There may be no better illustration of the eversion of the network we’re all living through right now than a kids’ game (and the best-selling videogame of the past year): Activision’s Skylanders. Collectible toys, plastic cartoony action figures, “come to life” inside the game when you place them on the Portal of Power, a small round glowing platform.
The action figure glows, the portal glows, and the character beams into the game moving and talking and fully playable, ready to go. You swap out the toy on the portal for another, and it appears. It’s a neat trick, but when you look a little deeper into the development of the game and get over the stigma attached to toys, there’s a lot more going on. As Roland Barthes said 55 years ago (though he was talking specifically about French toys): “toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life . . . ” (Mythologies, 53).
Barthes would have hated Skylanders, I imagine, since he railed against the “bourgeois” significance of plastics, “graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature” (54). The game’s action figures are the direct result of the spread of 3D printing and the resultant ability of a small shop to design objects in software that are then turned into physical objects. Barthes ends his brief essay sounding like a grumpy old man, with a nostalgic panegyric to wooden toys. Modern plastic toys, he says, “die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child” (55).
Skylanders might stand as a refutation of this conclusion, since the game can be read semiotically as an exploration of the imaginative life of objects in transit between physical and digital worlds (and back again). As the backstory motto goes, “frozen on the outside, alive on the inside!” The action figures are meant to be imagined as in suspended animation, their vitality stored as data on RFID chips to be brought to life in the digital game world. Every time someone puts a little plastic statue on the glowing portal and it appears, animated, inside the game, the process recapitulates in reverse the way that very figure’s prototype, at least, was produced: from drawings on paper and in a computer to a physical object hot off the printer. Besides the 3D printer–which is a kind of portal of power for everting digital objects–Skylanders development depended on various wireless and hardwired communication channels, RFID and USB, for example (the Portal platform conceals a circular copper wire that serves as a radio antenna). It was inspired by and prototyped using Nintendo’s WiiMote, which had already begun to imagine the game system as a network of devices, and to configure physical space as a place for hybrid digital and physical gaming. The developers at Toys for Bob are clearly part of the Maker subculture. They used Adafruit’s easy-to-program, small Arduino boards and LEDs to prototype the Portal of Power. Like the Wii, Skylanders imagines itself as a distributed system in physical space–a constellation of small portable processors and sensors–that mirrors the inversion of the network as a whole. But Skylanders is more far-flung than the Wii, cross-platform in significant ways, making the game feel to players like it’s happening out in the world, rather than being trapped in DVD or on a console or on the screen. Each action figure carries its updated stats with it, so that it can be taken across town and brought to life in a friend’s game, for example, or can travel from the Xbox or Wii or PC to the handheld 3DS to an online gameworld (Skylanders Universe) accessible from any computer.
If, as Barthes said, toys “prefigure the world of adult functions” (53), then the semiotics of Skylanders suggests a world in which the normal relationship to the network and its data takes the form of repeated easy transit back and forth across a porous boundary between the physical and the digital in mixed-reality spaces.