Geoffrey Long
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Greece 2008 Part II: ITRA World Congress.

While a big motivator for our trip to Greece was the desire to actually see Greece and its islands, the real catalyst for the trip was the 5th World Congress of the International Toy Researchers' Association (ITRA), a group of which I am now a proud member. If you'd told me that such an organization had existed back when I was an undergrad, my mind would have been blown – academics? Conducting research on toys? Really?

Really. And they're awesome.

I found out about the conference from my friend Barry Kudrowitz, who runs the MIT Toy Lab and is all kinds of awesome on many fronts. Barry's a kindred spirit, as crazily prolific and artsy as I used to be: he's an author, a musician, a programmer, a toy designer, and a lecturer. The guy constantly reminds me of what all's possible when you attack life with a crazy can-do attitude, which is incredibly inspiring. Here's to you, Barry. Anyway, I occasionally guest-lecture in Barry's class on toys, transmedia and narratives in toy design, and so Barry e-mailed me when the CFP for the conference came across his desk. Since I already had an essay on toys and transmedia narratives all ready to go (and had actually helped me get into the Comparative Media Studies program), I sent it in... And in the spring, I received an email to let me know that my paper had been accepted – and I found out soon afterward that Matt, Clara and Philip had a paper on GAMBIT's methodologies accepted as well, and Barry had one accepted for his Play Pyramid concept. We were off!

I wasn't sure what to expect from the conference, to be honest. What kind of academics researched toys? Would this be a huge conference or a small one? Would it be primarily professionals in the toy industry or mostly cultural theorists? As it turned out, the conference was a pretty good size, consisting of several solid days of interesting programming including everything from researchers looking into the impact of different types of toys at different stages of development to, yes, cultural theorists. Some of my favorites were as follows.

Gilles Brougère, from Université Paris Nord, France. Brougère presented the first keynote address, "Toys, Games and Play in the Circle Dance of Children's Mass Culture". This paper talked about the complexity of new toy franchises, which was remarkably similar to my own research into transmedia storytelling and Henry Jenkins' work; it was fantastic because Brougère seems to have come to similar conclusions from a different direction, so comparing his notes to my own was a lot of fun and should be really useful. I have a copy of his paper on file now and will probably wind up citing it in future book projects.

Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, from Queensland University of Technology, Australia. QUT is considered a sort of sister program to CMS, and is where C3's ex-research manager Dr. Joshua Green earned his doctorate. Jaz is one of the new friends I made at the conference, and is someone I hope to work with in the future – her research into consumption patterns of portable media and reactive environments is some really great stuff. She's worked with friend, fellow SXSW alum and all-around brilliant guy Adam Greenfield on similar stuff, and if I ever continue the research into mobile media storytelling that I started with C3, she's definitely at the top of my go-to list. Her blog can be found at

Mathieu Gielen, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands. Mathieu was the one who assembled the panel where both Philip and Barry and our new friends Greg and Rémi (see next description) appeared, and conducts his research into design for children. I didn't get the chance to catch much in-depth information about his own research, but it's clear that there's a large amount of overlap between our interests.

Yiu-Cheung (Greg) Shiu, Hong Kong Design Institute, China, and Rémi Leclerc, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, China. Both Greg and Rémi are teaching real-world practices to the next generation of makers and designers in Hong Kong, the capital of the toymaking world. Greg showed off the really high-quality designs being created by his students, and Rémi's demoed his practice of short, intense 'hackshops' wherein students disassemble existing toys and rebuild them from the ground up (with extra parts from a collective junk pile) into all-new stuff. These hackshops reminded me of a mash-up of Junkyard Wars and the Enrichment Academy inventors' workshops I attended in grade school. Really fantastic stuff.

Hyun-Jung Oh, Doctoral student, University College London, UK. Hyun-Jung won the student researchers' award from the ITRA this time around for her research on "The Phenomenon of Dolls' Houses: Putting Together Memories and Fantasies", which was especially interesting because of her examination of the practices and reasonings behind adults building dollhouses, as well as just girls. I didn't get to speak with her for very long, but she seems to be another up-and-comer to watch.

Wijnand Ijsselstein, Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands. Wijnand's Game Experience Lab is doing some stuff that is significantly interesting to GAMBIT – building quantitative measurement systems for play patterns in video games through hardware systems and surveys. He also seemed to be a pretty great guy from our small number of conversations – again, another character to watch. You can find his website at

Maria Velioti-Georgopoulos, University of the Peloponnese, Greece. Her presentation on "Playing with Puppets: Greek Discourses on Children's Toy Puppet Theatre 1870-1950" left me rapt for the whole time. She had a great presentation, but then again I'm a huge sucker for puppeteering history and culture, so I was an easy mark.

Giorgos Papaconstantinou, University of Thessaly, Greece. His "Early Animation Toys: From Science to Spectacle" was another presentation that kept me happily enthralled for the whole run. Thaumatropes! Zoetropes! I've loved these kinds of optical toys for years, and the history of animation has fascinated me ever since I was a kid. Papaconstantinou's talk was really top-notch, a brilliant show. I wanted to ask him for a copy of his paper, but unfortunately I didn't get a chance.

Yehudit Inbar, Museums Division, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. Inbar's was one of the most haunting presentations of the entire time, centering around a museum of toys from the Holocaust. The toys that the children had brought with them into the prisons were fascinating, and the ones they brought back were even more so, but the best ones were the toys that were made on the inside. Makeshift doll parts were beautifully sad, but the best was a Monopoly board made as a secret map of the camp. 'Tragic' doesn't begin to describe it.

These were only a few of the great presentations I caught during my time there. There was a really interesting breakdown of little subgroups inside the whole collective; there were the obvious aggregations along interest lines, of course, but there was also a sense of generations, perhaps. It's the group of us younger folks (me, Barry, Philip, Jaz, Rémi and so on) conducting some really cool, adventurous experimental work with new technologies and new media that makes me curious about where the ITRA will be headed in the next 5, 10, 20 years.

Which is why I'm now a member of the ITRA. Hmmm. I wonder what I could pitch to the next World Congress?

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