Living in a Playmobil World
When I was 10, I had my sights set on being a doctor. It was an important part of my identity – I clung to it with a certainty I haven’t been able to find since. I watched surgeries on TLC (back when it actually was The Learning Channel), I (lazily) studied human anatomy and I got a hospital-themed Playmobil set for Christmas.
The Playmobil set was an operating room, complete with an IV drip, surgical light, electrocardiogram – it even had little bottles of iodine. But when I opened the box to assemble the set, I realized that all the doctors were men and all the nurses were women. I was totally outraged and began swapping outfits and hairstyles for the sake of gender equity.
My protest wasn’t aspirational – it was the 90s and female doctors were plentiful (even if the male-female distribution still favoured men). For a toy that’s meant to be representative of everyday life, it was an odd and outdated faux pas.
Playmobil was developed in the 1970s as a response to the global oil shortage. Toy manufacturers needed a way to cut down on the plastic they used, so the German company Brandstatter came up with a simple solution: make the toys smaller. And so, in 1974, the iconic 3-inch Playmobil man was born. With a helmet of hair, no nose and a slight grin, the generic figure was designed to be neutral so that kids could place themselves into the imaginary world more fully.
Designer Hans Beck also wanted to change the way that children played. In a 2012 exhibit on the history of Playmobil, the Swiss Design Museum credited Beck with expanding new play possibilities beyond the adversarial sports and war-based games. Instead of soldiers, cowboys and football players, kids could insert themselves into narratives rooted in the everyday.
But, the design of toys that reflect domestic and civic life is hardly revolutionary. For decades, girls have been playing with toys that teach domestic skills – toys designed to train young women rather than encourage the wandering or expansion of their imagination. Women have always played their way into adulthood, learning their roles long before they were asked to fill them. Perhaps what was revolutionary about the introduction of Playmobil was that it was the first time boys were called home from their violent adventures and asked to participate in productive and instructive play. The fact that female figures weren’t introduced until 2-years after the first figurine was launched clearly shows that Playmobil was a world originally made for boys (Brandstatter even created a horse for the Playmobil world before introducing a female figurine).
Low Stakes Fun
The very first Playmobile sets were divided into three themes: construction workers, Native Americans and knights. Today, the Playmobile world has expanded considerably. There are pirates, polar explorers, skate borders and lifeguards. There are sets that depict moments in human history ranging from our origins all the way to a futuristic depiction of life on a new planet. There are camper vans, planes, alpine lodges and sailboats. Some sets even depict famous paintings – popular inventory for museum gift shops.
But this expansive world still isn’t exciting enough for Tom Morton, who writes about the banality of the Playmobil world in is 2002 article Plastic World. In describing the Playmobil scenes, Morton says that, “the plastic population embodies a pan-European ideal of productive employment and clean-nosed fun.” It’s a toy built more for adults, with its clean, Bauhaus-like aesthetic and references that go right above most children’s heads.
Morton suggest that Playmobil designers can't help but project their, “bourgeois idealism on to the intricate nastiness of the past.” But Morton’s concern over the white-washing of past atrocities and uncomfortable realities seems less a desire for truthful representation and more like the whines of spoiled child who doesn’t understand why it’s not okay to play “Cowboys and Indians” anymore. “Playmobil isn't about the dark futurology of a wind-up Dalek or the limitless possibilities of Lego; it's about the plastic preservation of the status quo.” It seems like for Morton, Playmobil is a little too PC.
The Seedy Underbelly of the Playmobil World
While I agree that the Playmobil world reflects the worldview of prosperous white folk, I disagree that the scenarios depicted have no edge. The seedy underbelly, the darkness that Morton so longs for is there. Among the bright colours and mild-mannered faces is an absence of people of colour, the perpetuation of tired stereotypes and a tone-deaf, whimsical depiction of serious issues.
The Playmobil missteps range from the mildly disturbing to the downright racist. There’s the Policeman and Tramp kit, which no doubt teaches kids that homeless people are both clowns to be laughed at and criminals to be punished. There’s the pirate ship with a slave character that references a searingly painful and violent truth. And there’s the problematic depiction of people of colour, when they are included in the Playmobil world at all.
Take the Native American family. The African American and Asian families exist in present day, wearing modern clothes. But the Native American family wears traditional, pan-Indigenous clothing and live in a tipi. Indigenous people have been fighting against the historicization of their culture for years, and this depiction is incredibly problematic.
Tiny, Specific Details
Some would argue that the Playmobil world is a blunt instrument for replicating modern life – that it can’t capture the nuances of our complex political and socio-economic worlds. “The figurines inhabit a generalized town, rendered in durable plastic primaries, that favours clarity of design over the intricate detail of the real world,” says Morton. But I disagree. The simplest of forms can indicate with alarming specificity. The principles of Gestalt Design prove this quite well.
“I’ve always loved the tiny, specific details of that bakery scenario,” explains Jason Wilson in his New Yorker article, The Playmobil Conundrum. “Not just bread, but several specific varieties, including miniature rye, wheat, sourdough, and baguettes; Not just pastries, but a bundt cake, croissants, cinnamon buns, and a sheet of berry tarts; Not just a bakery, but a primary-colored, minimalist Bäckerei, with big sunny windows and workers with white coats and little white ‘paper’ hats.” In other words, Playmobil doesn’t offend, exclude, or put-down because its shapes lack detail – it does so because of the conscious choices of its designers.
And these choices reveal a strangely outdated, and insensitive view of the world. While Playmobil has made advancements over the years, it always seems to be a little late to the party. Perhaps what’s needed is for them to move into a more aspirational space, where kids are welcomed into a world that might be, rather than the messed-up world they currently live in. And in building this imagined world, let’s hire a diversity of designers so that the worlds created reflect multiple perspectives. What would the Indigenous Playmobil family look like if Playmobil had hired or even consulted with Indigenous designers?