You’re babysitting little Alice and Brian on a Friday night while their parents are out. After dinner the kids are getting a little too rambunctious for you so you tell them to “go play with your toys.” Alice pulls out her phone and begins texting her friends; Brian swipes the screen of his iPad in a game of Candy Crush Saga. You can almost see their souls retreating into the brightly lit screens of their $300 electronic devices and you ask yourself, “Was I like this at their age?”
But you already know the answer: you weren’t. You spent your childhood in an entirely different generation — in a different world, really — from kids like Alice and Brian, and it was one filled with dolls, arcades and Game Boy (if you were one of the lucky kids.) The toys and games were cheaper and simpler, but that’s exactly what we needed as kids.
Some of us were collectors. Girls built up an army of Barbies with well-stocked closets, and boys traded their Hot Wheels during lunchtime at school. Competing for the attention of doll-lovers everywhere was the line of Bratz dolls: the teenage dolls with big heads and skinny bodies that became so popular it almost put Mattel’s Barbie in danger. I was more of a Polly Pocket girl myself, but my parents weren’t: I’d often leave the pint-sized plastic dolls and the rubber clothing and accessories on the floor to be stepped on.
But there was no competition when it came to the real collector challenge: Beanie Babies. Made popular in 1993 by Ty Warner Inc., these bean-stuffed animals grew to include over 300 different animals, each with its own unique name, birthdate and poem printed on the iconic Ty tag on its ear. The fact that there were so many Beanie Babies being released — and even more being retired — made it appealing to child and adult collectors alike. There are two to three bins hoarding my Beanie Baby collection in my garage right now.
As our generation slowly warmed up to the idea of an electronic age, stores like Target began selling cheap games that at the time we thought were so technologically advanced. Remember Bop It? It was one of these cheap toys full of endless thrills. An audio command game with pulls, twists, flicks and spins, Bop It was the game that created rivalries between you and your friends for the top score.
For those of us who weren’t allowed to have pets, Tamagotchi was a good alternative for which our parents were more than happy to pay. The handheld “egg” computer on a keychain gave kids the opportunity to raise their own digital pet, requiring a lot of attention from the player in order to ensure successful growth. Tamagotchi was such a memorable childhood game that today, iPhone has created a Tamagotchi app for nostalgic users.
But no other toy has required as much time and effort as the borderline-horrifying Furby. Furby was this small, furry robot resembling something between a hamster and an owl that had motion sensors, blinked and talked. Furby was programmed as an intelligence system so it could learn more and more English words as it grew, but all I remember about owning one was how it would wake up and start talking in the middle of the night. I ended up hiding my Furby deep within the recesses of my closet, where I couldn’t see its haunting big eyes staring at me.
Remember how all the cool kids were the ones who owned computers? If your family didn’t have one, your heart would skip a beat at school when your teacher would announce a trip to the computer lab. As long as you had some time to play The Oregon Trail — the historical computer game designed to teach children about the harsh realities of pioneer life — nothing else could ruin your day. Except dysentery.
Disney was also a popular PC game developer, releasing games as soon as the movies would premiere in theaters. The Lion King and Toy Story were personal favorites of mine that went along with the popular side-scrolling platform concept of the time, having players jump, climb and dodge obstacles as Simba or Woody.
Mystery was always a popular computer game genre. A series of interactive computer games were created based on the popular child mysteries “Nancy Drew” and the “Hardy Boys.” Each game had a different theme that required the player to locate clues in an “I Spy” fashion to solve the crime. But my favorite mystery game was always “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”, which had players roam through different countries to try to capture the infamous villain in the red trench coat and hat. The witty game relied on puns and rhymes to hint at the next location, and it’s only now that I appreciate the humor.
It’s strange seeing kids today playing with anything that’s not Lite-Brite or Water Snake-related (what exactly was the purpose of those slippery toys, anyway?) because that’s all with which we associated our childhoods. Soon the kids of 2010 will be reminiscing like I am right now about their first toys, and all of our high-tech electronics today will seem so simple to the kids of the future. Everything seems simpler when you’re young.