other words, if you wish a child to become herself, and not a version of the consumer-prole idealised by our masters, nor of the anarcho-demolisher sentimentally idealised by Sam Jacob, then the only Lego blocks safe to give to a child are those devoid entirely of ideological context: pure plain blocks. Stack them, if you will, as you will.

  • Sim

    A great article. I could answer it with one word: KAPLA (no I have no stock in Kapla and if you get some for your children I recommend at least 200. The coloured ones are great as well).

    A while ago I was sitting with my nephew building the objects he was supposed to make from this Lego box he had received for his birthday according to the booklet. It struck me that if one piece was missing, the entire thing – in a way – would be rendered useless.

    We used to have a HUGE soapbox full of Lego in all colours and we built with it all day. I wanted that for our children, but it is difficult to attain with Lego’s current way of making box sets. And yes, I to wonder how we have come from the 60s where the sky is the limit into this world that often feels quite exploitative and consumption focussed.