Play Inspired

Letting the kid inside of me out for the business of play


“No, Shamus, nooo!” I yelled. But the deed was done. My trusty golden retriever had bitten straight through the leg and was about about to devour the rest of my Fisher-Price Adventure People dune buggy driver. Shamus had been known to chew through a bag of BIC pens, countless wiffle ball bats and even a neighbor’s motorcycle helmet, but never my sacred toys. I slowly came to my senses and contemplated where to turn next. Of course, my rescue copter. Another Fisher-Price adventure person parachuted in and cared for our injured driver until the copter landed. They rushed him off for emergency procedures. “Arghhh!” the injured driver yelled in pain, followed by “Hold on… you can make it!” from the steady toy rescue pilot. The smug smile of satisfaction crept across my face. There were going to be a lot of injuries and rescues from now on.

As an eight-year-old growing up in 1970's Northeast Ohio, there were two toys that truly mattered to me: Star Wars figures and Fisher-Price Adventure People. They dominated my days, and together we left no corner of the house untouched, no dirt mounds untracked and in the long winter we waited, frosty noses to the window looking for the snow plow to arrive and to begin creating endless tunnels and ice-caves to play in. The two toy sets captured equal parts of my youthful imagination. Lucas took me — and millions of other kids — to a galaxy far, far away. And it worked. I was as protective of the toys as George Lucas himself: “I wanted to make a stand for social, safety, and quality reasons. I didn’t want someone using the name ‘Star Wars’ on a piece of junk,” said Lucas of his eponymous Star Wars toy merchandising.

Fisher-Price, however, kept my play planted firmly on Earth. These were the toys of real-life that were factually-based and tons of fun. As far as I could tell, Ohio in ‘78 didn’t have any scuba divers, hang gliders or safaris. Even the Ron Burgundy-era news broadcast van Fisher-Price sold seemed like an adventure to me. These plastic objects were precious, and the relationship I forged with them was real. They could fit in my pocket and continue on an adventure anywhere I went. These inanimate toys powered my active imagination. They occupied me for hours on end. Pure joy.

This led to my first foray into product design as I sent a series of new toy ideas to Fisher-Price, including a deep sea submarine and a hang glider that doubles as a functioning kite. I received a thank you note on corporate letterhead and, sure enough, about nine months later I saw a Fisher-Price hang glider on the shelves (I’m still waiting for my royalties, Hasbro/Fisher-Price…).

Too soon I moved on from toy figurines to BMX rides and the local video game arcade. After my parents had enough begging, they relented and bought an Intellivision console and later a Commodore 64. Dungeons & Dragons, football and later Donkey Kong filled some idle time, but they never captivated me like the Adventure People once did. My mind was forever changed by those fantasies of scuba trips, safaris and flying into the wilds in a way the emerging digital world simply could not touch.

In fact, I wanted to become an Adventure Person, and a number of years later I briefly became an environmental & social issue focused photojournalist because the opportunity to fly in float planes, sea-kayak and mountain bike across British Columbia was part of the job. As a producer at MSNBC.com, I even got to whip down some river rapids for a story. Both jobs were exhilarating but very difficult to pay the bills with. I moved away from outside adventure into purely inside endeavors with a career in multimedia and content management software for Microsoft, Intel and my own start-up MetaStories (later sold to Brightcove).

Thirty-five years later, as a father of two boys ages seven and 11, I look on in amazement and a bit of fear at the entertainment choices and marketing directed at them. Sure, there are still Star Wars figurines and PlayMobil fills the gap left by the Adventure People, but the massive growth and marketing sophistication of the combined toy and gaming industry seems overwhelming. Are kids savvy enough to make smart digital media choices and are they being given enough time to invent their own games and create their own style of play? I’ve tried to create solutions that could help in my own home but customized, age-appropriate media management is a difficult problem to solve and even tougher to generate sufficient revenue to sustain a business with.

The video arcades have come home to roost forever as the requests from my kids for new games and apps is never-ending — some for our Xbox One console and more so for their iPad & iTouch devices. Once new games catch fire from word of mouth, they are hard to put down. The quality and addictiveness is ever improving and undeniable.

What worries me most about today’s game experiences is that they are designed to be an addictive ends-only. The legions of publishers and designers are focused on creating “grinders”, games that both adults and children play uncontrollably and repeatedly. They are motivated by strong reasons with titles like Farmville, Clash of Clans and Candy Crush bringing in billions of dollars each year.

The value and appeal that challenging games deliver is important. You are relieved from the stress or boredom of the day. Problem solving challenging puzzle games is better than zoning out on video. But then what? Why not deliver something both playful and meaningful for our kids? All too often, game designers focus on copy-cat formulas rather than venturing into new possibilities. Fun and learning don’t have to be antagonistic to one another.

In recent years there has been a growing “teach kids to code” effort started by a very cool MIT project called Scratch.edu, and continued by efforts such as Code Academy. This is important work and I think should be incorporated into school curriculum but I don’t necessarily think learning how to code is much fun or should be. I think efforts like bedtimemath.org get early problem solving development much better. I believe it’s central to the important Core Curriculum efforts going on nationally and part of formal education. Problem solving is satisfying but not necessarily what I would describe as fun.

Free play on the other hand is the very definition of fun. Getting lost in your own thoughts, dreaming up endless stories, on your own terms and in your own time is something we simply lose as adults. More importantly, the synapses that connect during free play are critical for the developing mind. When a child transforms a backyard into an alien landscape full of danger and peril that has to be overcome before dinner they enter a realm of creative problem solving better than any pre-packaged product can provide.

I don’t see my kids continuing free play outside of targeted single usage with today’s connected toys. They simply don’t make the emotional bond that ties the toy with the joy of experience and meaning. Skylander toys seldom leave the power portal they were designed for and some of the indie toys we’ve tried like MyAtoms break quite easily.

Legos are the exception as my kids both follow the instructions and free-style build without cease. The wizards from Denmark are clearly playing 4-dimensional chess with our minds while the rest of us play checkers. They have designed a near-perfect toy universe and are quick to realize that modern children don’t discern between physical and digital play. It’s simply play.

I believe there is an enormous and needed opportunity to create more activities, games and toys that are enlightening and entertaining. As an entrepreneur diving into product and game design, my goal is that anything I work on should be a lot of fun, you should learn a little and most importantly your kids should be inspired to do more than what was originally envisioned as part of free play. I’m heading out into my backyard to invent new games, apps and toys that the kid in me would want play with.

If you’re interested in the intersection of media, technology and play please follow my efforts here on Medium and take a look at what we are creating @http://happ.ly.

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