Business vs. Pleasure

When I saw commercials for the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System as a kid, I always wondered why they had a “Nintendo Seal of Quality.” It seemed to be on every game, including the really terrible ones, so I wondered what the point was. It wasn’t until very recently, while doing some background reading on the gaming industry, that I learned about the now-infamous video game crash of 1983 that came about in part from a flood of really bad games made by third-party developers. Nintendo didn’t really do much to test for quality, but the seal was at least a reassurance that the game had been licensed by Nintendo.

These kinds of things don’t really occur to kids, I think, when they play with toys and games. The business intent of children’s entertainment is largely invisible to children themselves, and this is a huge concern among many of my colleagues in media studies. Some find it distressing that children of a certain age seem psychologically incapable of recognizing the persuasive intent of commercials. Several studies I’ve read have noted with concern that even when older children recognize persuasive intent in a commercial, that generally isn’t enough to reduce how much they want an advertised product. Some writing on children’s advertising even refers to cartoons with merchandising tie-ins (or merchandise with cartoon tie-ins) as “program-length commercials.” To many researchers, the Transformers represents a product rather than a story, a cast of characters, or a fictional world.

I have to imagine that some bright kids have an idea (or are actively reminded by their parents) that their favorite characters and pastimes are generated by companies who want their money. I remember a vague awareness of this, but it never really mattered to me as a kid. Some of my favorite toys were things created from licensed properties, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers action figures. Many other favorites included broken toys or things used for completely unexpected purposes, such as a generic superhero figure that had lost a small visor piece and an entire leg (I pretended that the other leg was like the tail of a comet, and that he flew everywhere), a plastic hammer (which looked sort of like an orange dog head if you squinted and held it properly), a really neat stick I found in the yard (frequently used for swordfighting), a plastic Pac-man figurine with legs and arms, perpetually fixed in a smile and wave (I made him high-five other figurines a lot), and a headless, bendable, Bullwinkle figurine (because what adventure doesn’t call for a headless moose?). To a large extent, it didn’t really matter to me what business people wanted me to get out of the toys they manufactured. Some things inspired me to create my own little adventures around the house; some did not.

As I believe I’ve noted on this blog before, cultural studies scholars have at times been interested in the idea that audiences have some degree of control over the media they consume, making the stories their own. The pinnacle of this in the eyes of many is fan fiction. The thing about fan fiction, though, is that it still follows the rules to a certain extent; fan fiction exists in the context of the fan fiction community, and is produced in a limited range of formats (particularly online). I wonder if a more true kind of “textual poaching” occurs when kids just start picking up licensed action figures, broken bendy figures, and sticks from the yard to make up their own stories. This kind of creative play is far more interactive and open-ended than any video game, but it lacks the system imposed by an outside force that you get when you play with things designed by others. I guess that’s a trade-off, to some extent, and a gap potentially bridged by the much-maligned, stereotypically nerdy pursuit of role-playing games. What other sort of game would allow you to do whatever you please with a cast of copyrighted characters from any number of companies, while still providing enough of a system that you don’t feel like it’s a senseless child’s game of “let’s play pretend”? I suppose it should be no surprise, on reflection, that I got into role-playing games for several years immediately following the abandonment of action figures. (How old was I when I quit playing with toys? Let’s just say that I actively quit in part because I was afraid I’d never get a date if I didn’t quit.)

Aside from the amount of free time at my disposal, I suppose the real difference between my entertainment consumption habits now and those of my youth is that I know what I’m getting myself into before I delve into something. If I’d stumbled upon a game made without the Nintendo Seal of Quality as a kid, I probably wouldn’t have known the difference. Now, I’m very interested in the business of toys, games, and entertainment, mostly from a scholarly/professional/intellectual standpoint. While a background knowledge of the business side of things doesn’t seem to get in the way of my evaluation of entertainment, I might check something out in the first place specifically because it exists outside the norm. And maybe that’s part of how I embarked down the dark path of dice and dragon-slaying; it offered a different kind of entertainment experience, for better or for worse. How often do you encounter something today that you can say that about? (I’d be willing to wager that’s how games like The Sims and Nintendogs took off as surprise hits, while most of the gaming industry’s efforts seem focused on producing more of the same.) For those of us who can’t afford to invest the time or money needed to keep up on the new frontier of digital entertainment, though, maybe there’s a certain hipness and allure to playing stuff that never got the Nintendo Seal of Quality, the Comics Code Seal of Approval, or the modern-day equivalent among other publishers. Until it becomes cool to stage battles between Ninja Turtles at my table in Starbucks, I’ll be keeping my eyes open for something truly original.

Something about not being able to get a date… insert video footage

To be fair, it was a long time ago when Jason and I made that. Like last year or something.

So I’m pretty sure that I had that orange hammer as well.