NEW YORK — There’s a connection between “Star Wars” and “Bop It.” No, Rey’s not about to battle any dark Jedi by “twisting it,” but the two brands have a common ancestor: Hasbro, the multibillion-dollar toy company behind so many iconic brands.
Play-Doh? Yep. Mr. Potato Head and My Little Pony? Oh yeah. Nerf, Disney princess play sets and Monopoly? Check, check, check.
But, if you were to walk around the company’s showroom at this year’s Toy Fair in Midtown Manhattan, you might notice something felt absent. In the haze of foam darts and Elsa dolls, there were few high-tech gadgets.
Hasbro continues to emphasize toys over touch screens, in large part because the company wants kids and their parents to put the devices down and focus on play as a pure concept.
“We’re not trying to avoid technology,” Hasbro president John Frascotti said in an interview with The Huffington Post on Monday. “Kids have to be digitally savvy, but we’re very cognizant of not wanting to raise a generation of kids that are not socially savvy.”
Most of the toys Hasbro chose to showcase this year were the kind of simple pleasures you might recognize from your own childhood. The Nerf guns were more advanced, the Spider-Man figures were a bit more detailed and the Transformers have a new female friend called Victorion.
But few of the toys felt distinctly 2016.
Sure, there were a few iPads strewn about — maybe to assure business partners that the kids who watch “Transformers: Rescue Bots” can also bug their parents for the related “Sky Forest Rescue” app — but there was nothing like Nintendo’s Amiibo, little plastic toys that basically exist to unlock exclusive features in video games.
One of the most high-tech toys Hasbro displayed is Love 2 Learn Elmo, an upcoming plush doll that talks to kids and encourages them to develop good habits — like using the potty, for example. Elmo connects to a parent’s smartphone or tablet, which opens up a few features. It can learn a child’s name if a parent inputs it, for one. It will also make announcements based on a connected game — if you tap a hippo in a storybook scene, it tells you something about hippos.
And a parent can use Elmo to log their child’s behavior and encourage good habits. If your kid has a successful potty break, you can mark that down in the app and have Elmo offer praise. Positive reinforcement is supposed to help children throughout this training process, so you can see the appeal.
At first glance, it might seem like Love 2 Learn Elmo creates a sort of shield between child and parent. You’re not praising your kid — a chirpy red muppet is. But Frascotti doesn’t see it that way.
“If a parent is going to take the time to [use the app], then that’s indicative of a parent who’s involved in the child’s life,” Frascotti told HuffPost.
Frascotti wants Hasbro to use technology to “augment the experience” of play rather than being the focus. Obviously the company isn’t ignoring gadgets — it owns a majority stake in mobile game maker Backflip Studios, for example, and its Furbys have connected to apps for years — but the aim is to keep kids focused on physical toys. That should reassure parents who worry over recent hacking scares on Internet-connected playthings.
It might also help adults reconsider their own habits. After all, kids aren’t the only ones who can so easily be sucked into screens for hours on end.
“With children, they’re over-scheduled or perhaps overly digitally immersed,” Frascotti said. “For adults, [they’re] connected 24/7.”