This spring I’ve spent a fair amount of time playing two of last year’s most anticipated new games: Disney Infinity and SWAP Force, the latest iteration of the Skylanders franchise. I look at these two games as part of my broader interest in how contemporary toys bridge physical and digital play experiences. Both games operate on a similar premise: users connect a USB peripheral, a “portal” or “base,” to the console and collect plastic character figures (sold separately and in various combinations). When placed on the base, each figure appears as an avatar in the game. Figures store game progress and data, and each has unique capabilities and attributes. SWAP Force adds an additional layer of interactivity: each figure is split at the waist (held together by magnets) so players can easily swap them out to make new characters with combined features (for example, combining a character with an “Earth” element with one that has a “water” element gives the player the advantages of both).
Both games are targeted toward 6-to-12 year olds, which was apparent when, last fall, I waited in line at GameStop at midnight to take advantage of Black Friday sales. I jockeyed for position with more serious gamers awaiting the release of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. When the doors opened, I was among the only customers browsing displays dedicated to Infinity and Swap Force while the teens and adults gravitated toward the new, big-ticket items. Gaha Bala, President of Skylanders developer Vicarious Visions, points out the challenges of creating a game that appeals to such a broad age range. The physical toys are especially important to younger players, offering an easy “opt in” with a familiar interface and mode of interaction. One of my larger questions concerns how much kids play with these toys apart from the game; mixing physical and digital toys seems to be a logical way to address the social and developmental breadth of the 6-to-12 demographic.
Although SWAP Force and Infinity purport gender-neutral appeal, both may lean slightly toward boys. Of the first 17 Infinity figures released, only 3 were female characters, an imbalance remedied with subsequent releases of figures like Vanellope Von Schweetz from Wreck-It Ralph, the two female leads in Frozen, and Rapunzel. Activision’s Josh Taub stresses SWAP Force’s appeal to both boys and girls between 6 and 12, though admits that research suggests more boys prefer the game.
As both games attempt to garner wide appeal from boys and girls, they similarly celebrate open-ended play. SWAP Force’s story mode initiates the player on a narrative journey, but the game offers multiple pathways (accessible with specific additional figure combinations) and in Infinity’s “play set” mode, players are guided through a series of missions set within a single story world (for example Toy Story in Space). Infinity’s hallmark feature is its expansive “Toy Box” mode, in which players construct levels with pre-made pieces ranging from blocks of terrain and props to set pieces like castles or the Cave of Wonders from Aladdin. I’ll admit that the Toy Box mode was initially overwhelming. Players start with a blank slate: a block of grass-green terrain set against a vibrant blue sky, and can build and transform that template into virtually anything. The radical possibility of Toy Box mode is that players can combine characters from across Disney properties: Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean can now interact with Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story and the player can design adventures that take them through settings themed after any number of other Disney movies.
This nonlinearity and open-endedness is, of course, connected to each game’s expansive product line. One writer refers to SWAP Force as “a collector’s nightmare”: the 16 unique figures make 256 character combinations possible. The number of Disney Infinity figures continues to expand, as Wired Magazine reports, with particular figures exclusive to certain retailers, others only available in bundles, and figure variants, such as the “Crystal” Series only available at Toys R Us, featuring characters cast in translucent plastic. After playing SWAP Force for only a short time, I encountered areas only unlocked by figures that don’t come in the “starter pack,” integrating the need for more into the game like a tutorial. Infinity players unlock additional building elements for the Toy Box mode through game play, but here too, each new figure also makes possible different combinations and arrangements of elements.
Seasoned gamers may be frustrated by Infinity’s Toy Box level building interface, but given the platform’s younger target audience, the Toy Box is a productive entry point, enabling players to construct and share levels built from the fabric of their favorite franchises. Featured user-created Toy Boxes are available for download and play on the Infinity website, and individual players can also share their created levels with friends. PC and iPad versions of the game extend this universe even further. Building Toy Box levels further introduces kids to basic problem-solving skills, as they design obstacles and challenges and can finesse how easy or hard it is to obtain objectives. The physical toys allow for an immediate kind of interaction—particularly for younger kids—and as players begin to try out different characters in the game through this tactile input, they also become accustomed to these games’ expansive worlds
Meredith A. Bak is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Franklin & Marshall College and an incoming (Fall 2014) Assistant Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research interests include media archaeology and the intersection of “old” and “new” media, particularly in relation to children’s media and material culture. Her current project focuses on how pre-cinematic visual media like early pop-up books and optical illusion toys helped cultivate children as media spectators near the turn of the twentieth century. A second project on augmented reality toys in development. Before completing her PhD, Meredith worked in museum education at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, and as a teaching artist in public schools for the Urban Arts Partnership, instructing in the areas of animation, video production, and game design.