When I was a kid, the latest techy toys included Tamagotchis, Furbies and the mighty Dream Phone, all of which were probably at the top of my Christmas list at some point. And the year my brother and I found a Nintendo 64 under the tree began a lifelong rivalry to be crowned the slightly less rubbish one at Mario Kart, a competition that still rumbles on to this day.
These toys were loved by a whole generation of kids, and at the time felt incredibly innovative and exciting. Our love for the toys of our youth is so strong that Netflix dedicated a whole series to it: The toys that made us. However, compared to the tech toy delights available to kids today, we might as well have been playing with a couple of old sticks that we found in the back garden!
What with Christmas looming, where toy brands pull out all the stops to get parents to part with their hard-earned cash, it seemed like a good time to take a look at what’s changed in toy land, and which classics have survived to fight another Christmas.
So, what’s new?
It was inevitable that things like augmented reality, apps and coding would eventually filter down from the adult world into the toys kids are playing with and this Christmas — and even classic toys like Lego are getting an innovation overhaul.
This year, kids can get their hands on the Lego Hidden Side, Paranormal Bus 3000, which combines a buildable Lego model with augmented reality for a fully interactive play experience. Accessed through a downloadable app, the addition of AR brings the adventure to life — and by mixing mediums, Lego has created a game-changing way for kids to interact and play with the humble building block.
For those wanting to give their tots a head start in the world of coding and STEM, toys like Coding Critter can teach kids simple coding using an interactive storybook to guide and teach at the same time. Easy to use, fun and educational, these toys are teaching the basics of what is likely to become a key skill in the future.
A new twist on an old favourite
Unsurprisingly, cute interactive toys are still hugely popular, but it’s fair to say that what’s on offer today is a tad more sophisticated than a tiny pixelated puppy. In truth you’d probably be better off asking what this new generation of interactive toys can’t do!
There are many to choose from, but this year the most popular is likely to be Cubby the Curious Bear. The animatronic bear cuddles, chats, moves his ears, nose and mouth and can switch to a night mode designed to help kids sleep — a feature I suspect will go down a treat with any sleep-deprived parents out there.
Then there’s the ‘Little Live Pets, Rainglow Unicorn Vets Kit’, which is pretty much exactly what the name suggests — an interactive rainbow unicorn that has to be nursed back to full health. And with over 40 reactions, sounds and facial expressions, including being able to listen to its heartbeat through a sparkly pink stethoscope, kids could spend weeks just trying to figure out everything it does.
Not just for the kids
For those of us that still like to gather at Christmas with friends and family, drink too much Baileys and get cross with one other while playing what started out as a friendly board game, we will find plenty of new tech twists here too.
Any one for Pictionary? Well forget having to do something as mundane as use a pen and paper, the new Pictionary Air Wand and App lets you draw in thin air, and then displays your artistic masterpiece on a device or TV screen. I mean, sure, there are advantages, like not having to have an A2 pad and marker pen to hand any time someone fancies a game, but where’s the charm?
Or how about Monopoly: Voice Banking? This cashless edition claims to keep dodgy banking to minimum with Mr Monopoly himself keeping tabs… Yeah that one doesn’t sound like much fun to me either.
Maybe we’ll just stop there!
But is it worth it?
In many situations, new innovations and technology is a brilliant thing. But have we gone too far when applying it to the games we and our children play? I think the honest answer is yes and no. Many of the kids’ toys that I looked at while researching this blog post genuinely look like a complete hoot and I’d be lying if I said I’m not a little sad that I’m unlikely to find a Boppi, The Booty Shakin Llama in my stocking anytime soon (yes it’s a real thing). The use of technology in these toys is fun and whimsical and often educational as well, and in many cases feels like a natural progression from many of the toys I played with as a child.
Where I have slightly more trouble getting on board is when game makers appear to have shoehorned a tech element into a game just because they could rather than thinking about if they should, especially when it seems to dull the fun… I’m looking at you Monopoly: Voice Banking Edition.
As always, consumers will vote with their debit cards and it will be interesting to see which brands get it right and which miss the mark.