Many of the games children play serve the function of acculturation into adult life. Several of the stories from The Afterlife of Discarded Objects are about mimetic play: “mimesis,” or imitation of the real world, essentially means mimicking the socio-cultural reality as it is, creating a representation of life in art, literature, or, in this case, games. Children playing with discarded objects that once belonged to the adult world often do so to “try on” adult lives, inhabiting the vast territory of social structures and relationships that has created and made these objects necessary in the first place. Many stories recall playing pretend grocery shops, families, professional lives, etc. More often than not, as Roland Barthes made clear in Toys, such mimetic games emphasize gender distinctions as children are socialized in the gender roles and prescribed behaviors that are reinforced through objects. For example, several recollections by men from different countries feature war games of their childhood:
When I think back to my childhood on the farm in Alabama my mind is drawn back to my brother and I sword fighting in the yard. We had vivid imaginations of war and military strategy, and with a broken tree branch or an old golf club as our swords we were unstoppable.
Austin, Lafayette, AL, 1990s
[…] Some of us used tree branches as automatic guns and played war. To make a good gun, you needed to find a stick with a thick end that looks like a magazine, and then carefully shave the rest of the stick against the fence. The cut off tree branches were also used to make roofs for the snow bunkers that were guarded by kids with those same tree guns. We made bombs and grenades from snow… do not confuse with the snowball game: we firmly believed that we were throwing grenades, not snowballs.
Alexander Yakovlev, Magnitogorsk, Russia, 1980s
Women, on the other hand, have shared memories centered on games that mimicked domestic life: cooking, housekeeping, or caring for others:
We used to go around garbage hunting with my friends and then used it in our games. Though sometimes the process of garbage hunting was interesting by itself. As we were girls we used the things we found as "interior design" and household objects in our makeshift houses. I think regardless of time and place, all girls like this process of setting up home.
Anastasia, Grozny, Chechnya, 1990s
My dad has parked his work truck in the same place every day for the past twenty years. Because of this, grass simply would not grow in that small spot near the side of the house. Every morning, after he left for work, I would make my way outside. I would dig through the trashcan under the carport and pull out Styrofoam plates covered in maple syrup, forks stained red from spaghetti, and cups with the coffee ring still in the bottom. The bald spot in the yard my dad used for parking was always a gooey mud pit. I would make my way out with my new treasures and use the mud to make food. Until the sun was sinking behind the clouds, I would imagine new recipes of fancy foods or trying to make things my Grandmother did.
Kennedy, Woodland, AL, 1990s
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.