Our Sunday Long Read this week comes from Matthew Braga at The Walrus Magazine, who asks the question: What makes a game or toy stand the test of decades like the classics have: Monopoly, Lite-Brite, Spirograph, Yahtzee and more?
IFRAH ABID’S eight-year-old son, Moosa, loves The Avengers. He’s obsessed with his Iron Man action figure and can talk at length about its many suits. Her twelve-year-old daughter, Tooba, meanwhile, went through a Roblox phase, playing a video game that’s all the rage with kids her age. But, early in the pandemic, when everyone was spending more time together at home, Abid went looking for something the whole family could enjoy. “[Millennial parents] don’t know about new toys,” said Abid, who lives in Kitchener, Ontario, and is host and producer of the interview podcast Across Her Table, which focuses on women with immigrant roots. “We were like, ‘Let’s go back to what we know.’” She thought back to her own childhood, to those old games the family played while crowded around the table—Monopoly, Pictionary, Uno. She decided to try to introduce them to her kids. Now Moosa and Tooba love them too.
It was a similar story for Robert Lee and his two daughters. Allie is six, Annie is four, and they both love all things Paw Patrol, Peppa Pig, and Baby Shark. But, for Christmas two years ago, their mother bought them a Lite-Brite and a Spirograph—simple art toys invented back in the ’60s that she remembered from her own early years. These weren’t the toys that Lee’s daughters typically saw in the YouTube videos they watched. They didn’t have flashy advertising campaigns or tie-in television shows, meaning the kids would never think to ask for them on their own. But Allie and Annie loved playing with them all the same.
Kids get older, and fads come and go. But some toys persist, almost stubbornly—artifacts passing from one generation to the next. In the toy business, these products are considered “classics.” It’s an amorphous category filled with all sorts of games and toys that have just a few things in common: namely, they are survivors in an industry where trends rule all. The Rubik’s Cube is, in many ways, the perfect example of a classic toy. More than 450 million are estimated to have been sold since 1978, with up to tens of millions of units still moving in a year. Etch A Sketch (180 million sold since 1960), Lego, Potato Head, Barbie, and, of course, Play-Doh are classics too. These toys are instantly recognizable but rarely advertised. They’re often low tech or analog. In fact, in a world full of screens, their tactility is increasingly part of the draw. Often, classic toys encourage what academics say is high-quality play, like problem solving or imaginative thinking. And, as some experts have found, such toys are highly nostalgic—conjuring warm, fuzzy memories in the parents who do the buying. This is how toys turn into tradition.
In 2016, Jane Eva Baxter published an article in the International Journal of Play that considered the role of nostalgia in keeping two particular items alive: the rotary-style Fisher-Price Chatter Telephone and wearable Mickey Mouse ears. Toys, she wrote, are often thought of as tools of preparation. It’s the reason parents buy Lego (to encourage creativity and cognitive thinking) or dolls (to simulate caregiving). It’s why most daycares and kindergarten classes have colourful blocks with the alphabet printed on the sides: to teach, to set kids up for future success.
But learning and development can’t be the only reason certain toys stick around, wrote Baxter, who is chair of the anthropology department at Chicago’s DePaul University and an archaeologist and historian of childhood. After all, here were two items—a rotary phone and mouse ears—that have persisted despite having no clear connection with the present. “The emotional connection adults have to this iconic toy has kept it in the marketplace despite the fact that a rotary-dial landline phone is technologically irrelevant for children today,” Baxter wrote. The same could be said of Mickey Mouse ears. The toy hasn’t appeared on TV as much in recent years, is no longer featured prominently in Disney’s theme parks, and is based on a character who is “increasingly peripheral to the Disney brand.”
Speaking from her home in Chicago, Baxter explains that parents, not toy producers, were the ones driving these sales. “There is this nostalgic element of either wanting to share something from their own childhood or give something that they felt they lacked in their childhood, because they think it will be good,” Baxter says. Especially now, in a largely digital world, there is something about these analog toys “that parents see as desirable for their children [and] that we find desirable for ourselves.” In fact, when Fisher-Price tried to modernize its iconic toy phone by removing the rotary dial, there was a consumer revolt, and sales fell. Nostalgia, Baxter concluded, is what keeps certain toys alive.
If you’re Toronto-based Spin Master, one of the largest toy makers in the world, nostalgia is also good for business. Founded in 1994 by two recent graduates from Western University, Spin Master quickly made a name for itself creating playground fads. One early success was 1997’s Air Hogs, a pump-powered, hand-thrown plane that could fly the length of a football field on nothing more than pressurized air. Then there was Bakugan, a 2007 mania centred on battling creatures from another dimension (think a mash-up of Pokémon, Transformers, and Yu-Gi-Oh), which involved an anime series, collectible trading cards, transforming toys, and a board game.
And, of course, there’s Paw Patrol. Created in 2013, Spin Master’s star franchise follows the adventures of a group of rescue dogs and their leader, a human boy named Ryder. Paw Patrol has spanned nine TV seasons, a Hollywood film (the second is now on the way), and, most importantly, a sprawling line of toys, merchandise, and games. The brand practically prints money for Spin Master, which today is worth around $4.4 billion and has 2,000 employees spread across nearly twenty countries.
But the company learned an important lesson from Bakugan, which had generated more than $1 billion in toy sales by 2014, before its popularity started to wane: what goes up eventually comes down, especially when it comes to fickle young audiences. That’s where the classic toys come in. Having one of these brands in your portfolio is every sales department’s dream. They practically sell themselves.
Toys and games are worth billions, because we love to play. Nostalgia has always been a big seller. And it will continue to be for a long time to come.