2009-01-24

Lego Batman: Toys vs. Games

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood recently released their nominations for the 2009 TOADY award for Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young children. Kotaku.com, an excellent video game news site, pointed out that LEGO Batman: The Videogame is among this year's contenders for the TOADY award.

I agree with the CCFC's general intent, and the other four nominees seem entirely appropriate for this award. However, I think CCFC has missed the mark in a fundamental way, when nominating LEGO Batman for this "award."

The problem is, LEGO Batman: The Videogame isn't a toy. It's a game.

Good toys provide a platform which inspires play, without limiting a child's freedom. A good game provides a strict framework which restricts allowable actions, while providing goals which must be accomplished while following those restrictions. Both toys and games are valuable tools for learning and playing, but they are valuable in different ways, and for different reasons.

Saying that LEGO Batman is an oppressive version of a LEGO building kit is like saying Go (the board game) is an oppressive bowl of rocks. While true, it completely misses the point: a game is a game as opposed to a toy exactly because it has rules and structure that good toys lack.

I will admit that the branding and marketing of LEGO Batman is somewhat heavy-handed compared to the average hand-carved wooden toy car. But unlike almost all other video games launched along with a movie, the LEGO video games are not primarily cobranded "shovelware." The marketing may not be ideal, but the games themselves can easily stand on their own merits even in the absence of the movies they were launched with. LEGO Star Wars is a far better game than the abysmal Star Wars movie it was originally launched with.

All of the LEGO video games (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Batman) share some very positive qualities that are hard to find in other video games marketed for children:
  • Cooperation: Multiplayer Lego games are cooperative, not competetive. Players must cooperate to make progress in the game. Cooperation, compromise, and civil conversation between children, or even between a parent and child, can be difficult, and games are a good place to practice these skills.
  • Creative problem solving: These are primarily physical puzzle games, not fighting games. Some of the puzzles are quite difficult to solve, and repeat play provides useful practice with remembering and executing a multi-step process.
  • Exploration: These games have fairly large worlds to explore, and many hidden surprises to find.
  • Money management: In the Lego games, you collect "Studs" which you can use to buy additional characters or other gameplay elements. This progressive mechanic teaches that you can't have everything for free right now, but that you must "work" for it. Using money instead of a typical simpler "unlocking" mechanic forces kids to choose between alternate rewards, when using their limited resources.
It is unfortunate that an excellent game like Lego Batman has to suffer the wrath of proxy parenting groups, when even within the realm of video games, there are much more worthy candidates for the TOADY. Lego Batman seems to be singled out for defiling the long-beloved LEGO name. Instead, I am glad that products with the LEGO name on them still have high quality in comparison to their direct peers.

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