Two Days of Play: Recap of World Congress of Play 2014

Posted by Sasha on Monday, September 15th, 2014

Can you imagine a conference where getting up in the middle of a panel discussion to TP the room is not only allowed, but encouraged? At the World Congress of Play (WCOP), adults get to talk for two days straight about play, in all its various forms, and to play a lot themselves. As an attendee, I spoke to industry executives in silly voices at the request of a speaker, tested out cutting edge robotic toys, and even got to romp around in an interactive playground during coffee breaks.

TP at WCOP 2014

Play at the conference

Though the gathering was intimate, each person there represented a unique facet of play, spanning a broad spectrum of disciplines that included board games, apps, online gaming, theme parks, outdoor recreation, and of course, toys. In bringing together this eclectic mix of industries, the second WCOP sought to carve out a space for play in the professional world — a concept that is both essential in life and highly undervalued by society. WCOP’s goal is to define the niche of play, making it an industry in its own right.

Here are some of the important conversations in the world of play today:

1. Transmedia

These days, intellectual property rarely stays on one platform. IP can start anywhere and go in any direction: toys become video games, comic books become apps, and video games become theme parks. Content creators strive to cross over into as many mediums as possible to capture the various facets of consumers’ leisure time. This is no longer a creative gimmick; it’s a requirement. As speaker Dan Yaccarino said, “Coming up with the toy first doesn’t work. We have to consider the foundation and the greater context.” In other words, games, creative content, and almost any play-based intellectual property must have a wide breadth of both digital and physical relevance, giving consumers the sense that it belongs to a world unto itself.

2. Robots and AI toys

WCOP hosted six companies with artificially intelligent toys. Mark Palatucci, co-founder of Anki, opened his talk by pointing out that as today’s kids grow up, they are abandoning simple physical toys at a faster rate. In light of this trend, robotic and artificially intelligent toys are on the rise because they meld apps and smart devices with the fun physicality of classic toys. Robotic toys also challenge users to learn basic programming and engineering, which helps develop creative problem-solving while encouraging physical play. The interesting thing about these robotic and AI toys is that they are not branded as space-agey, nerdy, or even DIY. They are meant to be consumable, targeted to the average user.


Play-i: a programmable robot that is ready to play with out of the box


EZ-Robot: linking pieces connect to a “brain,” and kids use software to program the robot’s actions

3. Outdoor and physical play

World Congress of Play 2014

Kids are getting less and less time outside on playgrounds or wandering in nature, and this has serious consequences for their development. According to Julia Rousakis of Architectural Playground Equipment, Inc., “Play is about taking risks, getting lost, pushing boundaries — going higher and faster.” Playing outside is where kids get to improvise and explore. Rousakis was part of an entire panel of professionals who feel that the true “AR” kids need is not Augmented Reality but Actual Reality: feeling the wind in your hair and interacting with peers in person. One company that is making this happen is Kaboom, a nonprofit that works to bring playgrounds to underprivileged communities, which has helped to bring outdoor, physical play to 7.4 million kids by constructing 16,000 playgrounds.

Beyond outdoor play, we also need to make sure kids are still playing with physical toys and objects. Argodesign’s Laura Seargeant Richardson stated, “Children today are less able to transform everyday objects into playthings.” Programmable robots are a bridge from the digital to the physical, but parents also need to encourage kids to play with more traditionally tactile toys.

4. Experiential stores

Hugo Malan, Senior VP at Sears Holdings Corporation, spoke about impending threats to the toy industry, one of which is the shift to online business. When buyers go online, they typically search directly for the item that they want. In retail, traditionally many items have succeeded just by virtue of being present on shelves near popular items. As fewer people frequent stores, these less popular items will no longer be economical to produce. As the business of toys and games shifts further away from stores and towards online shopping, stores will need to give consumers more compelling reasons to visit.

A great example of a successful, experiential store is Marbles: The Brain Store. At WCOP, we heard from CEO Lindsay Gaskins, who started Marbles as a mall kiosk and realized she needed to make a change after failing to get the attention of shoppers. Marbles: The Brain Store is a unique place in that many of the products are exclusive to the store and almost all are on display to test out and play. The employees are “Brain Coaches,” who can explain each game and how they stimulate the brain, elevating the in-store experience to one of discovery, fun and even self-improvement.

Interactive games for the brain

Marbles: The Brain Store

Even McDonald’s has adopted an experiential makeover. While fast food is not quite part of the play industry, McDonalds believes it has a responsibility to promote play and family togetherness. To reflect this, they have designed new stores with interactivity and a balance of digital and physical play built into the restaurant.

McDonald's store design

McDonald’s “Spirit of Family” new design in Europe 

5. Market savvy

Knowing your target market has always been important, but in our global economy, it’s more important than ever to be sensitive to cultural differences. Kids are kids, but nuances exist that are relevant when selling play in different cultures. For example, Mary Cheever from market research firm Insight Kids shared their conclusions about how play is encouraged by parents of different nationalities: in Italy, kids are guided to partake in intergenerational play; in Mexico, parents encourage kids to play with peers; in the U.S., it’s more about individual play. Another interesting insight about the U.S. market is that kids connect very strongly with brands — they are more likely to request “their Legos” than “their blocks,” and imitation brands won’t be readily accepted.

Testing the market is also important for the toy business. Hugo Malan made the point that trends are accelerating because of the Internet, which gives rise to instant fads that can quickly die out. This is difficult for toy companies to deal with, because trends come and go faster than they can roll out a new product. Malan believes that retail risk can be reduced if new toys are market-tested in advance.

6. Epidemic!

We are facing a severe lack of play in adult life and a dearth of spontaneous play in kids’ lives. Recess is being cut down in schools, and extra curricular activities take up more time, leaving little room for imaginative play. Robert Murray, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, shared on a WCOP panel that he realized how bad the state of play had gotten when his organization had to issue a policy statement to remind parents that play is vitally important to child development.

One of the best quotes from WCOP this week came from Toca Boca’s CEO and co-founder, Bjorn Jeffery, who exclaimed, “Play is important in its own right! Not every app needs to be educational, and not every game needs to be about competition.” Jeffery called for “ungamification,” citing that there is far too much competition in apps and interactive experiences. Too much competition kills the natural love of play and ability to act spontaneously.

In the adult world, play is starting to catch on as a trendy design statement in start-up offices, but the concept hasn’t made huge headway into work practices or corporate environments as a whole. Some companies have adopted “forced play” in the workplace, inventing outings and team bonding activities, which doesn’t exactly get to the root of the problem. Workplaces need to realize that it’s not about the activities, it’s about creating the conditions that give rise to genuine play; going to a miniature golf course with the office can put a band-aid on the stress, but upon returning to an intense, fast-paced environment, the playful outing will have done little to affect long-term work satisfaction. Workplaces should take a page out of the book of game inventor Bob Moog, who has implemented office-wide recess in his company University Games.

It seems as if society generally feels that incorporating and encouraging play is risky, ridiculous, or unproductive — lazy, even. But as designer Laura Seargeant Richardson proclaims, “Play is the greatest natural resource in a creative economy.” Playful marketing such as McDonalds’ playground for adults (see below video) is a good step towards public awareness, especially when backed by a giant corporation. Even more helpful than one-off branding gimmicks are efforts to improve community play. Kaboom has developed an index for measuring the “playability” of a city, with the hope that this will become a social term that people will use when evaluating cities to live in and visit. Playability will take more than just family playgrounds. First, everyone must realize why play is important. Then, adults need to be given “permission to play,” as Denise Chapman Weston of Apptivations would say.

To wrap-up:

The inherent challenge about WCOP’s multi-faceted conversation is that there is somewhat of a “branding issue” with play. As Us Tyme’s founder Joseph Salesky put it, “We know that we need play, we know what it does for us socially and chemically, but we aren’t quite sure how to package play in the greater social context.” We often talk about play as it relates to education or childhood, but it’s an ambiguous concept that spans many categories, including fitness, business, psychology, and community. Play is also hard to pin down because it’s inconsistent across demographics: kids and adults see it and approach it differently, and we are far from having play equality across socio-economic groups.

Richard Gottlieb, co-founder of the event, put it best: “We get to dream about play, ponder it, investigate it, imagine it, study it and ultimately build as many ways to play as there are ways to laugh. We are here because we believe in play…What we all have in common is that we are intensely curious and ultimately courageous in our willingness to not just accept change but to embrace it.”

The last line speaks most strongly for the World Congress of Play as a whole. It wasn’t just a gathering to talk about play as a concept, but the coming together of people who believe in play as a movement, one that desperately needs to take the world by storm and change the way we work, raise families, interact with each other, and go about our day-to-day lives. Play may not yet be a definable industry of its own, but perhaps gatherings like this one are the beginning.


cover image courtesy of Apptivations

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