Here's a brief sordid history of toys-of-the-year: Fisticuffs have erupted over Cabbage Patch Kids; Tickle-Me-Elmos have been stockpiled and scalped for bank-breaking prices; Beanie Baby counterfeiters have taken rubes to the cleaners; and this year's toy-of-the-year--Furby--is already sold out of several chains and is being auctioned off on eBay for up to $200 apiece
I first got suspicious about Furbys when I read their online instructions, which sounded like an excerpt from a pornographic version of G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion:
"Before you play with me, please follow these simple steps:
- Turn me upside down and open my battery door.
- Insert four (4) AA batteries into my battery compartment. PLEASE DO NOT CLOSE THE BATTERY COMPARTMENT YET.
- While holding me upside down, put your finger in my mouth and hold down my tongue switch, then hit Reset button
- While holding my tongue switch, please close my battery door and secure the screw.
- I will now wake up and tell you my name. I am now ready to play!"
The doll looks more like a Gremlin than a Galatea--furry, big ears, big eyes, no neck. The source of its appeal, however, is Galatea-like: You teach, it learns. It has a motor, internal speakers, a computer chip, a light sensor, a sound sensor, and touch sensors, so in addition to old-hat tricks like blinking and "dancing," Furby knows whether you're in the room and will talk, sing, and generally act cute. But most importantly, Furby responds to Pavlovian conditioning.
When you first get the Furby, for instance, you can tickle its stomach and it may or may not give you a kiss. If it kisses you and you immediately pat it on the back, you increase the likelihood of it kissing you next time you tickle its tummy. Furbys also have their own language, Furbish, "which is heavily influenced by the languages of Thai, Chinese, Mandarin, and Hebrew." Over time, your Furby will abandon Furbish and begin to "learn" English (actually, it doesn't really learn--it's just programmed to begin speaking more English words after a while). The Furby can even communicate with and "teach" other Furbys tricks and songs by means of infrared signals similar to the ones in a TV remote control device. If one Furby sings a lullaby, the other will fall asleep and snore. If you play music, the Furbys will dance together.
This is all very cool from an adult's perspective. From the child's perspective, though, the Furby has drawbacks, such as:
- The Carapace Issue. In order to protect the various motors, there has to be a rigid plastic shell under the fur, which makes the thing hard to hug. Although press materials call it a "cuddly standalone animatronic pet," in my book, "animatronic" cancels out "cuddly."
- The Work Issue. Who wants to train a toy to kiss you, when every kid knows that a regular stuffed animal kisses you every time you touch its plastic nose to your cheek?
- The Breakability Issue. The delicate plastic ear bones are just begging to be snapped, and the toy's many cool functions spark curiosity about how it all works. In order to satisfy that curiosity, you have to skin Furby and crack open the internal plastic shell. Another way to see Furby's innards is to check out the exquisite Furby Autopsy Home Page .
- The Grown-Up vs. Kids Issue. As soon as you read that Furby's unique language is "heavily influenced by the languages of Thai, Chinese, Mandarin, and Hebrew," you know that this is a toy that parents will like more than kids. Same goes for all the tricks Furby learns that are cool in concept--but boring after about a week.
Is your child too young for a Furby? Will it create more frustration and heartbreak than happiness? Is $30 retail (or up to $200 online) too much for what you get? Do you want a furry animatronic pet that burps (and worse) after you "feed" it by pushing down on its tongue? These questions are all worth considering before you join in on a Furby auction, break into a cold sweat over the grim warning on Furby fan pages: "WAL-MART NOW OUT OF FURBYS!!!!!," or smuggle a stun-gun into Toys-R-Us to disable the competition.