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Character Toys: Toying with Identity, Playing with Emotion

Remi Leclerc

Why do we produce licensed toys? What compels children and adults alike to desire such objects? What makes them such greatly sought after artifacts by collectors?

Products of the XXth century, licensed, or character toys, are offspring of the toy and media industries. Surfing the post-war consumer wave generated by the Baby Boom, the toy industry was eager to transform the war effort’s technological know-how to explore new global market options. Mass-mediated pop-culture characters were seen as a boon for marketers keen on tapping into a wider mental share of consumers’ emotions and fantasies to fuel innovation and fend off internationalized competition.

Designs and play patterns generated by the reification of a popular myth derive from an original narrative; they are the interface to a world of motivations and values. Character toys mediate play, and as such combine play with story telling, inviting players to identify to role models, adapt adventures to their social needs and act out their emotional development.

The growing interest for character toys has generated a number of publications, especially in the US and Japan where production and export of images – and toys – are among the world’s highest. However, despite nostalgic introductions meant to remind readers of an idealised childhood, few say much about the emotional dynamics generated as one interacts with character toys. Only recently have we seen attempts made to analyse the phenomenon’s evolution, in order to anchor it in a wider cultural context. This paper relates character toys’ impact on current consumer culture, its value as a collector item, and its relevance to emotion and desirability (i.e. the worthiness of these artefacts in regard to an individual’s self-realisation) to current toy design practices.

Character Toy Design, emotion, Youth Culture