Geoffrey Long


On Middlepublishing

A Poet's iPod Guide to Art

On Digital Storytelling and
21st Century Literature

On Toys and Transmedia

Fixing Disney

Fixing AOL

Digital Video Poetry

Bluetooth PCN

On Toys and Transmedia Storytelling

(The following essay originally appeared in my weblog, Tip of the Quill, on April 28, 2004. If you'd like to comment, you are invited to do so here.)

On Action Figures and Transmedia Storytelling

Everywhere you look these days, it's an 80's revival. The causes of this are clear: the members of my generation who grew up on G.I. Joe, Ghostbusters, My Little Pony, Care Bears, Transformers, Masters of the Universe and a ton of other neon-colored and sticker-covered pieces of plastic are all sitting in the sweet spot for nostalgia marketing. We're of an age where most of us are gainfully employed and have a little disposable income to play with, we're rapidly gaining on 30 and psychologically grappling with what it means to be really and truly over the first quarter of our lives, and some of us even have small children that now need toys of their own. Therefore, it's no wonder that many of us are plunking down our credit cards to replace the toys Mom and Dad coldly chucked out, to pick up the one figure we'd never been able to track down the first time around, or to grab some newly-sculpted versions that more closely resemble the fantastic characters we held in our heads. All across America new pieces of expensive plastic are cluttering up bookcases, cubicle shelves and monitor tops. (Well, for those of us who still use those giant, clunky CRT displays. I could go off on how the advent of the LCD display has become a serious threat to cubicle toys, but that's something for another essay.)

What interests me is the role these characters play in our psychological lives. I mentioned why they're coming back into vogue for us now, but why were they ever so popular in the first place? After all, they really are little more than colored pieces of formed plastic. Why do action figures hold such appeal? I think that, for me at least, the attraction is twofold. First, though, a little recent history.

Geek Love

A couple of years ago, Hasbro began reissuing updated versions of the Masters of the Universe figures. These new versions were sculpted by a team of artists known as The Four Horsemen, who are a bunch of refugees from Todd McFarlane toys. Now, I'm a huge Neil Gaiman fan, which means that I think that Todd McFarlane is a bit of a dick. (Do a Google search on Gaiman vs. McFarlane and the rights to the Angela character to find out why.) Still, I can't dispute that McFarlane Toys makes the most detailed action figures currently on the market. When I would make my weekly trip down to my local comic shop, I'd see these incredible microstatues up on the shelf, with tiny chains, intricate outfits and exquisite paint jobs. They were amazing. Whoever was responsible for these things clearly had a deep love for the characters they were molding, down to the last hair or dent in their armor. Now, I've never been a huge Spawn fan, so I'd always managed to resist their allure. When I heard that these guys were going to be tackling Masters of the Universe, though, a cornerstone of my childhood, I was ecstatic.

When they hit the market, I sheepishly began sneaking off to my local Toys-R-Us to pick up the villains. (The villains were always cooler than the good guys, and I rationalized it to myself that if I was only picking up half the collection, I wasn't a total dork. You hush now.) It started with Skeletor, the bone-faced ultravillain. Sure enough, the detail on him was amazing. The original figures were big, chunky, squat globs of plastic. The new versions were lean, superdetailed, and totally bad-ass. As weird as it sounds, if these characters were real, this is what they would look like. And I knew that the guys making them were just like me – guys who grew up with these characters, whose mental images of them went above and beyond the crude little plastic blobs. There was real love there.

Again, why?

The First Attraction: Philosophy Tokens

One by one, my desk was overrun with the villains from Masters of the Universe. First Skeletor, then Beast Man (who was huge, just the way he should be), then Mer-Man and Tri-Klops and Trap Jaw and Two Bad and Whiplash... Every time a new villain hit the market, I would track them down. I finally gave up this little scavenger hunt around Christmastime this year, partly because I was realizing that I had a problem (both psychologically and with desk space) and because I felt guilty that I might be depriving some kid of the #1 item on his Christmas list.

Not only did I quit stalking the toy aisles, I also cleared off my desk. I put all of these guys into a box in my closet, where I was storing the clutter that used to fill my cube at my old day job. Skeletor, Beast Man, the whole posse went into the box – except for one. Trap Jaw stayed on my desk, over in a corner under my lamp. I have three action figures on my desk now: the homicidal cyborg Trap Jaw, the gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem from the Vertigo comic Transmetropolitan, and the young Lex Luthor from the WB's Smallville. Gone are my Sandman figures, my little General Kael from Willow, and the other stuff. All that remains are these three. Why? Because I identify the most with these three, and having them out helps me keep certain things in mind. As a journalist with his little laptop, Spider reminds me to write everyday, even if it's only in my weblog. As a businessman, Lex reminds me to stay on top of my finances. And as a monster that's more machine than man, Trap Jaw reminds me to close the PowerBook every so often and get outside. (One could argue that a Darth Vader figure would do the same thing, but I think Trap Jaw just looks cooler. All you Star Wars ubergeeks can put the torches and pitchforks down now, thanks.)

In a way, these guys are the rough equivalent of the little Saint Christophers that some Catholics would install in their cars, or the little portraits of Jesus that some Christians keep by their desks, or even the frogs that feng shui disciples keep by their workspaces. They all serve to keep a certain philosophy in the back of your mind while you're slogging through the daily grind. It's like the juror who wore the Star Trek uniform to the Whitewater trials: no matter how geeky, these cultural artifacts serve as philosophy tokens. If you want to find out about a person's value system, sneak into their work area sometime and check out the crap on their desk and on the walls. We spend a mammoth percentage of our lives locked in our work areas, so it's not surprising that we expend a good amount of time and energy getting those cages just the way we like them. Pictures of our families, postcards from places we want to revisit, even models of the sportscars we're saving up for – they're all there. I have all of this stuff around my work area, including a 1:18 scale red Mini Cooper S. They're little McLuhanian extensions of who we are and what we're working for, to help remind us why we're there.

Which actually brings me to my second theory.

The Second Attraction: Story Tokens

In creative writing, a "story token" is another term for a MacGuffin, the object or objects that a character is searching for. These items then drive the rest of the story – and, in fact, don't really matter that much at all. The definitive example of this is the Maltese falcon. In the abstract, the object in question is utterly useless. It's a stone statue of a bird, as equally worthless as a small glob of shaped, colored platic. One could argue that toy collectors are only in it for the hunt, and therefore the figures really are MacGuffins. I only bring this up, though, to clarify how I'm going to use a slightly different definition for the rest of this essay.

Here, I'm going to use the term 'story token' to describe a small object to which certain characteristics are ascribed. That is, an object which is given certain personality traits based on external stories or actions of one's imagination. Action figures are perfect examples of this. Children do not collect action figures because they're pretty pieces of plastic – they do so in order to live vicariously through them, to use them as starting blocks to trigger imaginative exercises. Again, the Masters of the Universe example. When I was a kid, each Masters of the Universe figure had a small painting on the back of the card, depicting who this character was and what role they played in their fictional universe, a sci-fi fantasy mishmash world called Eternia. He-Man was the big barbarian hero whose main mission was to stop Skeletor, the evil villain who was constantly trying to conquer Eternia. Weirdly enough, neither side ever managed to completely wipe out their opponent. No one ever died in Eternia. It was like a strange set of basic checks and balances was in place in order to make sure neither the right wing nor the left wing completely overtook the land... (Ahem. Sorry, that's something for another essay.)

The point is that what made these characters come alive were the stories. Between the tales on the cards, the comic books that came packaged with every figure and the little weekly cartoon stories spun for us by Filmation and DIC (two of the premiere syndicated cartoon companies of the 80s), we weren't buying the figures for the figures, we were buying them for the stories we could tell once we had them in our collections. I still remember getting all excited every time Grandma or Grandpa would go to their closet and pull out a new action figure for me to play with, as a surprise or a treat. I would rip open the package, plunk myself down with the comic book, thumb eagerly through it and then introduce that character to the rest of the set. It wouldn't be long before I was mixing and matching the accessories from one character with another, or even making new weapons or helmets out of paper or whatever else I had lying around. Kids are fountains of ideas, their little brains racing along at 110 miles an hour to learn about the universe and fill in the gaps of their knowledge with bursts of imagination. By handing children these characters at such a young age, they will forever associate them with the best stories in the world – not the ones in the comics or on the TV screen, but the ones we would tell each other as we met for recess and acted out huge epic battles on the playground. Whether we were playing with the toys themselves in the shade under the giant pine tree out by the basketball courts or if we were ourselves pretending to be the characters, running around madly and screaming "Pow pow pow!" at the tops of our lungs, these characters were alive for us, and played huge roles in our young lives.

As another example, I think this is why the new Star Wars movies don't feel as good for us older folks. The cheesy Jar Jar dialect is just as silly as some of the stuff in the originals, but the new stories that Lucas is trying to tell just aren't as cool as the ones we made up while flopped down on the floor of our living rooms with our 3.75" Artoos and Threepios. The stories we tell ourselves are hugely important, and the toys we play with are merely sparks to get those stories going.

So if we take these ideas into account, how can we build better toys for our kids?

Action Figures and Transmedia Storytelling

Lately, the idea of transmedia storytelling has been gaining some ground both in the ivory tower and in the business world. The most recent example of this, as introduced to me by Dr. Henry Jenkins of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, is the Enter the Matrix video game, which was released between the second and third Matrix movies. The idea was to tell a story set in the open area between films that was somewhat apocryphal – you didn't need it in order to understand the larger narrative, but if you played through the game you could enjoy a clearer picture of the larger mythological tapestry. This sort of technique is called transmedia storytelling because it extends a specific story across different types of media. This differs from the old-school approach of telling tales in different media (like the Masters of the Universe comic books and TV shows) because the video game chapter had a very specific place in the larger story's timeline. In the standard episodic approach enjoyed by things like Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, or even adult cross-media mythologies like Star Trek or Buffy The Vampire Slayer, a story arc that begins in one media usually stays in that media. Tales can be told in comic books that are hinted at in the TV show, but usually the primary media doesn't ever go back to acknowledge what's happening in the secondary media. That is, since Buffy The Vampire Slayer is primarily a TV show (ignoring its cinematic roots for the moment), the spinoff comic books will tell stories based on throwaway hooks and characters in the show, but the show will most likely never acknowledge any original stories that occur in the comic.

If you combined the story token aspect of action figures with true transmedia storytelling, and threw in a good dash of modern technology, you could create a genuinely cool form of collectible-driven narrative.

Modern Masters of the Universe figures come embedded with a chip in their feet which, when introduced to a receiver in the modern Castle Grayskull playset, causes the playset to "speak" in the character's voice. This is neat, but pretty rudimentary. Imagine if the playset itself came with a small screen or a hookup to a computer or television, and a small hard drive filled with episodes that were either preprogrammed into the machine or wirelessly downloaded into it from a remote server based upon which collectible figures were introduced into the set.

In this model, say you had a Castle Grayskull playset and a lone He-Man figure. If you touched the foot of the He-Man figure to the Castle Grayskull, the playset would acknowledge that the He-Man character had been added to the collection and, therefore, unlock the He-Man requirement for all stories that included He-Man. There would be a few stories with just He-Man, of course, so you could then choose from a TiVo-like interface which story you wanted to enjoy – "He-Man's Lone Journey of Self-Discovery", for example, or "He-Man's Discovery of an Ancient Scroll in the Castle Library Which Leads Him to Find the Sword". In short, stories that don't really require a second character.

(Note that these stories aren't the only stories created for the series – a TV show or comic books are also good ideas, but I'll get to that in a moment.)

If you then added a Skeletor figure, you could then unlock:

  • all the stories that require only Skeletor
  • all the stories that require only He-Man and Skeletor
  • the He-Man and Skeletor requirements for all the stories that require both He-Man and Skeletor and character X, Y or Z

In this fashion, the purchase of additional figures would unlock more and more of the larger narrative. Alone, this is a pretty cool gimmick that could drive the purchase of more figures (and warrant higher prices, since there's more enjoyment value, which could then help cover the cost of the additional content creation). Where this gets deeply cool, however, and adds even more drive to purchase additional pieces, is by closely hooking all of these stories together. The Spider-Man comics are infamous for including little editorial boxes at the bottom of panels which reference earlier stories, using notes that say "In Amazing Spider-Man number 322, true believers!", or something along those lines. By using hooks like that, which could appear at the bottom of the screen or at the end of each episode, you could instruct collectors which toys are necessary to unlock certain recipes, in order to enjoy the missing episodes of the narrative. This "recipe" approach could extend across media as well – one of He-Man's allies, Stratos, could show up at the beginning of an episode, and, when queried as to where he'd been, he could reply "Off hunting the Bird Monsters of Feathertron – oh, and by the way, King Beak was killed by Trap Jaw," which could then trigger the desired "What?" response in the viewer. An option would show up which could say, "To view the epic story, 'The Death of King Beak,' please plug the Stratos and Trap Jaw figures into your Castle Grayskull playset! To order these figures now, please go to"

Wham! Instant commerce.

Philosophy, Technology and Business

I've just given one example on how to use technology to further one half of the appeal of these characters. The next question becomes how to extend that notion to the other half. Of this, I'm not certain – how do you use technology in order to accommodate the use of philosophy tokens, not just smart tokens? If I set a President Bartlet action figure down on my desk, would it wirelessly speak to my system and hook me into a database of the political philosophies of Aaron Sorkin? Would that even be necessary, or beneficial? Is it, perhaps, a matter of choosing which philosophy tokens to place on your desk? If you had a box of small colored stones which represented the kinds of work you needed to do that day, would the digital environment then detect the RFID tags embedded in those stones and provide a work environment designed to accommodate that combination? Say, two blue stones and a green one would say that you needed to focus on finances today, but were also in a cool, mellow mood, and the system would bring to the front your financial statements and fiscal software, and cue up some sweet piano music in the background? Instead of stones, do you pick out certain action figures from your bookcase and bring them to your smart desk? So for the previous scenario you might have little effigies of Alan Greenspan and Norah Jones?

These are some fun examples, but it's obvious that by combining digital storytelling techniques like these, it's possible to catch a glimpse into – at the very least – how we might spark new stories the imaginations of the next generation. And this is only a start – as the technology becomes more affordable, it will be fascinating to see the new opportunities for digital narrative that emerge. I haven't even addressed the idea of real interactivity in this scenario. I've been reading this book called Hamlet on the Holodeck by MIT's Dr. Janet Murray, and it's obvious that real, true interactivity with these toys will be the key to the next level of play – although one could argue that's already built in. Just ask the kids sitting under the big pine tree, shouting "Pow pow pow!" at the tops of their lungs.

Time will tell. As with any good technology, the answer, I'm sure, is to just keep playing.