Candy Buffets, Ant Farms for Robots, and Angry Birds

An evening at the Toy of the Year Awards.

LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer Learning Tablet.

Each year around this time, the Toy Fair—a massive, oddly joyless trade event where manufacturers from around the world demo their wares to buyers and journalists—comes to New York’s Javits Center. Devoid of children, packed with endless rows of board games, figurines, and futuristic unicycles, the Toy Fair resembles nothing so much as the treasure chamber of the world’s richest and loneliest male virgin. Toy Fair Week begins with the Toy of the Year Awards, which honor the past year’s most notable new products. The awards are presented in a swank evening ceremony at Lincoln Center, attended by the industry’s top executives, beginning with dinner and cocktails and ending with an extravagant candy buffet featuring all the sours and sweets that your take-home bag can carry. (There are also two substantial cake-and-tart stations and several waiters circulating with trays of churros and miniature whoopie pies. Beat that, Golden Globes!)

Though I abandoned hula-hoops and action figures in favor of skin magazines and rotgut liquor long ago, I enjoy ceremonies, especially when they involve churros. Besides, I am prone to wasting my time on nonsense and spending my money on things I don’t need. The TOTY Awards seemed custom-made for a decidedly immature, frivolous person like me. So I decided to suit up, stop by, and take the pulse of the modern toy industry. Which toys are tantrum-worthy? Which are less fun than the box in which they came? And would the Monopoly Man be as jolly in person as he is in my dreams?

When I arrived, the lobby of Alice Tully Hall was crowded with toy-industry luminaries: executives from companies like Hasbro, Toys R Us, and Mattel; Reuben Klamer, “the grandfather of all inventors,” who designed Milton Bradley’s The Game of Life; three of the Finns behind the mobile game Angry Birds, clad in bright red Angry Birds sweatshirts. The Angry Birds guys were alone in their sartorial flamboyance, by the way. Though movies like Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium may have popularized an image of toymakers as eccentric, oddly dressed multigenerians who subsist on gumdrops and childrens’ dreams, the TOTYs were a resolutely buttoned-down event. Mr. Magorium wouldn’t have made it more than three steps toward Lincoln Center before being mistaken for an Occupy protester and forcibly ejected.

The ceremony hit most of the items on the standard awards-night checklist: Multiple musical numbers, one of which involved breakdancing; a comedic opening monologue imagining Abraham Lincoln as a toy merchant; and a tribute to several toymakers who had died and gone to Santa’s magical kingdom. The presenters were endearingly awkward (“Games offer kids, parents, and friends a chance to escape their hectic lives and… [awkward, forgetful silence]… and, sorry, spend some time together”) and the winners seemed genuinely touched by the honor (“This toy was a labor of love, and what everybody was able to accomplish was something spectacular”). There was also a tribute to the piano-dancing scene in the movie Big, which, really, ought to be a part of every awards ceremony, anywhere.

SpyNet stealth recording video glasses

The TOTYs are divided into several “of the year” categories, including: activity toy, boy toy, educational toy, game, girl toy, infant/toddler toy, innovative toy, outdoor toy, preschool toy, and specialty toy. Awards were also presented for property of the year and overall toy of the year. A pre-show visit to Target to scout the nominees helped me identify some personal favorites. The Spy Net Stealth Recording Video Glasses, by Jakks Pacific, are exactly the sort of thing that I would have initially loved as a kid, then quickly tired of after realizing that most of my stealth video consisted of my mother telling me to take off those damn glasses. The Hexbug Nano Hive Habitat Set, an ant farm for robots, sends insect-sized automata scurrying around an expandable habitat, letting kids experience all the fun of a roach infestation with none of the deleterious consequences. And I was really rooting for a company called Box Creations and their lone nominee, “Pirate Ship,” which, as far as I could tell, was just a sturdy cardboard box decorated like a pirate ship. (“And as everyone knows - KIDS LOVE TO PLAY IN THE BOX!!” their website blares. Indeed!)

Hexbug Nano Hive Habitat

Though the Hexbug Habitat took home one award, for specialty toy of the Year, the rest of the night was dominated by less esoteric fare, like HotWheels Wall Tracks, a model-car racing track that sticks to the wall, which won Innovative Toy of the Year and Boy Toy of the Year, and the LeapPad Explorer, a “durable, child-friendly learning tablet” for kids, which won three awards, including the overall Toy of the Year award. Though I hadn’t paid much attention to the LeapPad Explorer before the show, in retrospect, I can see why it was a shoo-in. Much of the stage banter at the TOTYs extolled the virtues of play—the idea that the proper toy can do wonders for a child’s development. The LeapPad Explorer was perhaps the most overtly educational non-chemistry-set toy in the field, which cinched its chances at a big night.

The TOTY Awards are touted as the toy industry’s Oscars, and the comparison is apt, because there are a lot of similarities between the movie business and the toy business. Both industries like ideas that are familiar; “iPad for kids” seems like the toy industry’s equivalent of “it’s Wedding Crashers meets Batman. Both rely heavily on “franchise” products. Several nominations went to old toyshop standards: Thomas & Friends, Elmo, Dora the Explorer. Two TOTYs were awarded to Angry Birds spinoffs—one for a board game nominated under game of the year, and one for property of the year. Deathless TeenBeat moppet Justin Bieber even snagged a nomination, in girl toy of the year, for the “Justin Bieber Rockin’ Tour Bus and Concert Stage Playset.” I’m not saying that all you need to do if you want a hit toy is to slap a familiar name on the package, but, honestly, the Bieber name is the only thing rockin’ about that synthetic tour bus.

Hot Wheels Wall Track

In 2004, I wrote for the Washington Monthly about how true innovation happens on the margins of industry. Big, bureaucratic companies have too much to lose if something goes wrong, which is why they tend to stick with the safe bets. Boy toys of the year were, unsurprisingly, tops, balls, model vehicles, and light sabers, just as they’ve been for decades. The girl toys were dominated by dolls, doll habitats, and mock kitchenware. Even the innovative  toy of the year, Hot Wheels Wall Tracks, was a variation on an existing product. In his acceptance speech, the Hot Wheels guy recalled the Eureka moment that led to the product’s genesis: “Simon, when’re you gonna start doing something about the fact that mums don’t like putting your tracks together and they take up too much space on the floor?” The MIT Media Lab, this isn’t.

By contrast, the most innovative products come from companies and inventors that are new to the toy industry. The Hexbug NanoHabitat was produced by a division of a larger company that manufactures server racks and other products. The Rockboard Scooter-Mini, which was named outdoor toy of the year, is a scooter that is propelled by the rider rocking back and forth on its platform, as if afflicted with St. Vitus Dance. “After 25 years in heavy manufacturing, I never thought I’d be in the toy industry, let alone accepting an award,” the Rockboard rep said, getting emotional. “For a small company like us, I really don’t have the words.”

This isn’t to say that tried-and-true toys can’t be fun. But it is to say that, judging by the TOTY Awards, the legacy toy companies seem to almost exclusively be producing familiar toys; variations on things that have existed for decades. I left the TOTYs wishing that Hasbro, Mattel, and the like would spend a little more time conceptualizing toys for the future, and a little less time churning out infinite variations on the toys of the past.