The posters on the underground started appearing earlier in the year. A child wearing a fireman’s helmet blasts a hose towards the viewer. A second child operates a video camera. She’s taking her job very seriously: filming a third – a boy holding a microphone.
The children appear on a cobbled street lined with lampposts and businesses: a pizzeria, a hotel, a theatre. There’s something off about the scale, though. The shops seem smaller than real life, distorted, suggesting a set, reminiscent of a theme park’s Wild West.
What catches my eye is not the wacky outfits or ominously darkening blue sky, rather, the emotion on the fireman’s face: different from the usual theme park’s ice-cream-and-adrenaline shrieking-joy. He looks proud.
On the horizon, the only hint: a large grey block, representing a billboard or the end of a shopping centre, branded in cranberry letters: KidZania.
Over several months I see this poster as I traverse the city, each time gathering clues. ‘Get ready for a better world.’ When should I expect this world? From 25th June. And where? In smaller font, beneath KidZania, a pale orange colour: London. Role Play is involved. A strange government initiative, or dystopian movie marketing? And above Role Play, the words Real Life in large block lettering, shading from the brand’s cranberry to its light orange. But truthfully, except for waiting for the tube, I don’t think too much about it. I am neither a child nor the parent of one. I have my own shit.
Then, in mid-July, I receive a call from my sister. We’ve planned a visit for later that month. I am taking my niece to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My niece Laney is six, the age where she’s just starting to look to adults to figure out who she might be. We’ve previously bonded over a love of chocolate, and on one recent phone call, she admitted, cautiously, ‘I actually like books even more than I like chocolate.’ I told a half-truth: ‘Me too!’
My sister knows all about KidZania. Word has spread, as far as Leicester, of an exciting pretend city, built for kids, where they can play at being adults. She wants to fit in a trip while she’s in London, and I realise I want to see that pride from the poster, replicated on the face of my own beloved one.
Disneyland Paris. I was thirteen years old. Somewhere between the ice cream stand and the queue for Thunder Mountain, my father seized the opportunity to teach us about the difference between authentic and synthetic fun.
Rollercoasters, I learnt, were synthetic, and being strapped into a metal contraption styled as a runaway mine cart, hurtling through the disused, collapsing tunnels of a Far West mountain was a lesser form of fun. Compared to what, though? Authentic fun, apparently: fun you make for yourself. Writing a poem, painting a picture, putting on a play. Drawing from your own imagination, rather than the ‘imagineers’ of Disney.
My father’s reticence about queuing, again, for a ride, lent the lesson a suspicious hum. But even my thirteen-year-old self was becoming faintly aware that I didn’t enjoy the rollercoaster exactly – the queasiness, the fear – although I still got high from the splash of adrenaline. This fizzy pleasure was bolstered by deeper satisfactions: the imagined societal approval, for being brave, for playing against type, and from my mother, for knowing how to make myself happy.
We listened to our father, keenly; we maybe teased him a little, for spoiling the trip.
We arrive at KidZania in Westfield Shepherd’s Bush, a little after 2pm. We follow directions surreptitiously sought through mobile phone, and know we are getting close when we spy the nose of a British Airways plane, jutting out between the corner of M&S and Gap. My sister has done an impressive job of maintaining the surprise so far. We’ve managed to convince Laney that we made this mission of nearly an hour in order to show her this beast of a shopping centre.
I never know with Laney how deeply she buys her mother’s ruses. If questioned, she’ll offer 100 per cent credulity. But I’ve the growing sense that she has been on this merry-go-round one time too many. What tips her off? A tone in her mother’s voice? Or the reliability of a weekend surprise, to make memories in this island of mummy time? (Monday to Friday, my sister is a doctor.) I think the suspension of disbelief is becoming, if not calculated, then at least practiced. When we reveal that this all along was our destination – this weird protruding plane, this magical corner place between two mundane brands – her eyes grow wide and her jaw drops. She’s not merely reacting, she’s not purely faking – she’s making mummy happy.
At check-in we are given electronic wristbands; Laney is handed 50 Kidzos, KidZania’s official currency. Some activities pay salary, others cost. We enter KidZania, finding ourselves on the same cobbled, lamp-posted street as the poster. Catching sight of kids in paramedic scrubs, Laney drifts towards them, into a room themed like an A&E. She receives scrubs, ivy green, then perches on a cot to watch a training video featuring a cartoon dog. We look on through large glass windows like tourists at the zoo. The activity will last fifteen minutes.
A cartoon dog seems about right. I glance at the coffee shop and wonder about getting a flat white.
Just then the trainee paramedics rush from the A&E and bundle into the waiting ambulance, siren blasting. My sister, nephew Flynn and I follow the ambulance through KidZania’s mocked-up streets, past shops and businesses illuminated by strip-lights, and turning a corner, come to a halt outside a hotel.
The hotel is doing a decent approximation of a building on fire. It flashes angry red lights, and crackles with pre-recorded burning. Children only learn to differentiate between reality and fantasy from the age of three, and it is convincing enough to make Flynn, two, cry and reach for his mummy.
Children dressed as firemen are already at the scene, blasting the building with real water from a hose. Then the ‘police’ arrive, stretching out black-and-yellow barrier tape to keep us onlookers away. Amid this havoc, a member of staff posing as a firefighter falls, dramatically, to the floor, clutching her leg. Now Laney and her crew are up, wrapping the ‘wound’ with cling film.
I hadn’t been able to imagine how this miniature city would be achieved. How the so-called ‘Real World Role Play’ would manifest or hold attention or be organised – logistics seemed the biggest hurdle – and in my worldly, adult way I had therefore been unable to imagine that it could.
Laney is given her first wage of the day. She is an old hand at photographs, my niece; she always has her smile ready. The money doesn’t seem to mean much to her, but seeing an opportunity to make her mummy happy, she poses, making the notes into a fan. Her cheeks shine with her mum’s reflected pride.
My sister explains to Laney that some activities pay money, others cost. Chocolate Factory, Painting School, Smoothie Making and University – all these would reduce the Kidzos in her pocket. Others pay salary, as being a medic had. Laney agrees with her mummy’s strategy: earn first, then spend.
There are lots of possible activities, and it is tempting for us, the adults, to want to see Laney in a fireman’s hat, wearing cans in a radio studio, or treading the boards in KidZania’s own theatre. We read aloud to Laney from the leaflet the banquet of possible activities and her eyes glaze over, bored by choice.
Sensibly, her mother decides we should visit the job centre. At a bank of computers, Laney completes a series of questions and is handed a career diagnosis: she is The Philosopher, ‘a profound thinker’, and would excel at places like:
- Garment Processing
- The Dentist
- Recycling Plant
If she completes all the activities, getting them signed off as she goes, she can return for extra Kidzos. I am a little suspicious about the jobs, wagering that the centre only allocates kids to the unpopular ones, and fear my suspicion confirmed when, arriving at the dentist, we find no queue. Silver lining: Laney will receive the undivided attention of a grown-up (or ‘Zupervisor’) as she goes about her play.
Laney has a charming lack of cynicism about the drabness of her allocated tasks. She is a completist. Like most children, she mostly wants to be good. The couple of times she is scolded over the weekend, you can see a curiosity peeking through her scrunched-up tantrum: Is this who I am? Am I a naughty kid? But it was only role play, an apron she’d try on to get attention that was, to her erstwhile only-child mind, being squandered on her brother.
In the dentist’s surgery, two-thirds the size of life, Laney dons a peony-blue apron, and washes her hands at the sink. At the Zupervisor’s request, she moves to the dummy reclining in the dentist’s chair, and using a plastic probe and mouth mirror, sets about the fiddly task of removing wads of a Play-Doh-like substance from the dummy’s mouth.
I take photos through the glass to show her mother, who’s taken Flynn to the early learning area, and consider what sort of fun this is. Laney seems to be concentrating deeply, fully focused on the task, but one time she looks up at me directly through the glass. It’s an eerie sensation that seems to give the lie to her fully immersed child-play. Focusing on a task for the approval of an authority figure must surely be less authentic than one undertaken for its own sake? But is there such a pure thing as fully authentic play? Aren’t we always trying to make happy some internalised authority figure, the voice of dad or mum?
A text from my sister, ‘Is she getting jobs signed off?’, brings back memories of sitting beside my mother in the job centre as the administrator tried to find her work as a supply teacher. It is about this point that I start wondering what KidZania’s game is. It’s impossible to consider the park removed from its historical context: the rise in tuition fees, the related movement towards degrees with vocational application, the increased likelihood of jobs laid waste by automation.
Perhaps six is too early to be inculcating children in the world of work. Many of the jobs are suspiciously entry-level, and I wonder if the scheme isn’t in part about getting kids excited about life paths that don’t involve higher education. I’m a little disheartened by the ease with which we’d eschewed the University where, according to the website, Laney would have learnt ‘critical thinking’ and ‘self-knowledge’ as well as ‘gratitude’, ‘respect’ and ‘responsibility’.
Later I learn that, had we put Laney through University first, supporting her through the twenty minutes it takes to receive a Bachelor of Medicine or Engineering, she would have earned additional Kidzos for jobs that were related to her degree. Perhaps that would have narrowed her focus unnecessarily soon. Still, it makes you think. Had we been in the know, had our strategy been less earn-first spend-later, we might have been better off.
I had yet to see the intensity of pride on Laney’s face that I’d seen on the toothy fireman in the poster, and had to remind myself that that child is an actor.
The adult dentist signs Laney’s laminated sheet with erasable marker, and pays her 8 Kidzos. We go looking for another job on the list. We ask a Zupervisor, a smiley lady in a hijab and fluorescent jacket, whether her station is the garment processing centre. She acts mock-offended, ‘Well, yeah, that’s me but we’re fashion recycling, not garment processing!’ The decal on the glass reads H&M fashion recycling factory.
Brands are everywhere at KidZania, from the Wall’s Ice Cream Factory to the British Airways’ Plane. When you learn how smoothies are made, it’s in the Innocent Smoothie Kitchen. When you park your buggy, it’s in the Big Yellow Storage. At the time, it doesn’t bother me, and it certainly doesn’t bother Laney: their presence adds an adult-world gloss to the child-size streets, the way the inclusion of a household name can add prestige to a CV.
Laney is ushered into a brightly lit room with white walls and a holistic-seeming AstroTurf floor, given a lime-green jacket with reflective stripes, and joined by other children. They all take a seat at one of the tablet-screens, stationed around a central island. An animation begins, featuring clothes moving along a processing line. The children have to read the information on the clothing’s label, and select the right button: cotton, polyester, nylon.
It seems like the kind of task that would be at high risk of automation.
Perusing the leaflet, some types of jobs are conspicuously absent. Editor, for example. Teacher. Also, there are no programming jobs, as far as I can tell. This seems like an oversight. Kids begin to understand the basics required to learn code at age four, the same as the recommended lower limit for KidZania.
Laney comes out of fashion recycling, skipping. ‘She gave me extra money, but she told me not to tell anyone,’ she shouts.
‘I always tell them not to tell anyone.’ The fashion Zupervisor has followed her out. She laughs, indulgently. ‘It’s always the first thing they do!’
‘Did she do really well?’
‘Yes. They all did very well.’
Later Laney would tell how, when the lady awarded the extra Kidzos – 20 instead of 8 – one of the boys piped up, ‘Can I have fifty?’ Laney opened her eyes, really wide, as though she could barely believe it, it was that scandalous.
We head to the last job on our list, at the recycling centre. It’s about 3.45, but recycling sessions run hourly, presumably because they are less popular than animation or chocolate-making.
Laney is buoyant as we wait, occupying herself by dancing, somewhat manically, to the song blasting from the city street’s speakers: ‘I Want Candy’.
I am beginning to suspect that my father’s distinction no longer holds up; that authentic and synthetic fun are neither fully separate nor properly comparable.
Implicit in the idea of synthetic fun is the profit motive; a connection explicit in the work of Jeremy Sandford, from whose 1967 book title the term is borrowed. But by the 2010s, the difference between ‘fun you make for yourself’, and fun made and sold to you, is blurry, often intentionally so – as KidZania encapsulates. Universities are run like businesses. Prestige TV is lauded for its ability to challenge cerebrally, but as the product of profit-seeking companies, its ultimate loyalties don’t lie with the viewer’s personal enrichment. Social interactions are performed on social media for monetary gain (and increased leverage in the job market). Meanwhile, Kidzania invites active play to enhance buy-in, both of the activities and the brands who sponsor them, evoking real-world anxieties, conjuring real-world stakes.
As a child, I’d taken the simple meaning from my dad’s definition of authentic fun – ‘fun you make for yourself’ – as fun created under your own steam. I see now that it has a second meaning: fun created in your own interests; fun that primarily benefits, not shareholders or business owners, systems of society or culture, but yourself.
At KidZania, I am fascinated by how quickly Laney gets the game, how smoothly she’s buying into the logic of the workplace. The excitement with which she greets new Kidzos reminds me of my stints at TGI Fridays, where a job done with maximum focus, energy and attention was rewarded, mostly reliably, with cash. I had enjoyed the jangle of tips in my pouch; like Laney, I had heard the breathless whisper of notes rubbing against each other; felt the panic that they would fall out of my apron; as I crossed the threshold to my home, I’d held tight so they wouldn’t end up in the wash.
The fun I’d experienced was real, but was it also mine? In 2018, TGIs would become one of 179 companies fined for paying workers less than the minimum wage.
Laney goes to the job centre to collect the money she’s owed. We’re now ready to proceed to the activities that cost. The fun parts.
In the Cadbury Chocolate Factory, wearing a chef’s hat and apron, Laney holds a bar of Dairy Milk and smiles sweetly as a camera flashes. The official KidZania photographer knew we were going to be here because of her electronic wrist-band. We will have the option to purchase the picture when we leave, but Laney looks sallow, wan, beneath the strip-lights, sandy hair hidden in the mushroom of her hat.
As we race from Climbing Wall to Painting School, Ice Cream Factory to nut-bar ‘Makery’, I sense a disappointment thrumming her small body, and an unquestionable thirst, as though the pressure of enjoyment could never match the promise of achievement. Outside the Innocent Smoothie Kitchen, where a decal on the glass reads this is where the magic happens, she shares her drink-prize with Flynn, reservedly.
After a quick visit to the pretend department store, where Laney exchanges her remaining Kidzos for a badge-making kit, we leave. In a burger restaurant nearby, I ask what her favourite job was. She says it was the last one, making the nut-bar, and I am surprised because it had seemed underwhelming – more of an assembly line than a ‘Makery’ – but perhaps her choice has little to do with the task itself. Outside the Eat Natural-branded room, ‘I want to get a photo of Laney under that sign,’ says my sister. ‘Laney’s Daddy really likes those bars.’ Although we had managed to avoid the theatre, the kid’s enthusiasm for work had still become a sort of performance. This is part of the draw, for us parent-types, perhaps: your loved one will be fine. Even against the backdrop of torturous tuition fees, job-stealing robots. Look at that fan of cash, she gets it! Look at the pained smile, she’ll be great! A feeling more powerful than joy, or pride even – it’s relief.
I want to be able to promise Laney a life like KidZania: engaged supervisors, personalised career options, reliable rewards. But I know that life will also mirror my suspicions about KidZania: jobs metered out more to meet a system’s requirements than an individual’s talents; opportunities aligning more closely with bravado than merit; rewards that seem random, or the result of circumstances outside one’s control.
Somewhere between university, where I graduated into a recession, and a decade of work – and work-seeking – I had lost a decent portion of my childhood’s magic. KidZania helped me to articulate the loss.
My father’s synthetic-fun lesson, like a spell gifted by a fairy godmother at the liminal space of a christening, had left me believing that a life lived in the pursuit of authentic fun would be a life lived under a protective power. ‘Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’ goes the successful person’s mantra. But those jobs are easier for some to find than others, and loving a job does not mean it’s in our interest, either as an individual or as a society. Imaginative play is valued to the extent that it is profitable. Good things come not to those who work, but who are predisposed to thrive in the system. Our factories, and warehouses, are full of philosophers – even, no doubt, those who like books better than chocolate.
The day before, Laney and I had gone to see Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane.
Laney was perched on my lap, soft legs slung either side of my knees, as this was the only way she could see, from our cheap seats in the front row of the balcony. We listened to the song emanating from Wonka’s mouth, as he traversed the stage, in a glass elevator the size of a phone booth . . . and it sounded hollow. I wanted to believe in everything Wonka was saying. Pure imagination. I’d based my life on that:
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?
There’s nothing to it.
We left the theatre; I asked Laney what she thought of the song.
‘It was too loud,’ she said.
I persevered a couple more times, trying to tease out the required feeling, before resorting to bald instruction, ‘It was a good lesson though, right?’
‘I want mummy,’ she said.
It was busy outside the theatre: people milling around, others crossing the road. I hung onto her warm hand, tightly. ‘But it’s a good lesson, right? That you can be anything you want to be?’
She looked around at the people, peering at them, trying to tease out mummy’s face, the buggy, Flynn.
‘I mean, not anything . . .’ I trailed off, also looking for her mother. Outside the Theatre Royal, my anxiety and self-criticism boxing me in, I tried to think of something she absolutely couldn’t be . . . her mother is four feet ten. Laney probably isn’t going to be a sprinter. ‘I mean, you can be successful, as you like, within specialisms . . .’
Laney squinted up at me, furrowing her brows. I don’t think she believed me, and I didn’t believe me, and because her mum wasn’t around, neither of us had to pretend.
Image © Kevin Simpson