Thomas & Friends Minis, from Mattel and Budge Studios, is one of the biggest app launches from Apple’s new iOS 11, which introduces the augmented reality magic of ARKit. In the new app, the half-a-billion-dollar toy brand has been transformed into a digital train set that lets you drop virtual tracks and engines onto the very real floor of your living room. In theory, it’s the perfect application of kid-friendly AR. In theory.
I installed Thomas on my own for the same reason I occasionally try my son’s chicken fingers: to make sure he’s not consuming poison without me realizing it. Five minutes after installing it, I uninstalled it. And I wish I could scrub its entire existence from the App Store, so I can ensure some well-meaning friend or relative never puts it in the hands of my three-year-old.
Now look, I’ve long been indoctrinated into the cult of Thomas. This ain’t my first ride on the Thomas train! Like many kids, my son adores trains, and as a result our loving extended family has dropped the monetary equivalent of a four-year college education on Thomas paraphernalia. I’ve “choo choo’d” with Thomas figurines for so many hours on end that the show’s very British, imperialistic values–not to mention the very premise of a train with a giant face–are no longer creepy to me. It’s all normal now. Heck, I even know the “& Friends” contingent of the Thomas crew. Annie. Clarabel. Gordon. Percy. You want deep tracks? Fine. How about Hiro (he’s from Japan!)? Toby (kind of a dweeb)? Emily (could be reasonably criticized as a token female engine, but glad to have her all the same)?
I can conjure those gray-skinned trainvertisements in my mind as fast as my son’s own sweet face.
I’ve also come to appreciate why children love playing with trains. By piecing together tracks, they can design and improvise layouts, but within boundaries where the whole game won’t suddenly shatter if their pudgy fingers make a mistake. By giving trains personalities, they can create their own narratives, testing both storytelling and social dynamics with harmless figurines. Plus, trains are unbelievably powerful machines. I never realized that as a kid, but riding behind a giant diesel engine is probably the closest most of us will get to piloting Voltron in our lives.
No, I’m fine with the Thomas stuff. I have to be. What I’m not fine with is how Big Train is exploiting the iPhone’s latest star feature–augmented reality–to suck away the boundless exploration of toy train sets and replace it with yet another gem-collecting dopamine drip that we see so often in the App Store, swapping out tangible human play with a crappy, four-inch facsimile of fun.
I load the app, and before any augmented reality functions are introduced, I’m taught how to drag and drop pieces onto a virtual train table. So far, so good! Let’s build some trains. Choo choo, baby.
Then out of nowhere, a sparkling gear appears. I’m prompted, by some enterprising Englishman, “Use the tracks to get to the golden gear!” Right in the tutorial, I’m being forced to build a track not of my imagination, but a track toward empty profit.
“Good work, you’re a natural builder!” he says when I succeed. “You’re a most useful engineer!”
If I collect three of these gears I get a mystery box toy for my virtual train set. (Spoiler: There’s a bony man-skeleton version of Thomas inside–which I’m sure is not at all horrific to children who have yet to consider his internal anatomy.) From what I can tell, there’s no microtransaction offered to buy these gears, yet, but by the game design, it looks almost inevitable that one day, I’ll be ushered to buy some 50-pack of these gears, because GOLDEN GEARS ARE LIFE, KID, GET USED TO IT. THAT’S WHY WE BUILD TRAINS.
But the evil capitalist twist is over, right? It’s just the gears. If I ignore the gears, maybe this game could still be good clean fun. I start building a track, and instantly . . . did I just hear a jingle?
“It’s time for a treasure hunt!” says the English crack dealer.
I ignore it and keep playing.
“Tap on the treasure chest if you’re up to the challenge!” he continues after a beat.
I ignore it longer.
“Do you want to help me find a new treasure?” he says in a tone that’s feeling more and more like it’s coming from some guy driving by a playground very slowly in a windowless van.
A button on the screen blinks. It’s the treasure button. Don’t I want to click the treasure button? WHO WOULD PASS UP FREE TREASURE?!?
Truthfully, even though I know it’s wrong, it takes everything I have to tune him out. And I’m a dad. I spend half of my life ignoring pleas and whines.
In hopes of resurrecting some fun, I turn on the game’s augmented reality mode. And there’s the train set, sitting right on my dining room table. Technically, it’s amazing. The trains chug and bump with full animation. In the background, hot air balloons float through the sky. Meanwhile, the iPhone keeps the train set grounded on the table, the illusion unflinching. It’s captivating, but it’s also ethereal. Staring through my phone, I don’t ever feel like these trains are really in front of me, much like a Hammacher Schlemmer massage chair doesn’t feel anything like a professional masseuse, though I wonder if my boy would feel the same way about the experience. For me, there’s no satisfying immersion like you get in virtual reality or even Microsoft’s Hololens, where you are certain you can reach out and touch everything you see. Instead, it’s just another mediocre app–an extension of the slot machine that our iPhones have become–that with an added twist, has tried to trap my kid by mapping itself into the very fabric of my home. (A home that I have an increasing urge to burn down whilst faking my own death, to collect the insurance money, and use it to move my family to some cabin in the Alaska wilderness where I only have to worry about grizzly bears and wolf packs.)
Another golden gear shows its face.
“Another golden gear! Only two gears left to get your reward!”
I put the iPhone down, and its phantasm of fun disappears. I look to my living room, the giant garbage pit of Brio tracks and Thomas toys that it’s become. How simple my life would be if none of these toys were real, if I never felt a funnel impale my plantar fascia in the middle of the night, if I could left swipe them all away like an unwanted Tinder profile.
Maybe that day is coming. But until then, Mattel can take all the holographic treasure chests and golden gears it’s pedaling to my son, and shove ’em up its caboose.