NEW YORK — The nature of child's play may be at a crossroads. Kids may no longer need to speak in low, gravely voices as they pretend to be an action figure. The latest generation of "smart" toys can speak for themselves. But is smarter better for children?
Consider these new high-tech dolls:
*A 12-inch replica of the popular World Wrestling Federation (WWF) wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin is fed data off the Internet and barks out taunts heard the night before on TV.
*New "Star Wars" action dolls will speak the same dialogue as characters in the upcoming movie.
*Teletubbies figures talk "live" to kids at home or to the characters on TV.
After the success of last year's Furby, toy-industry executives gathered at the American International Toy Fair in New York City earlier this month to unveil what they hope will become the next hit toy. And "interactive" is clearly the buzz word.
As microchips move from the computer to the toy box, a new generation of "smart toys" is beginning to revolutionize the $20 billion industry. Computer and Internet technology is being married with traditional "unwired" toys such as dolls, action figures, and toy vehicles.
But some educators are asking: Are new smart toys getting too smart for our own children's good? "The question is, do we want the toys to be clever, or our kids?" says child psychologist David Walsh, founder and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis, Minn.
Play is an essential component of children's mental and emotional maturity, experts say. They use imagination and creativity to make sense of the world. "A child's play is their developmental work," says Mr. Walsh.
Toymakers say the computer chips embedded in these toys, are stimulating more sophisticated play patterns and greater creativity. Microsoft's Interactive Teletubbies, based on the popular PBS television show, for example, will be able to interact with other characters on videos as well as TV. This spring, daily episodes of the show and certain videos will transmit encoded signals that prompt the dolls to talk and respond to what is said on the TV program.
What concerns some experts in this uncharted territory, is how such toys will affect childhood development, especially the toddlers targeted by Teletubbies.
"These toys control a child's agenda - and they end up just playing what is on the screen," says Diane Levin, professor of education at Wheelock College, in Boston, and author of six books on child development and the media. "The children need to be the script writers; they need to be the producer and director of their own play. A good toy allows a kid to do just that. The more programmed their play is, the less able they will be to come up with ideas of their own."
Toy-industry officials challenge this idea. "We have not seen this to be the case at all," says Terri Bartlett of the Toy Manufacturers of America, responding to the alleged danger of toys linked to media. "In fact, familiarity with a certain character strengthens the child's relationship with the product. This actually expands the possibilities in the relationship, which allows for greater creativity in play."
At a time when overall 1998 toy sales were flat - and sales of action figures were down 13.3 percent - retailers at the toy fair here, were enthusiastic about the smart toys. Sales of plush toys, like Furby and Microsoft's Interactive Barney, were up 19.3 percent last year, to $1.6 billion.
Toy venders are expecting a rebound in sales of action figures. If it happens, the new "Star Wars" movie, "The Phantom Menace," scheduled to be released in May, should be the prime reason. The dolls made by Hasbro will be equipped with digital chips that will allow them to reenact dialogue from the film. This will give kids a way to "recreate the 'Star Wars' fantasy," company officials said.
New wrestling rants daily
Professional wrestling - with the highest rated shows on cable TV - is also tapping technology to animate action figures. Jakks Pacific Inc. introduced their new line of WWF interactive figures at the toy fair. In conjunction with a Web site, kids will be able to download new taunts and rants from wrestlers up to three times a day. They will also be able to create their own rants from a database of over 1,000 words.
"The combination of toy and interaction with the Web site is a given," says Stephen Berman, president of the company, "It's mixing the best of both worlds. You're getting toys from the TV show and you're getting a Web site where [youngsters] and older adults are now all involved...."
As more toys are linked to these media, however, more of the content of play may become determined by the content of Internet sites or TV shows. Higher tech isn't necessarily better, says Walsh. In terms of a child's development, he adds, "Pots and pans can make some of the best toys."