Gender in Play: How Toca Boca Creates Apps for All Kids

We chat with Mathilda Engman about gender neutrality and Toca Boca apps.

By
Ingrid Simone, Toca Magazine Executive Editor
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Toca Magazine sat down with Mathilda Engman, head of merchandise and collaborations for Toca Boca, to chat about the company’s approach to building gender-neutral toys.

Mathilda Engman

Q: Toca Boca’s toys are described on TocaBoca.com as being gender neutral. Where does this value come from?

A: It comes from the belief in equal rights, and that no child should feel excluded or limited from the products that we make. In order to achieve equality between the sexes we think it is important to give girls and boys the same opportunities when growing up.

Q: Do you know whether certain Toca Boca apps are more popular with one gender?

A: Of course there are themes that are traditionally looked upon as being more popular among one gender, but we always try to work with how we can make these themes appealing to all genders. One could argue that some themes are so traditionally targeted toward one gender that you wouldn’t want to work with that theme, since it would only build on what’s already done in that category. But instead we try to challenge these themes and try to make sure it’s inclusive even to the non-traditional gender target group. One example of when we’ve done this is with Toca Hair Salon.

In Toca Hair Salon, there are not only women that you can style, which would be the case in most conventional hairstyling apps, toy sets and games. You can also style the hair of two guys and two characters that are more androgynous. And all the characters have the same possibilities. You can use the same hair colors, styling tools and accessories, and there’s a wide range to choose from — including what’s considered to be feminine and masculine.

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Studies by other companies suggest that Toca Boca is one of few play companies that offer gender-neutral toys to kids. In one, a UK research firm called Kids Industries did a test in which boys and girls alike enjoyed playing Toca Hair Salon 2, while boys were less inclined to play other hair shaping activities such as dolls or mannequins.

Q: Toca Boca does a lot of play testing with kids. Do you see any differences in how boys and girls interact with Toca Boca products?

A: There are as many differences in how kids interact with our products as there are are individuals. When we do the play-testing sessions, which is something that we do continually throughout the production phase, we look more to the different interactions and reactions of the products and try to solve interactional difficulties that we see the kids are having in a way that supports as many ways of interacting with the app as possible.

Q: Why should parents care whether their kids play with toys designed to target their gender?

A: Toys have a large impact on how kids play together and relate to other kids. But kids of today are fostered into watching different shows and playing with different toys according to their gender.

We know that when a toy reaches a child a choice has already been made for them, someone has picked a blue or pink toy, an action figure or a doll. We believe this is limiting to kids, not to be able to decide on your own what your interests are, and that gender-targeted toys create an unnecessary barrier between girls and boys. And we believe that girls and boys, brothers and sisters want to play together!

Q: Some companies have great commercial success with gender-targeted toys. Do you think they should do anything different?

A: As a leading developer of digital toys it is our obligation to offer diverse products. That’s how we see it, and it seems to be really appreciated by families and kids.

Q: Could you share a few examples of how Toca Boca embraces gender neutrality through its products?

A: As we believe that no kid (or parent) should feel that a Toca Boca app is not for them because of gendered signals in marketing, packaging or the overall feeling of the app, the gender neutrality aspect is something that we constantly work with in the design process when making our products.

In the beginning of last year we actively started working on a process to become even better at making gender neutral products. So we had workshops around the topic, invited gender experts and also created an internal Unisex Checklist that we use in the production of our products. This checklist is a set of questions to ask ourselves based on our guidelines. These are questions rather than answers on how to do things. So we have a lot of creative freedom within the guidelines, but the questions will remind us of important topics and lead us in the right direction.

Q: How does Toca Boca approach gender when creating characters?

A: We try to challenge norms regarding gender in our character design to represent a variety. We think about how they sound, what they do and how they do it, how they position their bodies, how they are dressed and so on.

One example of this is from the production of our app Toca Cars. We asked the studio that we work together with for recording voices for our apps to have the girl who’s the big sister to have a more adventurous voice and the little brother to have a more giggly voice. When the sound recordings returned back to our studio, the girl’s voice was the giggly one and the boy’s voice was the more adventurous. So what we did then was just to switch them with each other.

cars_genderAnother example of following our guidelines in this app is that the two siblings have exactly the same abilities while driving their cars. One thing we could have done even better would have been to have a third character to pick from, which could have a more undefined gender.

Q: Are there other things you consider from a design perspective when creating gender-neutral products?

A: We try to avoid the most common combinations of themes, colors and play patterns that “gender” a toy. We are all affected by marketing messages that surround us pretty much everywhere in our daily lives. It’s a fundamental human feature to categorize to understand the world. And even more so for kids; that makes them sensitive to these kind of signals. But we believe that male and female stereotypes limit kids’ possibilities to be themselves. So we as developers have to be aware of what — even subtle —messages we are sending.

An example of an app where we have worked with this is Toca Lab, an app where you get to work with elements in a science lab. This is a theme that traditionally has been targeted toward boys, and that’s why we chose to work with a bright and pastel color scheme, to distinguish us from many of the other science toys and apps that are out there. Each element that you can find in this app also has its own personality, something that appeals to boys and girls who like the role-playing aspect of play. So in these ways we try to challenge norms regarding gender in our products.

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Q: Have you ever changed a digital toy because you realized it wasn’t living up to Toca Boca’s gender-neutral promise?

A: With Toca Robot Lab we actually did an update last year, where we specifically worked with the gender question. This is one of our early titles, and we felt like we missed the opportunity to make it as gender neutral as we wanted it to be. We decided to go back and see if we could create a better gender balance. This is an app where you build your own robot and then take the robot for a test flight. Since the robot theme has historically been so targeted towards boys, we felt like we, as many before us, had somehow fallen in the trap of using conventional “boyish” colors, shapes and attributes. And we really wanted to see if we could make the app more appealing to both boys and girls.

 

So what we worked with from a design perspective was to add a bunch of new robot parts that would mix well with the old parts but also balance the chunkiness, dark color scheme and rusty feeling that the app had from the beginning. We added more vibrant colors, more everyday items and quirkiness, and also redesigned the icon of the app. Therefore, our new robot workshop offers imaginative, creative and fun parts that can be found anywhere in a child’s surroundings, not only in the tool shed. We have made an active choice to include recyclable objects. Examples include sweets, beads, coffee cups, electronic devices, straws, ping-pong paddles, pencils. All in a multitude of colors and options!

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