Action Figure and Ground

I went birthday shopping for some four-year-old friends the other day and rediscovered the romance of the Playmobil playset. Or the action figure playset in general.

I trust you know what I mean by a playset. It’s a toy building or vehicle, often opening up to a cutaway view, a proscenium stage on which our little plastic heroes perform their scaled-down dramas. The Ewok Ghetto from Star Wars. Barbie’s Malibu Dream Bordello. G.I. Joe’s Jungle Bunker with Spiderhole. (“Action figure,” by the way, was a term cooked up in the 1960s to sell G.I. Joes to boys without having to utter the dreaded word “doll.”)

The playset, for me at least, occupies a sweet spot on the spectrum from ludus to paidia, and also on the spectrum from abstraction to specific representation. A playset is not a game. It doesn’t come with rules or an objective. But its combination of character and setting, or action figure and ground, is pregnant with a million possible stories and adventures. At our house, it’s the playsets that are in constant use. Not the structured board games, not the electronic toys that play for you, and not the austere modular blocks.

Your household may differ. There was a revealing little moment at Pastplay when I was singing the praises of Playmobil to my friend and colleague Bill Turkel. But if you know anything about Bill’s work, you can probably guess that he was, like so many makers and hackers, a Lego and Meccano kid. For Bill, to play is to build. Those little plastic bricks are like computer code made physical. They combine and recombine according to dead simple rules of assembly to create infinite, unpredictable forms. Michael Chabon has a lovely essay on Lego in his recent Manhood for Amateurs, where he calls “the old familiar crunching” of Lego bricks and blocks “the sound of creativity itself.”

I get that. But what I always did with Legos was to build something approximating a playset and a couple of action figures. Then it was on with the show. I guess what I most like to snap together, take apart, and recombine are not objects but stories. My preferred bricks and blocks are characters and eras, bits and pieces of history, fiction, movies, and myths. This is me hacking, or this, or this, or this (god help me). With apologies to the extremely swell Stephen Ramsay, that’s myscrewmeneutical imperative” (link is to a PDF of Stephen’s paper on “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around”). I trust there is room in The Amazing New Digital Humanities™ for both kinds of play.

At one point in Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost compares the specificity of Playmobil figures to the modular abstraction of Lego:

When I began buying Playmobil for my kids, I originally thought there was no way they could offer the same kind of creative play as Lego, since the latter can be recombined in many more ways. But on further reflection, the high specificity of Playmobil pieces offers procedural learning on a much more deeply culturally embedded level … We don’t see just knights in Playmobil, we see Crusaders. We don’t see just fighters, we see Mongol Warriors. By providing a specific point of reference bound to human culture, the toys come equipped with specific cultural meaning as well as abstract processes for substitution. The components of each collection provide adequate context to allow kids to recombine their toys in a way that preserves, interrogates, or disrupts the cultural context of each piece.

Michael Chabon’s Lego essay ends on a similar note. After noting, and at first lamenting, the shift from the chunky, lo-res Lego bricks of old to the Technicolor precision of today’s “trademarked, conglomerate-owned, pre-imagined” kits (Jo VanEvery notes the same shift in comments here), Chabon pulls a switch:

I should have had more faith in my children, and in the saving power of the lawless imagination. … Kids write their own manuals in a new language made up of the things we give them and the things that derive from the peculiar wiring of their heads. …When he was still a toddler, Abraham liked to put a glow-in-the-dark bedsheet-style Lego ghost costume over a Green Goblin minifig and seat him on a Sioux horse, armed with a light saber, then make the Goblin do battle with Darth Vader, mounted on a black horse, armed with a bow and arrow. That is the aesthetic at work in the Legosphere now–not the modernist purity of the early years or the totalizing vision behind the dark empire of modern corporate marketing but the aesthetic of the Lego drawer, of the mash-up, the pastiche that destroys its sources at the same time that it makes use of and reinvents them.

This kind of bricolage (get it? Lego? bricolage?) is just what I imagine when I talk about playful historical thinking. You root around in the drawers of the past. You pull out whatever seems useful, or interesting, or beautiful and pointless. You reenact the narratives of your culture and you tell new stories with the resources at hand. You mix and match, snapping Skeletor’s head on Barbie’s body, or imagining George Washington’s advice for 21st century ills.

If it sounds like I’m endorsing some kind of “nothing is true” postmodernism, I don’t mean to be. I’m just talking about good old-fashioned play. Postmodernism copies some aspects of play, but play was around a long time before postmodernism, and is likely to stick around longer too.

4 Comments

  1. the fact that you are drawn to stories makes a lot of sense. You are a historian after all :-)

    When my daughter plays with Lego she does the same thing — builds stuff to tell stories around — though she is much more into Playmobil and dolls (lately, paper dolls that she’s made to go with characters in stories she’s writing).

    But then thinking back on my brother’s lego obsession (which lasted well into his teens, though behind closed doors after a certain age), it was all about building cities, car chases, etc. We were the pre-darth vader lego generation after all :-)

  2. Actually, one of my first and favorite toys was a 12-inch GI Joe (the one with a brown brush cut and a scar on his face — I think they’re called ‘vintage’ now.) I got him for Christmas when I was about 5, and I remember opening the package and staring at it with blank incomprehension. My dad took him out of the box, posed the limbs and hung him from the door knob of the front door. “Look,” he said, “he’s climbing a cliff.” I had a sudden moment of enlightenment where I realized how awesome it was. I think it helped that my dad was basically a giant 5-year-old himself (it runs in the family) and would do things like make little leather climbing harnesses for our GI Joes so they could race across the front room on a 15-foot zip line.

  3. Pingback: The Action Figure Curriculum

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