Dec 27 2011

Automoblox: cool idea, with an unfortunate gender-related flaw

Update: see comments for some corrections from the co-founder of Automoblox, which I will also include inline.

Reader James Sweet of No Jesus No Peas has discovered a bit of probably accidental sexism in a particularly innovative kids’ toy called Automoblox.

The toy concept is rather novel, as a sort of hybrid of LEGO and the good old fashioned wooden car, where kids might find something novel to do with them at many different stages in their development. The really young have a nice, sturdy toy car; as they develop, they might be inclined to take that car apart and put it together differently in mix-and-match ways, or just to explore shape recognition with the various sizes and shapes that each slot and tab has. With all the various parts that can be disassembled, from the car’s body in three sections, to the various interiors and hoods, to the little people to act as passengers, there’s practically no part of this toy in any of its incarnations that can’t be taken apart and put back together.

Evidently in the design process, though, nobody thought about what might happen if a kid decided to try to put one of the female passengers into the lefthand driver’s seat. It’s actually completely impossible to do so, owing largely to the rotational chirality of the female passengers’ slot-and-tabs. Note: this is apparently only true of the sportscar models, and other car models (and cars for other countries) include women in the driver’s seat by default.

I absolutely love toys as a method of learning. Considering how much of our development depends, and depends very heavily, on how we practice certain cognitive skills during play, providing a kid with a toy that engages and teaches them at the same time is a great boon and one of the best uses of our privileged society — to better the lot of our next generation in any way we can.

The design of this toy is both innovative and the crux of my problem with it, however. When you’re making a slot-and-tab type assembly rig, it’s often quite important to make it such that the slots and tabs only fit together one way, so people don’t put the parts together upside-down or backward. Sometimes, like in the case of the Automoblox where the goal is to encourage experimentation with the individual parts, the chirality of the slot and tabs serve as something of an impediment.

See the break-apart image pulled from their M9 Sportvan. The fact that some parts only go together one way means you can only build a functional car in a more limited set of circumstances, but the inserts can be pulled out and flipped around if you so choose you can evidently turn some models of cars’ middle sections 180°, so that impediment is slightly mitigated in most cases.

Exploded view of an Automoblox toy

As you can see here, there are four passengers: two male as represented by the larger, broad and barrel-chested figure, and two female, shorter with smaller heads and tapered bodies. The two males have a circle or square base, and the two females have a triangle or star shaped base. Here’s where it gets interesting — the insert that provides the base for the passengers has slots explicitly made for circle, square, triangle or star, to allow for practicing shape recognition when the child’s of the appropriate age.

However, only a circle or square is in the driver’s seat, and that seems to be the case in every model’s exploded view that I’ve seen, as evidenced by the staggered layout of male/female in some pictures, since you can only see the front passenger in this view and it’s definitely a triangle or star. James Sweet speaks from personal experience with the toy, where his son owns a set, and the problem exists in the one working copy we’ve seen between the two of us. It appears the insert can be removed and rotated, which would work to put a girl in the driver’s seat, except the slots are not rotationally symmetrical — in other words, you could put a woman in the driver’s seat, but you can’t make her face straight forward the way you can with a man. It is, at absolute best, completely problematic putting a woman in the driver’s seat in one of these toys.

This is an excellent example of an enforced gender role that, even if we try to correct the issue ourselves, we cannot, by design. If a shape had been used that had rotational symmetry, like a four-pointed or six-pointed star, then the problem would disappear. You could then put a woman in the driver’s seat if you so chose. Having the male as the default driver is one thing, and it’s even a bit of entrenched male privilege I’m okay with, given that I do the majority of the driving between Jodi and I. However, the fact that it’s impossible to fix that bit of privilege for, say, single moms whose kids would rather build a car that has Mommy in the driver’s seat like it is in real life, that’s something different. It’s a problem and it should be addressed.

I, like James and some of his commenters, suspect this is a “bug, not a feature”, and that the problem stems from the fact that nobody in the testing recognized this particular example of privilege. I will be forwarding this blog post to them as a commentary on the design via their contact form, and will recommend that in the next iteration of their clever toys, they get even cleverer and fix this oversight.

I reiterate — I do not consider Automoblox to be inherently sexist. I would, on the other hand, like to offer the solution that would prevent them from having multiple model presses for multiple scenarios, where they could simply make the inserts for the passengers rotateable and the passengers’ shapes rotationally symmetrical. This would probably lower their overall build costs by reducing the numbers of molds they’d need, and would eliminate entirely the need to choose between a man or woman driver in any particular model.


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  1. 1

    Will be interested to see their reply. I agree with you that it was inadvertent, but that says a lot about their designing and focus group testing (if there was any)… at some point, if they had women involved or even guys who were more experimental, someone would have tried to put the woman in the driver’s seat and found that it didn’t work.

  2. 2

    The question is not “Is Automoblox being sexist” but “How can Automoblox correct their sexist privilege next time they make a toy”. One would be horrible, the other is the question that people and companies should be asking theirselves constantly. I see no malice here either.

    I’ll send in a comment as well. The more comments they get, the more likely they are to fix it!

  3. 3
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    I do see “default human [in charge] = male human” as a problematic example of entrenched male privilege. If it weren’t such a prevalent idea, instances where it is impossible to correct flaws in design would be rare.

  4. 4
    Susan Calello

    Wow, I am surprised as a “journalist” that you did not do more research or at least pose this question to us BEFORE writing a piece. The female IS the driver in all cars except the sports cars. The people are a part of the learning process, each with it’s own specific shape base, therefore each passenger must sit in the corresponding seat. We did consider the woman when designing these cars, and decided she should be driving, as a progressive move. I lost the argument only on the sports cars, where the designer, a sports car fanatic, insisted the man drive.

    Your article also mention the the passenger insert could be “removed and rotated” which is not the case, the passenger compartment is permanently fixed in place.

    We worked long and hard on every detail of the product, the fact that some things can be put together “wrong” is a learning tools, to make correction. We spent countless hours with child psychologists to insure we had the right balance of learning, challenge and fun.

    I am disappointed you made an assumption about us without giving us a chance to explain the thinking behind the decision before writing this piece. As a global brand and product, the woman indeed is driving the sports car in the UK, Japan and Hong Kong.

    Next time maybe give the company a shout out before publicly accusing them of sexism.

    Susan K. Calello, Co-founder, Automoblox Company LLC

  5. 5
    kristinc, now with added ventilation

    Wow, Susan, it would have been really easy for you to inform JT in a friendly, professional, and reassuring way that this was not a universal issue with your product and that you share his concern for avoiding sexism with small children. Good thing you avoided that!

  6. 6
    Susan Calello

    It seems to me most people commenting seem to think there is a man in charge, that seems a bit sexist to me. Hmmmmmm

    Susan K. Calello, Co-Founder, Automoblox Company LLC (also, a woman and very much in charge)

  7. 7
    Susan Calello

    Kristinc, it would have been equally easy and professional, for him to have informed me or consulted with me before posting such a blog.

  8. 8
    Jason Thibeault

    Hello Susan,

    I appreciate your taking the time to correct the record, but I note there are a number of problems with that correction still. As a blogger, which I suppose by some accounts counts as a “citizen journalist”, I was expressing my opinion based on exactly the amount of information I set out in the blog post. I pointed out that I had a sample of one physical model and the exploded-views that I pulled from your website, and I expressly said that there was a probably unintenitonal flaw in the design and never, under any circumstances, accused your company of sexism.

    Privilege, on the other hand, is a different thing altogether, one that you admitted to when you were overruled when your designer insisted that the man drive the sports car. What is it about the cars that necessitate a man, exactly, in the driver’s seat?

    Why is my suggestion that future iterations could allow for the insert to be rotated by eliminating the chirality of the base for the women in any way incorrect, even if the actual insert does not come out? How is any of my suggestions so disappointing, exactly, coming as it does from a potential customer and interested citizen?

    I am, frankly, amazed at the quick turnaround time for a response on this blog post from someone so highly placed in your organization, but vastly underwhelmed with the level of hostility it generated.

    I will post this and all other communications on my blog post in the comments field.

    Thank you again for your time.

  9. 9
    Jason Thibeault

    I will also point out, Susan, that there is no need to have the woman be the default driver if all the passengers’ slots have rotational symmetry and the insert can also be rotated. The problem would be obviated allowing for the ability to put a male or female driver in any of your cars.

  10. 10
    Susan Calello

    While I am sorry for the response you feel was hostile, sexism is a pretty strong accusation, real or not. The time and attention to details seemed be be lost on a single issue. As the center block is interchangeable with all cars, simply using a center block where the woman is driving with the front and rear of the desired car (or vise versa), a man or woman could potentially be driving any of the cars by design. We wanted to use basic elementary shape children would be learning in their early years, which aside from the circle and square were not symmetrical. While I don’t expect every article to be positive, which in the nature of opinions, I would have liked to have a chance to give some reasoning behind the choices made, if your conclusion were still the same, I would certainly have to respect that. Again, I feel that sexism is a strong word and inflammatory, hence the knee jerk reaction.

  11. 11
    Greg Laden

    But if the females drive, where do the MRAs sit?????.

  12. 12
    Justin Griffith

    Careful, Susan. Don’t take it personally. Google the term “Ocean Marketing” (The PR firm that just imploded.)

  13. 13
    Juniper Shoemaker

    While I am sorry for the response you feel was hostile, sexism is a pretty strong accusation, real or not.

    I think Jason’s post makes it clear that he doesn’t view “sexism” as an accusation to be hurled at an opponent in a debate. Perhaps you should re-read his comment:

    I pointed out that I had a sample of one physical model and the exploded-views that I pulled from your website, and I expressly said that there was a probably unintenitonal flaw in the design and never, under any circumstances, accused your company of sexism.

    Privilege, on the other hand, is a different thing altogether, one that you admitted to when you were overruled when your designer insisted that the man drive the sports car. What is it about the cars that necessitate a man, exactly, in the driver’s seat?

    Why is my suggestion that future iterations could allow for the insert to be rotated by eliminating the chirality of the base for the women in any way incorrect, even if the actual insert does not come out? How is any of my suggestions so disappointing, exactly, coming as it does from a potential customer and interested citizen?

    Every single one of us harbors biases, many of which are unconscious or subconscious, against different groups of people. That’s because none of us lives in a cultural vacuum. Personally, I think it’s more important for all of us to examine the behavioral manifestations of our unconscious biases than it is to take offense at the “strength” of the labels applicable to that behavior.

  14. 14
    James Sweet

    I haven’t read all the comments yet, but I want to sincerely thank Susan Corello for taking the time to comment here. Both of the Automoblox my cousins got for us were sports cars, and the catalog that comes with them only pictured the passenger compartments of other sports cars — leading me to the erroneous assumption that it was the same with all of the models.

    As I said, I still haven’t digested all of the comments, but I do agree with Jason that the whole issue could have been avoided by a different choice of base shapes. But I also really appreciate that the company already appears to have been attempting to do the right thing from the get-go.

    Thanks again so much for taking the time!

  15. 15
    James Sweet

    Blargh, and then I got your name wrong too in replying. Sorry.

    I’ll be doing a follow-up post, and a comment here, soon. I feel sorta dumb that, instead of contacting the company and then blogging about it, I blogged about how I ought to contact the company and then got another much higher profile blogger to publicize it — still without having contacted the company myself. Whoops, sorry.

    The situation is still not perfect — more on this in a follow-up — but I really appreciate that Automoblox was at least trying to do the right thing. As I intend to write in my follow-up post, one of the lessons here is that in a world pervaded with institutionalized gender bias and stereotypes, sometimes there is no right answer. This aspect of Automoblox still makes me uneasy, but I’m now hard-pressed to say what I think they should have done instead.

  16. 16
    Ivonne Sadin

    I found your weblog web site on google and verify a couple of of your early posts. Proceed to maintain up the excellent operate. I just further up your RSS feed to my MSN Information Reader. Searching for ahead to reading extra from you in a while!…

  17. 17

    Interesting points to be made for sure. My biggest complaint about the Automoblox that I bought my son a couple years ago is the lack of replacement parts. And I don’t mean the wheels and tires but an actual block! I would love to be able to replace the part that my son decided to drop down a storm drain just so he could see what would happen. Well, he learned that piece is not coming back and Mommy can’t reach it and the storm drain grates don’t move etc. etc.

    And I have to admit I never took notice or issue of who was driving the car, but I did notice and appreciate that in the car we have there are four ‘people’ and the child has to match the shape to their spot in the car. To be fair I don’t think my son who was two at the time was at all that concerned about who was driving, but now that he is three, he some how thinks only girls can have pink things and boys must always have blue. I try to keep a gender neutral toy rotation and he even has a play kitchen. But I can’t keep him from people who use color to identify with gender. What I do is I tell him that girls can use blue toys and boys can use pink toys and that color really shouldn’t be the focus of your play time but having fun should. While I am sure automoblox did their due diligence on creating a pretty cool toy, I would rather take the driver seat and parent my child and let him know that anyone can drive (at the legal age and with a license)if he should ever ask the question, and I am almost certain he will at some point! In the meantime Susan, perhaps to expand your business model you could have some spare parts available for those parents who have kids that drop stuff down storm drains :-)

  18. 18

    I have collected automoblox since their inception and I find that they are an awesome toy and collectable. I’m a 37 yr old black man who could easily say how come there are no brown characters but I wouldn’t. I find my children and their friends who come to our house are always looking and playing with my collection because that’s what it’s for. To scrutinize a single car and gather what info you can from pictures from a website is stupid. When you talk about a product but don’t have the whole collection of 40+ cars to compare each other to, it make you look uninformed…and stupid. And while I appreciate the modern design and progressive nature of women driving, when it comes down to it, what they were made for was play. Not a discussion of sexism. In all the years that I’ve had them, not once have my girls or their friends said “Wow dad. All the women are driving. How cool and non-sexist.” They like the fact you can take them apart and make different cars. That you can put different color people in different cars. That they are sturdy. That their dad – who is 37, a father and friend and who likes and collects wooden cars and some other toys – is cool and gets what they are for, too. I’m guessing you didn’t have any children with you to play with this one car and check the website pics, did you? I agree with Karen. I’ll take the driver’s seat. Not my toys. Your point is moot. You had no other test pieces to compare against and no kids to test your sexism theory. You are uninformed.

  19. 19
    Jason Thibeault

    In a way, Damon, an end-run around the whole situation was done by making all the humans blue. This is race-agnostic, since no human race is blue. In the same way, either gender cues could have been eliminated entirely from the blocks, or design choices could have been made such that there’s no “need” to have any one gender of character be in any particular position.

    The whole concept is about being able to tear apart and rebuild the car to your own specifications. This specific instance is an unnecessary “forcing” of a particular orientation of a particular character into a particular spot. It’s ultimately entirely unneccessary, entirely avoidable.

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