Roland Barthes’ 1950s’ treatise on semiotics, Mythologies, is a collection of essays in which the author explores the myths and symbols present in everyday objects, and expounds his thesis of how France’s bourgeois society of the time had manipulated these objects to impose its values on the rest of populace.
In one short but damning essay — simply entitled ‘Toys’ — Barthes writes about how French toys are designed as if “the child was, all told, nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size,” and how toys of the period “always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialised, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life.”
Toys here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness…
It’s a great essay, and all the more remarkable for having been written 50 years ago; the author’s disdain for the apparently lazy conditioning and entirely preternatural development of children seems thoroughly modern.
But I am writing about the essay neither to espouse some particular parenting technique, nor necessarily to agree with his rather one-sided position, but to highlight a couple of fantastic quotes that struck me as wise counsel for the game designer. Games are a form of play, and the notion of ‘play’ is universal, no matter how young or old you are.
The first quote comes as a warning:
However, faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator… there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy.
Surely the greatest failure of a game designer would be to create, as Barthes so eloquently puts it, “actions without adventure” — surely that would be the worst of all possible worlds! Now, admittedly, designing games to deliver not only adventure, but also a genuine sense of wonder and joy, is going to be a tall order, but that’s no reason not to try.
The second quote comes later in the essay, after Barthes opines that “The bourgeois status of toys can be recognised not only in their forms, which are all functional, but also in their substances.” What followed was, for me, an entirely unexpected, delightful and lyrical defence of one the things closest to the hearts of many gamers: wooden components.
Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now moulded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch. A sign which fills one with consternation is the gradual disappearance of wood, in spite of its being an ideal material because of its firmness and its softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal. When the child handles it and knocks it, it neither vibrates nor grates, it has a sound at once muffled and sharp. It is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor. Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. If it dies, it is in dwindling, not in swelling out like those mechanical toys which disappear behind the hernia of a broken spring. Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time.