Playing with Technology

Photo by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, distributed via Flickr:

— Ingrid Ockert and Roger Turner —

Play matters. Fun technologies invite participation, which can become mediums of expression for political organizing or economic engagement. Positive associations with particular technologies can guide career choices and create a better society, or so people have believed in societies from the communist Soviet Union to the United States under capitalism. A consumer’s republic depends upon personal consumption, encouraging you to enjoy yourself through purchases, especially technological novelties. Indeed, as with any deeply human activity, play is laden with dynamic cultural meanings.

Our session at SHOT 2017 explored how children and adults have enjoyed playing with technology. Angela Cope situated the development of inflatable pool toys within the postwar US suburban boom, drawing connections to surf culture and a lesser-cited scene from The Graduate. Ingrid Ockert analyzed the educational expectations behind the playful TV shows Watch Mr. Wizard and 3-2-1 Contact. Jesse Smith explored a transitional moment, as big ships changed from passenger liners to “fun ships” making recreational cruises. Artemis Yagou shared fascinating images of building toys from across Europe and North America, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries.

The session showed that play can become a form of serious education, as in Artemis Yagou’s and Ingrid Ockert’s presentations. Playful technologies can quickly slip from charming to banal, as demonstrated in Angela Cope’s and Jesse Smith’s presentations. We also encouraged scholars to embrace fun within the study of play, and avoid becoming defensive when talking about a subject that appears not to be “serious.” Thankfully, we now have several decades of scholarship that explains the significance of recreation, leisure, entertainment and self-directed education.

Going forward, we’d like to challenge our colleagues to take play even more seriously. What moral categories are attached to the technologies of play? How does play communicate the ideals of a professional culture? How does activity of play circulate cultural concepts of opposition and resistance? What is the relationship between a child’s playful imagination and their vision of a technological future?


  • Angela Cope (York University): Summertime and the Living is Plastic: PVC and the Creation of a Summer Toy Industry
  • Ingrid Ockert (Princeton University): As Seen on TV: Science, Technology and the Television Set
  • Jesse Smith (University of Pennsylvania): Carnival Cruise Line’s ‘Fun Ships’: Transforming Technologies of Transportation into Technologies of Fun
  • Artemis Yagou (Deutsches Museum): Technology, Play, Participation: Construction Toys and the Shaping of Ideal Citizens (19th and 20th centuries)
  • Roger Turner (Chemical Heritage Foundation): Chair and Commentator


Photo ‘Children’s Chemistry Set’ (1928) by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, distributed via Flickr: