“A Toy Semiotics,” Revisited


Presentation scheduled for International Toy Research Association, July 23-25, 2014


In 1984, Brian Sutton-Smith published “A Toy Semiotics” in Children’s Environments Quarterly, making this claim (p. 19):

Play as a kind of assimilation has the potentiality to retreat increasingly from its original objects of reference.  The toy itself which signals the first such departure, then makes possible a series of increasingly remote responses depending on the resident fantasies within the players’ experience.

I revisit this claim in light of the explosive growth, since 1984, of games and game industries and the relatively (and somewhat curiously) lesser impact of digital media on toys and toy industries.  I examine the different impact of digital media on toys and games and attribute that difference to the different semiotic properties of the toy and the game:  the game conventionally enables and evokes rule-based meanings; the toy does not.  The unique semiotic properties and potentials of the game in comparison to the toy give games a particular affinity with digital media.

slides [pdf]