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The power of play

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

Illustration by Jack Cassel-Gerard

Play holds a special place in all of our hearts, as children we all took to play to expand our imaginations, make sense of growing understandings and most importantly; have fun! Toys and games contribute to development of cognitive and physical abilities, as well as social and emotional skills that are vital to a child's navigation of the world. Having such an impact on their demographic makes the toy & games industry one of the most influential, and on top of that makes it one of the most fascinating – here's what we've been noticing.

Building Brains

During childhood our brains are sponges, we absorb information from the outside world in so many spectacular ways. Since the birth of the market, educational toys and games have been prevalent in the sector – one of the first toys I remember playing with was a wooden abacus (how riveting). Mostly following a format that reflected early stage education curriculum, these toys focus on basic arithmetic, spelling and general knowledge (country names, colours, animals etc.). However, with a growing appreciation for non-curricular learning methods we're seeing toys and games that enhance more parts of the brain and focus on skills like creative thinking and problem solving.

Construction toys have long been the epicentre of creative play - building anything you like from scratch not only expands the ability to think flexibly but improves motor function and problem solving too. Using this play structure as a platform for further educating is a very clever one, and one that big brands aren't shying away from. Industry leader LEGO's BOOST Creative Toolbox combines the constructive joy of Lego building with technology, you can build a series of robots all with differing functions that you code in yourself. Teaching the children of today how to code seems to be finding its way into every sector but what better a way to introduce such technical knowledge than with toys that you build yourself.

One thing we noticed when thinking about educational play is that the term seems almost synonymous with skill-based learning – learning HOW to code, HOW to count, HOW to spell etc. Wouldn't it be awesome to see different types of education being introduced? Take awareness for example, we live in a complex world that is quite often not in the scope of children, yet more and more children are being inspired to make change and take on amazing feats. If only the access to awareness was greater maybe we'd see millions of Greta Thunbergs. We took the liberty of designing our very own Lego kit...

Greta Thunberg LEGO concept by Liberation

Classic Toys Making Noise

So, apparently the consensus method for making a product relevant to modern markets is to cyborg it - throw technological advances at the project until it's almost unrecognisable... the world of film has been trying this for a couple years (Disney live action remakes, Blade Runner 2049, Ghostbusters). The same can be said for many classic toys and games that have been injected with tech hoping it gives them a new stance in today's market. It's very understandable that due to tech infiltrating so many aspects of modern life that many toys and games look to mirror the demands, but sometimes a classic is called so for good reason.

A prime example of a classic that has been through countless editions is Monopoly. The Hasbro board game has been catalysing family feuds since 1935, capitalising on pop culture phenomena in their releases of over 1,000 versions – they've covered everything from localised geographical editions to Disney based boards. Their alternative editions appeal to fandoms in every corner of the pop culture sphere, but attempts to bring the game into the 21st century may not have struck such a chord. Hasbro's release earlier this year of a cashless version of Monopoly features a central interactive banking unit in the shape of a top hat. The voice activated accessory is your banker, taking care of all the 'cash' management throughout the game. We can see the appeal, it grants more characterisation for the game itself – Mr Monopoly is the interactive banker, giving an extra layer to a character that traditionally has a small part to play. Although, we can't help but feel this electronic banking unit takes away from the central concept of Monopoly which is... cash! Certainly for lots of players, handling the notes, exchanging with players and even paying rent is all part of the experience and most of the thrill is parting with what feels like (for the duration of the game at least) real money.

One classic toy that has show an innovative attitude when it comes to modernisation is the Rubik's cube. Instead of upgrading their product and risking departure from its purpose, Rubik's increased the way their customers can interact with the Rubik's world. Their website is overflowing with cubey-content; forums, blogs, competition posts etc. Creating a platform that expands the number of ways in which your product can be interacted with is a very clever way to retain relevance and keep it modern whilst holding on to the integrity of the product itself. Rubik's have really nailed this one.

It's not always the retro trying to catch up and modernise; in recent years a great appreciation for the old school has resulted in brands from every industry leaning towards a throwback aesthetic and feel. Have a look at this collection of logos that have been redesigned in a Bauhaus style -

Grown Up Kids

The past few years have seen a huge incline in adults purchasing toys and games. The rise of the 'kidult' certainly took its share of the market, accounting for 11% of all toy sales in 2017, and that figure has only been growing since. For years, adults were seen as very serious and professional folk that had to fit a particular role and could only enjoy things like golf and getting drunk. Thankfully, this attitude has been dwindling and the freedom to enjoy yourself however you please has been more readily adopted. Spending power is controlled predominantly by the millennials, a generation that grew up with video games and comic books – it's no surprise they're more willing to commit their cash to the toy industry.

This Asda advert is heart-wrenchingly lovely, a great way to show how imagination is still vital to us even when we're grown ups. -

As the value of play and imagination is more widely recognised, the uses of play become wider spread too. Gamification is a term used to describe the application of game mechanics to non-gaming tasks. Adding gaming qualities to different formats drives user engagement, enhances the overall experience and makes the engagement far more memorable and long-lasting to the user.

When we were asked by Google to help bring an extra element to their experience showcasing Google Assistant at the IFA 2018, we knew that gamification would be a brilliant way to engage an audience in an exciting and interactive fashion – after all they were walking around a consumer electronics exhibition all day and could do with some fun. These pins could be found and collected from different stalls that were compatible with the product, illustrating not just the story but the reach of Google Assistant too. After collecting them all there was a chance to win heaps of products. The large engagement was a testament to how much adults want to have fun and add play into more mundane activities.

As such an immensely vast market, the room for innovations in the toy & games industry is relatively enormous. Play has proven to be valuable across all ages, holding such an important role in the development of children, opening the minds of adults with encouraged imagination and even providing older players with a visit down memory lane. The market is adapting to the growing demographic by creating versatile solutions that fit into any category, it's merely a matter of time before we see playful behaviour encouraged across most aspects of our daily lives. Say, fast-food... "Score 5 hoops to get your free burger!"

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