x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Real-life toys

Children's toys today are too much like adult miniatures.

There's no doubt play has become serious business. In 2008 the world's toy industry made $78 billion (Dh286bn) from the gizmos, trinkets and games it churned out from its production lines. Ten countries accounted for 65 per cent of the sales, with the US, Japan and China at the top of the list. The report from which these figures are taken - Global Toy Trends and Forecasts 2009 by a market research company called The NPD Group - predicts global toy sales will surpass $80bn by 2012.

Traipsing the aisles of Toys R Us in Abu Dhabi's Meena Port, weaving between trolleys brimful with boxes, avoiding children clutching Lego fire engines, Star Wars lightsabers, Pillow Pets and Toy Story figures, it's clear business is booming. But to say this place is an emporium of merriment and jollity, purportedly trading in some of the finest child-charming wares known to humanity, there are not many happy kids in sight.

Most of them are stomping around in front of the check-outs, clinging to some kind of brightly coloured box as wide as their arm span, yelling and screaming, pursued by parents or nannies (or in some cases both), who are also yelling and screaming. The gist of the adult exhortations is "no": no you can't have it because you already have 12 of them; no you can't have it because I've already spent lots of money on a raft of other toys; no you can't have it because the noise that toy makes will drive me mad. All in all, this place is a palace of seething negativity.

I found myself in this realm in a quest for a toy kitchen. I was actually buying paint from the adjoining shop, when Astrid followed another little girl through the unguarded portal in to this dastardly zone. A toy kitchen seemed like a fine idea - better at least than many of the other wares on offer - because Astrid has started spending a lot of time playing in our kitchen.

At home she pushes her chair around to the various workspaces and stands on it to reach different appliances. She can reach the tap and splashes around in the sink trying to do the washing up. She can reach the cutlery drawer and particularly enjoys bashing the worktop with the whisk and the wooden spoon. At one point, in a curious and disturbing nod to the 1980s film Gremlins, she tried to cook her doll in the microwave. All in all, a toy kitchen seemed like a good idea.

Wandering past row upon row of plastic-filled boxes, trudging through this wild, battery-hungry parade, the thing that struck me most is how lifelike these toys have become. This verisimilitude is not limited to appearance.

These playthings seem to perform actions close to the real thing. Baby dolls with motion sensors that snore, belch, yawn and cry. Remote-control helicopters and petrol-engined dune buggies with disturbingly high top speeds. Plastic kitchens available in a range of styles - deluxe, retro, country, etc - and replete with all manner of appliances and accessories - microwaves, dishwashers, pans and plates.

Perhaps I am overreacting, but I feel this burgeoning realism in toys threatens to stamp on play as fiction, commodifying it and limiting it, fencing it in to the dominions of the possible. The vital childhood business of imagining is being turned into just business. Even the experience of buying the toy kitchen apes the adult one: from the stress and the anxiety of choosing the right one to the shock at the exorbitant price tag, toys no longer seem to be toys, rather adult goods in miniature.