Tree_Rex_Package Tree Rex. Eye Brawl. Scarlet Ninjini. If you’re the parent of a small boy there’s a good chance you know these names well: the ferocious cast of Skylanders, a computer-game-meets-action-figure franchise which has become my son’s first honest-to-goodness playground craze.

“Meets” here really means “versus”, in the way a mash-up is “versus”: the gaming and collectibles elements are fused to a fiendish degree. You play the game by placing a physical figure on a “portal of power” – presto! There he is on the screen, stomping around a pretty standard 3D platformer thing. The more figures you buy, the more characters you can use; the more characters you can use, the more game elements you unlock, and the more money Activision makes. There is very little Skylanders merch – no TV show yet, no comics, none of that paraphernalia – because why should there be? The basic collect-and-play mechanism has plenty of financial life in it.

This physical-digital fusion is the heart of Skylanders’ appeal, and it’s innovative in several ways, not all of them so fun. Playgrounds have always been hothouses where peer pressure and parental income brutally intersect – Skylanders rewards wealth (if not thriftiness) like any collectible fad. No novelty there. But successfully importing this mechanic into a console game is setting a precedent. The virtue of console and PC gaming used to be its completeness: buy a game and you’ve bought the whole game. Not so Skylanders: to my knowledge it’s the first really successful application of the “in-app purchase” model of mobile gaming to the big-ticket console mainstream.

Except, of course, the purchases are very much out-of-app: chunky, colourful, satisfyingly real figures. Frankly, they’re often gorgeous – good production values meet distinctive design. Some of the figures aren’t much cop – the dragon ones, a holdover from Skylanders’ genesis as a way to save crap 00s franchise Spyro The Dragon, are fussy and flimsy. But the others are great – there’s a kinetic, Kirbyish delight in action in the likes of Pop Fizz, Jet Vac and Tree Rex, which is pretty impressive given the figures have zero points of articulation. A limitation they work to their advantage – you want to see these guys unfreeze and come to gleeful life. (The graphical reality is actually kind of disappointing and jaggy to my adult eyes, but there’s no telling the kids that.)

Skylanders has accessed something very potent – physical objects which look and feel good, are satisfying to own, possess a mystique and beauty of their own, then come fully alive when unlocked by technology. But Skylanders didn’t really hit on this – it was lying around waiting for a game to pick it up, because it’s the same thing the music industry ran on for decades. Essentially, the appeal of Skylanders to kids is the same as the appeal of vinyl records and their packaging to grown-ups. Physicality, aesthetics, collection, anticipation and realisation through technology: these are the pleasures of vinyl as surely as they are the pleasures of Tree Rex whacking some pile of villainous polygons.

But the two desires are framed quite differently, in ways which speak to their media’s different history. Skylanders physical-technical interface is presented as a bold innovation, futuristic thanks to the invocation of words like “RFID” and “Near Field Communication”. It seems magical that a figure placed on a disc should suddenly appear on a screen in roaring life. But let’s face it, it also still seems pretty magical that a black circle can conjure songs from the air.

As this post from the Hardcorefornerds tumblr points out, there’s very little utilitarian, “you need it to play music” argument for vinyl – and Skylanders’ gameplay would be the same if it was entirely digitised and you did simply unlock new characters by forking out a tenner each for them. But of course the emotional impact would be quite different. Skylanders and playing records both situate themselves as a break from a digital norm – in Skylanders’ case the break is new and thrilling, in vinyl’s case the break is an act of resistance, a return to the authentic. The appeal of each is probably determined by your gut reaction to these narratives – which is why Skylanders is marketed to 8 year olds and vinyl to 38 year olds. In both cases the economics involved in the sale of high-margin goods get sidelined by these tales of emotion and innovation.

Games and music also have a very different relationship to nostalgia. In music the locus of respectable nostalgia is shifting, I’d say, from the content of music to its context. Writers who see a loss of music’s forward progression, and lay the blame on the weight of the past and artists’ obsession with it, are themselves often happy to wax lyrical about older formats, networks, and rituals of consumption. Games, on the other hand, seem to me to only recently have discovered the commercial power of nostalgia (i.e. getting people to repurchase old games on iTunes) and are some distance away from the flowering represented by format revivals. For that you’d need to be selling Radio Shack Tape Recorders and A/V leads, not a Portal Of Power.

The Skylanders audience is too tiny (age wise) for nostalgia anyhow, but among the standard consumerist lessons the toys hand out, the game is teaching them something about the value of the physical in a virtual world. Is this a good lesson to learn? It’s probably one that will end up with them spending more money. But amongst ad planners, technologists and cultural critics alike, the physical is so hot right now – in an odd way, Skylanders taps into some of the same currents as “maker culture” and the longing for durability. The levels and XP your creature gains are embodied in its physical form – lose it (or swap it) and you lose them: it’s a literal gamification of the aura of ownership and the patina of experience objects gain over time. Maybe the Skylanders fans of today are the physical revivalists of tomorrow – yet another generation of young people who, like Boomers or Gen X’ers or Millennials, “crave authenticity”. Or so marketers like to tell us. But if I’ve learned one thing from my marketing career it’s that “authenticity” generally just means “price premiums”.