Products and Toys

A few years ago, a friend of mine recommended a fantastic essay by Greg Costikyan to me, I Have No Words & I Must Design,1 in which he proposes a basic shared vocabulary for game design, and through which I was introduced to the illuminating distinction between toys and games. Costikyan argues that games are organized behavior with well defined goals—an end-game, a victory state; whereas toys are merely interactive objects through which play may be constructed.

Think of a basketball ball: the ball is a toy (and what a wonderful toy it is), but by itself it provides no structure. The ball needs the game of basketball, with all of its rules and complex subtleties, if organized fun is to be had.

With the trends of Clubhouse, Honk, etc, floating around the Twitter-sphere, it occurred to me recently that there’s a similar distinction that can be made in the software world: there are products and there are toys. This distinction, mind you, is not meant to be commentary on the intrinsic worth of such and such an app; rather, it is meant to be commentary on value delivery. Let me explain.

In Escaping the Build Trap,2 Melissa Perri defines products as vehicles for value: people are willing to pay for your software because in exchange you’re solving a problem or making something easier for them. With this in mind, if I tried to think of these trendy social networking apps as successful products, something didn’t feel right, something didn’t quite fit. What are they delivering? These services enjoy widespread adoption, so they clearly are successful in some way, but I was grappling to understand their place in the technology world. After some thought, I submit that they are toys, and toys are beloved not because of the problems they solve, but because of the joy they bring.

Twitter, for example, is a toy (even if the joy it brings is highly debatable at this point). It’s not solving a problem for anybody. Or, at least, it doesn’t seem to me like it was conceived to solve any problems. I highly doubt that Jack Dorsey went, “You know what’s a huge problem in the world right now? That not everybody has a soapbox.” Sure, it delivers value now, because brands can use it to reach potential customers, but that’s a product slapped onto a toy, in the same way that overpriced tickets to the Superbowl are a product that’s part of a multi-billion dollar market slapped onto a game built around a football.

What I do find believable is that Jack Dorsey built a really cool thing that people liked and embraced, and now that he had this massive audience, he needed to come up with a way to make money (do you remember when Twitter used to be routinely criticized by pundits for not having a clear monetization strategy?). Thus, the well-known grim adage of, “If you don’t pay for it, you are the product,” has come to be solidified.

I think that such user exploitation and manipulation is the inevitable destiny for toys that are forced into the procrustean bed3 of producthood. Products have the intrinsic characteristic that the amount of value they deliver can be measured, and if one hopes to make an impact, coming up with a magical hit idea is not a requirement—one can systematically experiment towards success, instead. But try to sustain growth when there is no value delivery to iterate on, and what is left instead is a natural tendency towards dark patterns.4 Because the only way to keep users coming back to software that doesn’t repeatedly deliver value is by engaging in shady practices and psychological manipulation.

Perhaps these toys forced into producthood are the medium through which the myth of the genius CEO is perpetuated. Consider that there is no guarantee of growth or sustainability or even a business in a product, much less in a toy that is not seen for what it is. In contrast with the boring, systematic approach to optimizing value delivery, misunderstood toys seem more like the lottery game of technology startups: the odds of conceiving and concretizing a winning idea are abysmally low, but when it happens, a holy aura is bestowed upon the creator, and the legend lives on for another day.

Will Clubhouse survive the gradual mutilation of its essence as the engagement of its users is milked for money under the delusions of those with skin in that particular game? What would a world where toys are allowed to thrive in their authentic forms look like? Would Twitter perhaps be a more serene and joyous corner in which to hold conversations instead of the cesspool of tepid political “debate” amidst friendly brands that it is today?

These fanciful imaginings and speculations are left as an exercise to the reader.