play trains

I’m sure there’s others but not too many of us want to be accused of playing with trains–the pain we feel by the word “toy” is felt regardless of being said. These aren’t toys because they cost a lot of money and they’re not toys anyway, as anyone can see, because they are detailed scale models representing…and so begins our effort to correct that unfortunate phrase. We’re serious. This isn’t play.

In, say, a “typical” HO scale operating session the action is moving the model trains but doing so involves accepting completely imaginary things like pretend loads and pretend rules. The presence of those pretend details is tangible and for the operating session to work they have to be experienced a very tactile way. We might lose sight of watching the models at work because we have to invest our limited mental resources into mapping these fictional events into the fabric of our current experience. Our humanity imposes a limit on mental resource to support this fiction and any spare resource is something we enthusiastically reallocate into decorating the experience with related emotional memory. Flicking on Drive Hold we grab another notch on the throttle and the exhaust bark is all we need to bring us all the way home. We are running a train just like running a train. We finish the session with all the feeling of satisfaction because we completed the work and it felt right. This equation is not unique to model railways. It’s easy to think of strategy games where contemplation precedes action and the more we invest into thought the wiser and more productive our movements are, making our session equal as an series of acts of dedicated concentration. In chess, poker, golf, or ‘running the Coal Peddler’ we invest some energy as a primer spent once the action is launched but do so trusting this is, in a sense, building something. What’s different is how, in our traditional operating session, we trust the work we did has happened mostly because we have moved on in time and at least we’re a little further down the switchlist. Most of our sense of action is calculated and weighed in my head.

My HO scale train set, “the one I had when I was a kid”, had a Life Like pipe unloading car and a little building with a mechanical arm that tipped the railway car over to dump out its load of pipes. My friend had a tinplate train set with a cattle dock that vibrated a herd of cattle onboard a waiting railway car. Marketed to children these action models never seemed to make it into “proper” model railways built by adults who no doubt saw these toys as the abominable novelties they were and rightly protected their fellow modeller from devaluing their work by including them. (“abominable novelties” is always how they seem to be regarded but these are darn fun accesories. I remember Life Like also sold a sawmill to load the “logs” onto those same cars and thinking you could pair the two together to make a fun little layout. “abominable novelties would also be a great band name but now I’m really getting distracted.)

What fascinates me about model railway projects like Campbell’s Quarry, Fen End Pit, and similar model railways is how they have incorporated elements of play into a scene that is equally presented as a scale model railway filled with proper models scratchbuilt, detailed, weathered, and controlled like any other traditional model railway element. How they model (behavioural modelling) play in an interaction with model trains. You can see, in the two videos embedded in this post, that the people don’t look so different from anyone else “operating” a model railway but what makes them and their experience different is that we can see more of what and why they are doing and how that enriches our impression of how this could be worth spending time doing. That collaboration of “DCC control and digital sound” meets “actually dumps the sand load” is fascinating because of the questions it suggests we could ask or at least think about. It’s certainly fascinating compared to how heavily invested traditional model railroading is in obscuring how the hopper car is unloaded and making sure the picking out of favourite trains to run next is done without witness. All that to project a presentation layer of only the controlled scene where we never visibly display the appearance of play. That we trust those around us believe us when we say we’re having fun so they accept our kind of fun as a deeply private, intimate, and personal kind. But is it also a kind of inaccessible fun?

In studying the role of play in the human experience we’re invited to look at how we can use play to practice and mature human interaction. To reinforce the social skills necessary to life by shifting a focus toward that work and making that possible by lowering the registry value of what is being done in terms of outcome. Involving other humans means we must provide connection points conscious of what is real or imaginary and guiding the outsider in by pointing out the navigation points from each. You need to know the potatoes we’re pretending to move aren’t real but the model train is very real and here’s how you control it. Until you are provided those clues how hard is it to estimate what is happening without the script?

We accept that certain dimensions can be scaled down to their correct miniature version. Other things like weight, sound, and light can not be removed from reality to be placed within the scale model terrarium so interfere with our effort like unwelcome dinner guests. We compensate for their impertinence by modelling how we think they should be. Programming momentum to represent the effect of weight, as a force, details that aspect of our fiction in much the same way that we’re learning to program in the effect of artificial distance on how sound is heard relative to the listener. In doing so we subtract the distraction of real life from our fiction. Returning our balance to acceptable tolerance levels by quietening the noise of real life invites a deeper sense of role in play and we submit more completely into our session.

I describe the frequent short operating sessions on my model railway but contemplate the appearance of that in progress operating session from outside. “What does it look like I’m doing?” or “Does this look like something you want to try?” I say how one of the things we prioritize in our home is being caught doing craft by the kids. We like how it models the value of investing our self into work as a way of communicating the value of things to them. Do and do good because the opportunity to do is always a privilege paid for in the quality of work we produce factored by the honesty we practised while doing it. As we stand, releasing new adults into the world who started as our children, I spend a little time thinking about how they’ll explain what they saw in their words. They’ll communicate the way we valued things because that’s a truth they witnessed. In displaying more of not just what we attended but how we did it would their sense of our relationship with this work be more fully-formed?

There is an unavoidable vulnerability discovered anytime we invest our self into an activity. Faced with what we’re doing and an external measure of what it appears like we’re doing I think we see the log unloader, the working steam shovel, ‘the car dumping out sand back into the same pit they’ve just dug the darn stuff out’ of and it looks trivial. Somehow that reminds us of how it felt when we played with our toys as children and that correlation reminds us how we wish to be seen as who we are and not cast forever as someone playing children’s games. So much of our adult life is invested into activities that serve our lives. That our present tense is a procession of moments from our future leaves us in a kind of perpetual state of caution. Taking ourselves away from that timeline to spend time in this hobby naturally feels a certain kind of irresponsible so countering with “how the prototype does it” moors us back to time spent not frivolously.

I’m thinking a lot about layouts like Campbell’s Quarry and Fen End Pit for reasons that extend beyond the prototype inspiration-modelling resources-satisfying modelling opportunities matrix to also include a contemplation on the broader role this hobby directly plays in my life. In these layouts I see no less opportunity for traditional modelling, indeed both actually showcase techniques well beyond the scope of median model railroading. In the context of play, it wouldn’t matter what I insist I see when “operating” the model railway because that’s mostly a hallucination I escape into but if it included more visual evidence of what’s being done is that a new opportunity not for just connection but invitation?

Beyond just thoughts on play as a social contemplation does this introduction of animation or activity within the layout also a way to understand why we “need” more of certain models? If we never visibly add or remove the load from a car by what definition is it a load and if we must imagine this definition how does “needing” more satisfy the story? Where maybe seeing sand loaded and unloaded feels more like actually seeing the doing of work it reinforces “more cars is more work”.

When we present model railways at public show is it more effective to model and display more of what we’re doing to expose more potential connection points? I think so. What we typically have is someone singularly involved in their train, lost in space, and it’s hard to know how to interrupt that to engage in that moment.

Returning to the operating session by incorporating more play are we more present in the operating session because our interactions are less theoretical leaving us with more time to be present in the shared experience but also instead of watching the models to get the work done we can relax and enjoy watching the models doing the work?

Categories: How I think

3 replies

  1. Great essay, Chris.

    We feel the pressure to abandon play as we become adults, so we can dedicate our time to the serious business of working. In many ways this is important, both as contributing members of society but also for personal growth and a sense of worth.

    However, I think Western society has gone too far toward making work the most important thing that an adult can do. We praise “hard workers” and “grinding” and throwing our entire selves into our jobs. At what cost?

    Play can help bring us back to being more balanced humans. Whether it is pretending that we are driving trains around on a 4×8 sheet of plywood, operating a miniature sand pit, playing board games, catching fish and throwing them back, firing paint balls at each other, or four-wheeling through mud pits, it’s all play and it helps take the stress of work away.

    We shouldn’t be ashamed of playing. Yet there is a definite pressure to “grow up” and a definite segmentation of activities into “kid’s toys” and “for adults”. As a kid I used to play with toy cars in my back yard, driving cars and tanks and trucks through the weeds, but as I grew older, it was obvious that teenagers weren’t supposed to do these things any more. Why is that?

    Don’t get me wrong – there’s a time for play and a time for work. Unless we’re independently wealthy, we can’t play all day… but there is a time for play.

    P.S. are the wheels of the sand car derailed at 1:30 in the J. Campbell quarry video?

    • I love it when a comment is better than the blog post I wrote. Thank you! You raise so many points and I wish this was a conversation in person.

      There is a correlation between play and work. Work without a sense of play’s natural curiousity and the way it harnesses that to guide exploration and new interpretations of situations. Our success at work could be drawn back to what we learned in play where the pressure of production was relieved from the scenario. In this way, model railways is like an ideal form of play and “play” is something we should be actively promoting as one of our greatest “why’s” of all.

      What I think we’re worried about is the appearance of frivolous play. There’s something about doing this hobby that feels so vulnerable and encourages us to take it as a very private experience that’s difficult to scale outward, beyond the self to invite others in to play with us. When we are playing in the way we’re afraid of that play is selfish and often to draw attention to the actor and not the actions being explored. When compared to popular sport or board games it’s the way we play that we focus on and we could do the same here because there’s a great big hobby here that’s so much more than train crashes.

      Examples like Fen End Pit and Campbell’s Quarry are ones that so fascinate me because while they look like traditional model railroading they express a purpose beyond the ‘runs trains on track’ to gain a sense of why the train runs at all. I highlight this because it marries a memory of play like your example to a matured sense of what those models could have looked like. Even as I read your example I immediately thought of our backyard in Orleans and playing with Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars on the ground with my friends. I can’t ever remember the roles of that play other than “plays well with others” but favourite toy cars easily spring to mind (including a Majorette 2CV, a Hot Wheels fire truck, and a couple of Ertl Dukes of Hazzard police cars I’d crudly repainted using Testor’s paints). That backyard play was vividly realistic and since I remember playing it with my friends no doubt we observed things that in grown-up model railroading wouldn’t be any different than the roles of the model railroad operating session. The only change is perhaps the models today are more fragile, sorry, “realistic”.

      I think if I had looked for opportunities to express a sense of play in how I practiced the hobby it would have appeared more invitational to those who see the work. My friends and family strongly and actively support my investment in the hobby but it must look really strange to them, from their perspective, because “what am I doing?” Answering that question might be easier if I could explain it in real world terms like “make it run smoother”, “make it sound better”, or “then we could carry more sand”.

      I’m going to need to rewatch the Campbell’s Quarry video. I never noticed that wheel. Come to think of it, in the context of how this model railway works a derailment here is more play value. Not a wild crash that destroys everything but the kind of thing you pause, correct, and carry on from…just like on the real tramway.


  2. And, because of the conversation this also occurred to me:

    When I look at Fen End Pit or Campbell’s Quarry it’s amazing how this extra dimension of experience seems to replace a need to correlate this to a real place or “prototype inspiration”. Because I can actually see it doing what it does I’m less in need of looking for learning more about where the real one worked. It’s as if I’m only in need of a prototype connection when the model leaves my imagination to interpret the work.

    I don’t doubt connections to real life sand quarries inspired their work and that matrix could be applied to interpret the work but in this case, my sand bucket is filled, right here.


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