Monday, July 04, 2011

Ethics of Engineered Toys: Beyblade

Most of my readers, unless they are teenage or younger boys, can be excused for not knowing the meaning of the last word in today’s headline: Beyblade. It is an English transliteration of the Japanese word “Beiburedo” which is itself derived from “beigoima,” meaning a spinning top toy. I myself had no clue about this concept until a month ago, when my ten-year-old nephew I shall call here Nate arrived in our house for the summer with a set of Beyblade tops and a full-blown obsession to match. In almost no time, we got familiar with the semi-destructive buzzing and rattling sounds of two metal-ringed tops engaged in a battle royal inside a plastic “stadium” that resembles nothing as much as a glorified dog’s food bowl. And I have competed with Nate in this game, spinning up the tops with a simple plastic rack-strip-and-pinion device that releases the Beyblade into the stadium for its time of combat, which can last as long as two or three minutes.

Children have played with tops for probably thousands of years, but that was before the advent of mass-production manufacturing, global advertising and license deals, and coordinated multimedia campaigns involving print, video, and the Internet. The Japanese toy company Takara (now Takara-TOMY), developer of the famed “Transformer” toy line, coordinated their development and launch of Beyblades with a “manga” comic strip of the same name around 2002. Engineering-wise, the tops have progressed from the first all-plastic models to heavier and more complex ones incorporating both metal “fusion wheels” and interchangeable tips, labels, and other features too numerous to mention. The result is no ordinary top: in the stadium Nate has, the tops appear to “orbit” around one another, engage in complex maneuvers that look almost intelligent, and collide violently due to the textured and sculpted outer edges of the fusion wheels. The shaped wheels ensure that the force vectors resulting from collisions have a randomized element that makes for surprising and unpredictable results. While you would think there are too many random elements involved to make operator skill much of a factor, I have to admit that Nate manages to beat me most of the time. I still haven’t figured out how he does it.

If you ask him how he wins, he will launch into a five-minute spiel about balance versus attack and defense yellow stars, energy rings, spin tracks, performance tips, and strength gained from previous battles with Phoenixes, Eagles, Lizards, Ursas, and I don’t know what all. (There is a tie-in between the names of the various Beyblade models and astronomical constellations.) He has read several of the institution’s canonical works—that is, the original manga series penned by comic-strip and marketing genius Takao Aoki. I have tried reading one or two of these literary achievements. Once you get used to the fact that they are printed backwards (the back page is the front page and vice versa), they are all the same: highly stylized fragmented scenes of huge-eyed boys leaping about in dubious battle with giant tops, all of which is punctuated by jagged-letter sound effects (“KRAK!!!” “ZZZIM!!!”). No sign of plot, character development, or any of that other mushy stuff of no interest to ten-year-old boys.

The engineering ethics of childrens’ games and toys is confined in my experience to only a few topics. One is the question of violent or sexually explicit video games and their effects on the mental and moral development of children who use them. The other is the hazard factor: matters such as choking dangers of small parts, or the incident a few years ago when imported toys for small children were found to have lead paint on them. Beyblade-iana seems to avoid both of these problems. Although it involves small parts, it is not marketed to an age group that is likely to try swallowing them rather than playing with them. And as for the moral consequences of playing with Beyblades, as far as I know it is a matter of speculation, unless some sociologist has done a study on this specific toy.

There are a lot of things to be said in favor of Beyblades. As one would expect from a nation where most families live in tiny apartments, the space required for two kids to engage in Beyblade combat is only about six square feet. Yet a Beyblade battle allows boys to do several things they enjoy doing: exercise a certain amount of physical skill, compete with other boys, and make violent-sounding noises that in the end do little or no harm (it’s a lot better than a toy drum, believe me).

On the minus side of the ledger, I have some qualms about the mythology or backstories that the makers have conjured up to go along with the physical toys. My main knowledge of this mythology is gained through hours of listening to Nate talk about it, so bear that in mind. Apparently there is a spiritual, or at least non-material, aspect to the way Beyblade tops are presented. In this mythology, the tops have intelligence of a sort and some kind of aura or energy that can be enhanced or drained by both physical and non-physical means. I’m not expecting fine philosophical distinctions to be made by a ten-year-old, but the way he talks about his collection gives me the impression that he makes no distinction between changes or improvements that can rationally be expected to make a difference (e. g. changing to a better performance tip), and matters that violate physical law (e. g. things like the idea that one Beyblade he took to bed with him absorbed energy from him and plays better).

Maybe this is making a mountain out of a Beyblade molehill. But this arbitrary blend of the physical and the magical, if you want to call it that, combined with the winner-take-all bluster that he’s picked up from the manga series, are things that trouble me a little. All the same, it is likely that in a few years he’ll look at these toys from an entirely different perspective. They’ll be moved out to make room for a more age-appropriate interest, and will leave only subconscious traces in his mind, perhaps. In the great scheme of things, Beyblade toys seem to bring a great deal of harmless pleasure to children around the world, and so for that reason alone, we should probably cut them a good deal of slack.

Sources: Wikipedia has good articles on the Beyblade phenomenon (“Beyblade”) and a separate description of the toy itself (“Beyblade (toy)”) which I relied on for this piece.


  1. Very interesting. It is a little worrying, but thinking back, I'm quite sure I made up similar stories about my toys, so maybe its just a creative outlet.

  2. nice post. i'm a beyblade fan myself!