The Action Figure Curriculum

So is there a takeaway lesson here, or just a bunch of allegedly grown men thinking way too hard about childhood toys? Well, what is so compelling about the action figure playset combination? Could we use those qualities to promote a kind of playful historical engagement? Could we imagine a historical curriculum built, metaphorically, around “playsets” and “action figures”?

Details, Details

One thing both Lego and Playmobil get right is offering just enough detail to fire the imagination, but not more. A Playmobil Viking is not a Viking. But if we know something about Vikings already, it is just detailed enough to make us think about Vikings. And if we don’t know anything about Vikings, it is just detailed enough to help us start to learn.

The implication for teaching history? Because we are all too aware what small fraction of the facts we teach is likely to be remembered, our instinct as teachers is often to cram in as much content as we possibly can. But is this self-defeating? Socrates said “education is not the filling of a vessel, but the kindling of a flame.”* Isn’t it smarter to be realistic about the bandwidth of our classrooms, and therefore be deliberate in the details we choose to emphasize?

*According to Wikipedia, there is no evidence Socrates ever said this. But who are you going to believe, Socrates or Wikipedia?

Avatars with Kung Fu Grip

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud unpacked the way abstraction invites identification. When we look at a detailed photograph or a realistic drawing of a face, he said, we see the face of another. But when we look at a simple, stylized cartoon, we can project our own identity on to it. We can see it as our self. This is why cartoon protagonists from Tintin to the Simpsons are so often drawn in less detail than their backgrounds or supporting casts. The abstraction of a Playmobil, or any tiny plastic representation of the human form, has a similar psychological effect. Henry Jenkins describes action figures as avatars that let children enter imagined spaces and try on various roles.

When I talked about playing “Would You Rather” I touched on the tricky place of self-identification in history. For most professional historians, imagining yourself into history really is off limits, more so even than something like counterfactuals. And I want to be careful here, because I do believe the most mature kind of historical thinking only comes when we confront what we cannot understand or empathize with in the past. Still, in proscribing personal identification, play-acting, and make-believe, professional historians amputate a whole lot of what people want from their history.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

Action figures are built to a few uniform scales, which encourages mashups and crossovers. A Playmobil curriculum means thinking as much about how courses fit together as about their individual content.

Is there any way to analogize from playset and action figure towards general courses and specific topics? What if, instead of general introductory surveys and more specific upper-year seminars, a curriculum was built out of scene-setting “playsets”—Pre-Confederation Canada, Gilded Age America, or even a thematic/conceptual setting like “Revolution”—and then different students brought different “figures” to the table—key personalities, maybe, or representative groups?

I dunno. I’m just blue skying here. What I do know is that any good line of action figures triggers a powerful collecting impulse. As soon as you get one, you want another, and then another, and then of course the playset to house them in. The more figures you collect, the more powerfully you want the others, maybe because of the exponentially increasing number of possible interactions between them.

Is the link to education so far-fetched? The pleasure of collecting action figures is partly about material objects, but it is also tied to mastery over lore. Every parent has marveled at their child’s ability to memorize dinosaur species and genera, arcane Pokemon statistics, the names of Thomas the Tank Engine’s many belligerent companions. What alchemy of pedagogy, psychology, and graphic design would we need to work to make a course calendar one fraction as addictive as the Calico Critters catalogs my daughter pores over for hours on end?

(Lego photos by Mike Stimpson–see the whole set here.)


  1. Great post. Lots to think about here. Is sharing too much information about a subject with students too ludic–and thus not any fun? I can see that, and I think many instructors err on the side of providing too much info.

    I can also see that giving students so little information about a subject that they can’t start thinking about it also causes problems–too much paidia. You can’t just turn students loose on a subject–they need at least a little guidance and structure to get started “playing.”

    Gotta catch ‘em all? I think the key here is ownership. Whether its literally owning Pokemon cards or figuratively owning dinosaurs by knowing their names and characteristics, collecting is about owning. If students are merely parroting our ideas back to us, how can they own those ideas? And if they don’t own some ideas, why would they want more?

  2. Kathy Sierra did a great thing on The Twitter’s once where she started a conversation around #hardtoignore.

    People can’t ignore an obvious spelling mistake, a jigsaw with the last piece missing, a picture hung ever so slightly crookedly – that kind of thing.

    The idea was, of course, you could use these things in learning.

    When you speak to people who played Dungeons and Dragons, you often get a slightly bashful denial of all interest in the ‘dungeons’ and the ‘dragons’ – I like the game mechanics, me. All this pretending to be Mages is all a bit, you know. . .

    I worry (not too much, I must admit – I’m making a point and using a figure of speech) that the kind of people who like ‘games for learning’ are the D & D denialists. They’re into the rules/mechanics more than the pretending and the make-believe – control more than filling in the gaps.

    Games are, sometimes, easy to ignore. But toys, on the other hand. . .

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