What Do Action Figures Have To Teach Us?

One of the classic books in the field of computer gaming and learning is James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. I often see the title abbreviated as What Video Games Have To Teach Us–an understandable shorthand, but one that allows, I think, for a slight  misunderstanding of Gee’s aims. Gee’s initial audience for this book was not a community of gamers but of teachers and educators. And his  goal, as I read him at least, is not better games but better learning. You could make a case that WVGH2TUAL&L (you see why an abbreviation is in order) is not primarily about video games at all. It is instead a book about what Gee calls  situated learning or situated cognition, illustrated with copious examples from the world of video games. Gee is interested in looking at what video games do well and applying lessons from them to education more generally.

In my December post, Toy Stories, I tried to decouple “play” from “games,” and floated the classic action figure playset as a possible toy-like model for playful historical thinking. What would that look like in practice? Can we imagine a historical curriculum built, metaphorically, around “playsets” and “action figures”? What, to borrow from Gee, might action figures have to teach us about learning history?

Lego photos by Mike Stimpson--click through to see the whole set.

Details, Details

One thing that both Lego and Playmobil get right is offering just enough detail to fire the imagination, but not much more. A Playmobil Viking is not a Viking. But if we know something about Vikings already, it is just detailed enough to make us think about Vikings. And if we don’t know anything about Vikings, it is just detailed enough to help us start to learn.

The implication for teaching history? Because we are all too aware what small fraction of the facts we teach is likely to be remembered, our instinct as teachers is often to cram in as much content as we possibly can. But is this self-defeating? Socrates said “education is not the filling of a vessel, but the kindling of a flame.”* Isn’t it smarter to be realistic about the bandwidth of our classrooms, and therefore be deliberate in the details we choose to emphasize?

*According to Wikipedia, there is no evidence Socrates ever said this. But who are you going to believe, Socrates or Wikipedia?

Lego photos by Mike Stimpson--click through to see the whole set.

Avatars with Kung Fu Grip

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud unpacked the way abstraction invites identification. When we look at a detailed photograph or a realistic drawing of a face, he said, we see the face of another. But when we look at a simple, stylized cartoon, we can project our own identity on to it. We can see it as our self. This is why cartoon protagonists from Tintin to the Simpsons are so often drawn in less detail than their backgrounds or supporting casts. The abstraction of a Playmobil, or any tiny plastic representation of the human form, has a similar psychological effect. Henry Jenkins has described action figures as avatars that let children enter imagined spaces and try on various roles.

When I talked about playing “Would You Rather” I touched on the tricky place of self-identification in history. For most professional historians, imagining yourself into history really is off limits, more so even than something like counterfactuals. And I want to be careful here, because I do believe the most mature kind of historical thinking only comes when we confront what we cannot understand or empathize with in the past. Still, in forbidding personal identification, play-acting, and make-believe, professional historians amputate a whole lot of what people want out of  history.

Lego photos by Mike Stimpson--click through to see the whole set.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All

Action figures are built to a few uniform scales, which encourages mashups and crossovers. A Playmobil curriculum means thinking as much about how courses fit together as about their individual content.

Is there any way to analogize from playset and action figure towards general courses and specific topics? What if, instead of general introductory surveys and more specific upper-year seminars, a curriculum was built out of scene-setting “playsets”—Pre-Confederation Canada, Gilded Age America, or even a thematic/conceptual setting like “Revolution”—and then different students brought different “figures” to the table—key personalities, maybe, or representative groups?

I dunno. I’m just blue skying here. What I do know is that any good line of action figures triggers a powerful collecting impulse. As soon as you get one, you want another, and then another, and then of course the playset to house them in. The more figures you collect, the more powerfully you want the others, maybe because of the exponentially increasing number of possible interactions between them.

Is the link to education so far-fetched? The pleasure of collecting action figures is partly about material objects, but it is also tied to mastery over lore. Every parent has marveled at their child’s ability to memorize dinosaur species and genera, arcane Pokemon statistics, the names of Thomas the Tank Engine’s many belligerent companions. What alchemy of pedagogy, psychology, and graphic design would we need to work to make a course calendar one fraction as addictive as the Calico Critters catalogs my daughter pores over for hours on end?

Lego photos by Mike Stimpson--click through to see the whole set.

(I look forward to continuing the great conversation begun in the comments to my last post, Seeing Like SimCity, and taken up by Trevor in Simulation and History: Let’s Get Beyond Good and Evil. But my deadline this week caught me flat-footed, so with your indulgence, here is a follow-up to my December post on Toy Stories, originally published at Old is the New New.)


  1. I really enjoy this line of thinking, and I think there is something to be said about exploring some of the 32 (I think it’s 32) educational psychology principles that gee finds in games in action figures and playsets and then plugging those into history teaching. 

    To some extent, I don’t think this is necessarily about the about the the action figures themselves. I think a lot of it is about sets. 

    A big problem in history is that there is always more that you could have looked at and always another document out there that could completely destroy your thesis. In light of this, I actually found the limiting elements of the AP test’s document based questions to offer an exciting and fun challenge (they just give you 5-10 docs you interpret them and argue for or against a thesis). To some extent, these limited sets of selected documents created an opportunity for play. At the end of the test I was interested to talk to classmates about how they had rhetorically used the documents, not unlike how one might play a hand of cards. 

    I think this sets notion could bootstrap students into making interesting decisions about composing histories. You could even go as far as thinking about actual sets of cards one could collect. Just a thought from reading your post on the train. 

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