Certainly Uncertain - June 1, 2018
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Toying with Gender: Doll Studies Amidst the Internet of Toys

By Krithika Sathyamurthy

Toys are artifacts that encourage children’s expression, fantasy, interest, exploration, education, cognitive development, and gender-role learning (Kursat, Nuri et al., 2013). Since the existence of toys, many of us throughout childhood have dreamt of the ability to speak to our toys or somehow wish them into existence. According to the NY Times contributing writer, James Vlahos (2015), toys can fulfill this timeless dream with the help of Artificial Intelligence or A.I. Advances in A.I. and speech recognition are transforming toys and complexifying the toy market landscape (Vlahos, 2015). The modern toy industry includes establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing dolls, toys, and games (Hung, Iqbal, Huang, Melaisi, & Pang, 2016). As smart toys become more prevalent in the emerging market, they could play a significant role in redefining and expanding an understanding of what constitutes a doll.

Smart toys today can draw upon the insights of child’s play to generate intelligent responses to dialogue and queries.

Smart toys for young children have reached a sophisticated level of development that utilizes the latest technological advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics (Vlahos 2015). A smart toy is defined as a device with a physical toy component that connects to a Cloud computing system, augmenting its functionality through networking and sensory technologies (Hung et al., 2016). Hung et al. (2016) establishes that a smart toy, in this context, can be effectively considered an Internet of Thing with AI and can provide Augmented Reality experiences to users. These toys often use complex sensory technologies to garner information from children and then process this information through cloud-based platforms, which results in real-time interactions (Mascheroni and Holloway, 2017). In other words, smart toys today can draw upon the insights of child’s play to generate intelligent responses to dialogue and queries (Vlahos, 2016). These responses could, in many ways, guide and mold a child’s understanding of their identity at a subconscious level.

Vlahos (2015) describes how, in the 20th century, toy makers boasted products like Dolly Rekord, who spoke nursery rhymes to children in the 1920s, and Chatty Cathy, Mattel’s 1959 release whose eleven phrases included “I love you”. The Chatty Cathy doll primarily requested care from her owner (Hilu, 2016). When technology gave dolls the ability to speak, it contributed to the expected criteria of girls giving care in doll play (Hilu, 2016). In 1958, Barbie gained her voice through a pull string that triggered eight phrases. More recently, a study by Hilu (2016) explains that the toy industry began to incorporate microchips into talking dolls in the 1980’s. As a consequence of this innovation, Mattel released microchip enabled Teen Talk Barbie in 1992, whose programmed phrases included “Math class is tough”, which upset many people (Vlahos, 2015). When commenting on this controversy, Vlahos (2015) refers to May Halim, an assistant professor of psychology who studies gender identity. Halim notes that giving a voice to Barbie only increases her potential impact, and Barbie’s messages could ultimately influence how kids define being a girl.

Gender forcefully defines everyday behavior, especially in its use in marketing, which further entices us to buy into gender constructs.

Gender forcefully defines everyday behavior, especially in its use in marketing, which further entices us to buy into gender constructs. Gendered toys are assumably the most well-known and visually comprehensible examples of segmentation in society (Mascheroni and Holloway, 2017). A visit to any local toy store glaringly reveals the “pinkification” of store sections and the toy industry at large. Smart toys, however, bring a new dimension to how the industry employs segmentation (Mascheroni and Holloway, 2017). Studies have extensively researched definitive identifiers like colors, packaging, logo, etc., in traditional toys that support gender stereotypes (Mascheroni and Holloway, 2017). Still, there is little research on how the reinforcement of gender norms in smart toys pattern child-toy interactions.

Hilu’s (2016) work is idiosyncratic amidst a sea of research that discusses visual examples of gender segmentation in traditional toys. The study, instead, examines how doll play has been historically constructed and explores how microchips and microprocessors only reinforced and redirected existing girlhood practices. Hilu states, “Computer talking dolls exhibit tension between positioning girls as productive and technologically equipped, on the one hand, and conforming to a nurturing femininity believed to be natural to girlhood, on the other” (2016). Mascheroni and Holloway (2017) display to a similar sentiment when describing the Hatchimal toy. They characterize a Hatchimal as a technological or “interactive puppy” that requires care (Mascheroni and Holloway, 2017). The hatchimal facilitates gender differences by tying ideas of girlhood and motherhood to nurturing. Both these studies consider how behavior or phrases spoken in interactive dolls consist primarily of requests for care and expressions of affection.

Talking dolls could shape voice itself as they mediate the boundary between meaningful sound and meaningless noise in the exercise of voice control.

Even though Hilu’s study does not specifically talk about smart toys, the paper explains how voice control plays a significant role in talking doll technologies. Hilu (2016) claims that, in the case of talking dolls, the technological mediation of girlhood is achieved through the disciplining of the voice. This disciplining, she says, is a toy’s way of managing girls’ speech and the sounds of their voices. Furthermore, she argues that talking dolls could shape voice itself as they mediate the boundary between meaningful sound and meaningless noise in the exercise of voice control. I have noticed that many children, especially in early childhood, use noises or onomatopoeic words as form of communication. With limited scripts, Hilu points at how talking dolls could encourage girls to think of their voices as a means of activating a corresponding response from the doll, rather than treating voice as a medium for expression.

Even amidst the advances in smart toys, there are still recurring gendered functionalities that remain largely unchanged (Mascheroni & Holloway, 2017). Two examples of explicitly gendered smart toys in today’s toy market include Mattel’s Hello Barbie and Genesis Toys’ My Friend Cayla. Hello Barbie was introduced as “the first fashion doll that can have a two-way conversation with girls” including speech recognition and cloud computing technologies (Hung et al., 2016). Hello Barbie also has a complex script, with 8,000 lines of dialogue (Smiley, 2016). Vlahos (2015) visited Mattel’s campus and observed their child-testing specialist introduce a Hello Barbie prototype to a little girl around the age of seven. Vlahos considered Barbie’s ability to remember answers and use them for conversation topics days or weeks later as one the toys most “unnerving powers.” Hello Barbie has since sparked a lot of controversy over privacy concerns (Smiley, 2016). As a result, extensive research has been pursued on the privacy and security flaws of this doll. There is little research, however, on how the conversational interface of Hello Barbie—such as the scripted lines—could be problematic in girls’ play.

Other studies have included research in how child-robot interaction could shape the way children think and understand. Vlahos (2015) refers to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who wrote the pioneering book The Child’s Conception of the World, in which he asks, “Does the child attribute consciousness to the objects which surround him, and in what measure?” Smart toys can blur a child’s understanding of something alive and not-alive, animate and inanimate, human-operated and autonomous (Spektor-Precel and Mioduser, 2015). Druga, Williams, & Resnick (2017) echo these thoughts by referencing the research of Sherry Turkle, who wrote the highly influential 1984 book The Second Self. Turkle (1991) argued that computers, as objects that exist somewhere between the animate and the inanimate, prompt people to reexamine their own minds. These studies implicate that a child’s understanding of whether or not a toy is real could play a role in how much children trust and believe a toy’s response.

By asking uncertainty to sit at our table, we, as designers further question the role objects and systems play in our everyday life.

While literature concerning children’s understanding of traditional toys is vast, little is known about children’s perception of smart toys and how these interactions could impact an understanding of gender in early childhood development. More specifically, there are still gaps in how conversational and gestural interfaces in a smart toy affect an understanding of gender in early childhood development. We can use design as a lens to illuminate the social implications of gender construction in smart toys. Design is also a powerful tool that can help transform our uncertainty about future child-toy interactions into tangible challenges that we can overcome. By asking uncertainty to sit at our table, we, as designers further question the role objects and systems play in our everyday life. Embracing uncertainty offers a different perspective to gender-biased thinking in interface design practices. By developing a critical sensibility in our designs, we will move beyond these traditional applications and, instead, shape our desired future in child-toy interactions.

Krithika Sathyamurthy is a Master of Graphic Design Candidate at North Carolina State University. Her areas of interest in design primarily include co-creative and critical models of research and making. These approaches are rooted in welcoming and empowering user involvement and engaging designers as community builders.


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