The Futurist: Technology and Toys — Sometimes Low-Tech is High-Fun

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Back when our country was new, kids were given big wooden wheels and rolling sticks and expected to have a good time. More than likely, our little Ezekiels and Wilberforces probably had a ball rolling those wheels down the grassy hills. Of course, it goes without saying that if you gave a Wii-addicted kid such simple pleasures and they’d wonder where the USB hook-up was. Toys have come a long way over the years, and it’s easy to say that kids (and I suppose adults as well) don’t have the time or attention span for simple toys in days when you can get

So what fate lies ahead for the old games that you may (or may not have) grown up with? This week, The Futurist looks at a couple of categories of toys and sees ways modern technology has tried to dip its ugly head, and whether this tech infusion has made the toys more fun, or merely added a few batteries to the boredom.

BOARD GAMES

You may have played Scene It. By adding a flashy DVD to the mix that plays on-screen trivia questions, this board game series tries to ease hyperactive youngsters into the pleasures of board-gaming. Unfortunately, these games absolutely suck. The DVDs are repetitive, unsubstantial, and worst of all — they’re boring. But the problem with Scene It goes beyond crappy content. Rather, the entire concept is flawed. Board games tap into a unique part of our brain. It’s a part that is turns on during power outages, at summer camp, and when it’s really rainy outside. When you play a board game, you joke around, you interact with your fellow players, and you bond. When you throw a trivia DVD on the TV, you turn into a zombie waiting for the questions to pop up. It may be a stretch to say that DVDs are completely incompatible with board games, but I’m going to say that DVDs are completely incompatible with board games.

Interestingly, the best new board game in recent years (if you count the late-90s as recent) is also one that plays like a virtual Greatest Hits of classic board games: Cranium. No DVDs, no annoying sound effects, just trivia, clay, miming, drawing, imitating and humming. The best board games are the ones that require us to delve into the deep recesses of our, well, craniums, and pull up creativity we didn’t know we had. With DVDs and fancy special effect-laden games, this is made more difficult.

Another family favorite: Carcassonne. This mixes Civilization with Sim City with enough strategy and medieval hotness to keep the entire family busy for hours.

REMOTE CONTROL VEHICLES

R/C toys are one area that modern tech has absolutely improved by leaps and bounds. When I was growing up, a decent R/C car cost $300, took several weekends to build, and could easily cause permanent brain damage from sniffing too much model glue. These days, you can get insanely cool cars, planes, and boats for far cheaper — and they are usually ready to rumble right out of the box. Take the Wowee Flytech Dragonfly. Anybody can rip open the box, stuff in some batteries, and get this thing flying almost instantly.

And that’s not to mention the gravity-defying wall-climbing (and likely paint-scuffing) Air Hogs Zero Gravity R/C Wall Crawler. I first saw this thing at the Toy Fair trade show about a year ago, and I was absolutely blown away. Check out the video — when you run this thing into a wall, instead of crashing, it just climbs right up it, Spider-Man-style.

WATER GUNS

One word: Oozinator. We were better off in the days of simple squirt guns, even if they looked real enough to confuse the cops and get a few kids hurt.


Seth Porges writes on future technology and its role in personal electronics for his column, The Futurist. It appears every Thursday and an archive of past columns is available here.

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