Let's Play Shopping!

In the wake of Black Friday and its accompanying rampage, and as holiday shopping intrudes more and more on holiday celebrations, consumer habits appear more suited for war than games. Suddenly, earning your child's love depends on your ability to shove a stranger to the side in order to reach that last available discounted Barbie. Even the people who forgo shopping and remain at home in their post-Thanksgiving food coma can't stay out of the fray -- if they switch on the television, they are assaulted by a fresh barrage of toy commercials.

It is no longer enough to merely promote the company brand by selling oil mini delivery trucks with "Hess" plastered on its side. We are supposedly a more sophisticated audience -- you can't just train us to ask for a Kleenex, or push candy cigarettes towards us in packages that mimic Camels. At least since WWII and the rise of the modern consumer economy games themselves train the consumer on how to push and shove, find parking spaces in malls, bargain for the cheapest price and generally buy, buy, buy.

Each year, for example, the Hess Company releases a toy vehicle (ranging from motorcycles to helicopters to the more classic trucks) and advertises it with variations of the jingle, "The Hess truck's back and it's better than ever/ for Christmas this year/ the Hess truck's here." The modern rendition of the truck toy was first released in 1985 (though another Hess toy made it's debut as early as 1966). Logo-obvious toys like this have long histories on which today's toy culture continues to build.

Company names like Hess infiltrate our daily lives to such an extent that the company names often usurp the generic name of the object or service. (See: "I'll Google it." Or, "Hand me a Kleenex.") Board games reflect this process. For the aptly-named game Logo, winning -- or even playing -- requires the players to recognize different company logos. It is basically corporate charades -- placing explicit value on knowing the advertising symbols in the consumer landscape.

Perhaps ironically, the toys that parents are pushing each other out of the way to buy are themselves aimed to train the shopper in the fine art of mayhem and competition. In 1950, the game Park and Shop became a popular pastime by encouraging children to figure out the "best" way to find parking and shop at the shopping center. At a time when suburbanization was spreading across America, it showed people how to adapt to a changing environment. There was also the A&P game, Supermarket Sweep (a tie-in to a television game show of the same name), and more recently, Bratz Mall Crawl -- the list goes on and on. Even while excluding games like Monopoly and Life, which both make consumption the primary talent for a happy life, there are many games that simply try to glamorize the shopping experience. (For the more frugal shopper, Milton Bradley released the game Bargain Hunter in 1981.) In the eighties, as teen girls looked to the decade's pop stars who emphasized material glitz and glam like Madonna and Janet Jackson, games like Mall Madness declared shopping a dazzling hobby for the hipper, post-Park and Shop generation.


Advertisements have changed, becoming practically ubiquitous and often more insidious. Even the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, portrays play as an activity explicitly linked with mass-produced, store-bought toys. Almost every toy featured in the Strong Museum's Toy Hall of Fame is produced and sold by a company. In fact, there is a "Wegmans Super Kids Market" inside the building, amidst the other attractions, where kids can run the store and be in charge at the check out counter. But of course, children can -- and frequently do -- play with household items, or just a vivid imagination. But at the Strong National Museum, there is no room for the stick and ball or piece of chalk that have entertained children since long before World War II.

The contrast between these portrayals of shopping as a game and shopping as a violent, swarming, competitive, stressful, and potentially bankrupting consumer event is growing starker each year. Maybe that is why it is so important that companies train us from a young age to navigate and 'enjoy' the consumer life by making it a game -- something you can practice and learn to win.