Playtime: it’s not just for kids but part of the human condition. On a planet with an aging population, adults are playing video games, relaxing with casual gaming or testing their skill at piloting drones. Toys are all grown up!
Text: CINTIA PERAZO photos: MACARENA ACHURRA Production: MACARENA RIVERA thanks to: HASBRO
“In my house I have put together a collection of small and large toys I can’t live without. The child who doesn’t play is not a child, but the man who doesn’t play has lost forever the child who lived in him and he will certainly miss him. I have also built my house like a toy house and I play in it from morning ‘til night.” Pablo Neruda understood the importance of play and expressed it in a charming and poetic fashion.
Since the dawn of humanity, there have always been toys. Stones, branches and animal bones may have been our first marbles, bats and balls, revealing our need to create and use a range of objects for entertainment. But gradually society began to make toys the domain of children, with responsibilities falling to adults.
Under the concept of hobby or pastime, adults have come up with a way to keep playing, thus preserving a sort of personal playground that takes us back to a time when we played alone or with our friends. It’s almost like therapy. “Play has a positive impact on everyday adult life. It’s the moment when we are free again,” explains Analía Esther Méndez, from the Department of Occupational and Recreational Therapy at the Instituto de Neurología Cognitiva (INECO) in Buenos Aires.
From Action Figures to Drones
Many of us fondly remember that time in our childhood when everything revolved around trading cards. It’s a fever that refuses to fade away, returning time and again, especially in association with current events. The furor over the World Cup in Brazil last year and the Copa América in Chile this year created perfect excuses for parents to help their kids fill albums with trading cards featuring players from the national teams. Throughout Latin America, parents and children would meet strangers on street corners to trade cards in the hopes of completing the set. It was almost a competitive event in itself, with apps designed to help track which cards you had and which ones you needed.
For the grown-ups, playing is a chance to return to childhood, if only for a little while. It means being allowed to have fun, to dream, to get excited.
The really “big kids” prefer puzzles and board games like Monopoly. In fact, Monopoly is ranked as the most played board game in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. Its success has been so noteworthy and pervasive that Monopoly has been produced in more than 100 versions and translated into more than 40 languages.
These family games are complimented by hobbies that require serious dedication and patience, like building models, with grown-ups spending hours painstakingly assembling airplanes, boats and entire cities with working trains that approach the realm of art and boast complex, interconnecting systems, fine detail and tremendous realism.
As collectors, adults may strive to acquire the complete set of action figures from a series, certain iconic products or every issue of a given comic book. Still others get their kicks assembling racetracks or creating enormous constructions with tiny bricks.
LEGO is an example of what a company can accomplish when it caters to the dreams of young and old alike. Founded in Denmark in 1932, the company has successfully mixed play with creative learning. Its products are currently sold in more than 130 countries. Brick by brick, LEGO has shut out Mattel (and the iconic Barbie doll) as the world’s top toymaker, with US$1 billion in profits last year.
In recent years, these classic games and toys have been joined by more technological options that have captured the imaginations of those who love to play. And at the top of the list are video-game consoles and two immortal game themes: soccer and combat.
The numbers tell the story best. According to Newzoo, a leading consulting firm in the industry, the world video-game industry made nearly US$100 billion in 2014 alone. To put that figure in perspective, the film industry made less than half that much in box offices sales last year.
And the latest fad? Radio-controlled vehicles have seized the market with an endless variety of options, from the most basic to highly advanced. Last year, drones – radio-controlled, miniature aircraft with built-in video cameras – were an incredibly popular Christmas gift, and it’s estimated that this year they’ll be among the most coveted presents for kids and their parents alike. According to the British newspaper The Guardian and the relevant U.S. standards and trade organization, the Consumer Electronics Association, radio-controlled toys should pull in about US$130 million in 2015. And this is just the beginning: by 2018, the figure should reach somewhere around a billion dollars.
Toys for Grown-ups
Several factors have led companies that traditionally make toys for children to increase their selection of products aimed at adults. One reason is the growing population of people over 60 years old. In 2000, one out of every ten people in the world was a senior citizen age 65 or over, and by 2050, this population will increase to one out of five.
And the industry is responding in kind. Utku Tansel, a researcher specializing in toys and games for the consulting firm Euromonitor International, explains: “In Japan, to counteract the declining child population, Japanese toymakers have successfully expanded the age range of their target consumer. (…) In 2011, toys targeting over 20-year-olds accounted for more than 23 percent of all traditional toy sales in Japan.”
By 2018, there will be 3.3 billion smartphones
in the world, the perfect platforms for casual gaming.
Even so, on a global scale barely ten percent of traditional toys are made with adults in mind. Why is that figure so low? According to Euromonitor International, it’s due in part to the continued belief that toys are for kids.
Extensive efforts are being made to broaden the market. Collector’s items, building toys, models, puzzles and outdoor toys might be perfect categories to capture the attention of an older audience. “If manufacturers could allocate just a little more of their overall R&D budgets to products targeted at adults, the returns could be surprising,” says Tansel. The future for toymakers looks promising, provided they play their cards right.
For further evidence, just look at the findings of the U.S. Toy Industry Association, which reported that from 2013 to 2014, the biggest increases in sales were in building sets (up by 13 percent), while sales of puzzles, board games, action figures and electronic toys all increased by 10 percent.
The Rise of Casual Gaming
Always online. Always mobile. The dynamic created by new technologies means that games are no longer stuck in the living room (or wherever the television is). The possibilities that mobile devices offer have helped promote “casual gaming.” These games don’t require a big time commitment but invite people to play wherever and whenever they have a little free time. It’s a process that goes hand in hand with the massive adoption of these small-scale computing platforms. In fact, it’s estimated that by 2018, there will be around 3.3 billion smartphones in use around the world.
Plus, these days anyone can create a game and make millions of dollars. Remember Angry Birds? It has three billion downloads to date. And everyone from a business exec traveling first-class to a worker commuting on public transportation can become an experienced gamer. All you need is a smartphone or a tablet and the urge to play.
Why is this phenomenon so widespread? According to Newzoo’s most recent report on the worldwide mobile gaming industry, profits hit US$25 billion in 2014. “Mobile games are on track to replace the traditional console market as the largest game segment by revenues in 2015,” states the report.
But consoles aren’t at risk of extinction: they still thrive in the world of video games. Gaming devices appeal equally to children and adults, who never seem to tire of sitting in front of a screen pretending to be a soccer superstar, a racecar driver or an army commander.
Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox are embroiled in a hard-fought competition to seduce the world’s gaming enthusiasts. The most militant gamers are devoted to their console of choice and will defend it passionately. Others prefer the more childlike and playful tone of the Nintendo Wii.
Regardless, certain franchises appear unbeatable. And in the world of consoles, the reigning champion is a soccer game called FIFA. Its fans are so devoted to the game – which has sold more than 100 million copies – that since 2004, the world soccer association, PlayStation and EA Sports (the game’s developer) have hosted the FIFA Interactive World Cup (FIWC), a worldwide competition to determine the world’s best player. This year’s winner, a veritable Messi or Ronaldo of the controller, was Saudi Arabia’s Abdulaziz Alshehri, who won the crown, a US$20,000 prize and a ticket to the Ballon d’Or award ceremony.
Is this madness? A waste of time? “Games have a certain kind of magic. At first glance, they may seem trivial and frivolous, but ultimately they offer real benefits. When we play, we get in sync with our most profound truths, our most human form,” explains INECO’s Méndez.
Neruda built his home as though it were a toy. Another great writer, George Bernard Shaw, thought along similar lines: “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.”. in