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The Future of Play: All work and no play makes adult life a whole lot duller

Feb 27, 2018 · 8 min read

There is a growing demand for play by grown-ups. The adult market for toys, (not sex toys), is growing three times faster than the children’s. What does this indicate about the well-being and identity of adults and society today? We examine what we can learn from the ‘kidult’ phenomenon.

Highlights and data

  • More and more adults are using play to cope with modern day pressures. Research shows that adults who play are happier.


“Once you’ve grown up, you can never come back,” author J.M. Barrie gives useful insight into the 19th century but in the stressful world of 2018, this viewpoint is being turned upside down. In 2016, one in every 11 toys sold in Britain was bought by an adult for themselves. The freedom offered by play has never been more vital.

New research also indicates culture is shifting. The New Adulthood report by JWT uncovered a new cohort, the Xenials (30–45 years old) — millennials having a ‘later adolescence’ and choosing to defy convention by growing up and, or settling down later. The research cites the aftermath of the financial crisis, which has caused people to reassess what constitutes a life well lived.

The age of kidult

Geekdom has become mainstream. What was once the domain of the Star Wars fan has now expanded to include the working professional looking to connect. Mintel found that 30% of millennials have expressed interest in visiting a board game-themed bar. This growing audience is looking to disconnect (from technology) and reconnect with new people. Games help break the ice and make the person you’re playing with more entertaining. Frederique Tutt of NPD Group says this rise is “a reaction against the stresses of our fast-paced lives.” Toys are fun — and when you are having fun, anxiety reduces.

Sophisticated options have emerged to cater to this need. Bounce ping pong has venues in London and Chicago and are planning to open six more in the UK. To add to the experience, they have introduced new technology, Wonderball, which uses projection and laser-mapping technology to track a special ball, lighting up its trajectory and the spot where it bounces. Ballie Ballerson in London, positioned as the ultimate adult playground to get loose. Essentially a ball pit, alongside sexy cocktails and food, where adults can play to their heart’s content.

The fan-first revolution

Fan culture continues to gain momentum, and with it, the rise of collectibles. Jason Flood of Dublin City Comics and Collectibles observes that with the “popularity of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, collecting comics, action figures, statues and life-size props is getting bigger.”

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion in product selection and a strong pull for parents wanting to bond with their kids. Star Wars and LEGO have lasted the test of time, partly due to their ability to reinvent themselves. Games Workshop, is a British miniature wargaming manufacturing company that has grown over the last 40 years with shops focusing on a younger, more family-oriented market. Its life-size props help people build worlds out of their imaginations.

Play together, stay together

The “nesting” trend plus financial pressures have contributed to the resurgence of board games. While the price of other forms of entertainment has increased, board games stay consistent. In the comfort of their own home, friends and families spend quality time together. As long as the game feels fresh and fun, what’s old is new to today’s kids, which makes it a profitable category, and explains its growth.

Experience matters. People want fun and easy games to play together. Hasbro is also adding more adult-themed games after the popular Cards Against Humanity got its start in 2011 and Settlers of Catan is considered the godfather of strategy games due to its collaborative nature. David Kaye who runs a gaming group in San Francisco notes “the difference [between traditional games like monopoly versus new games] is that people are not excluded. In some games, a person is knocked out until the others have finished.”

For brands trying to court today’s fickle customer, a strong community is an important pull, and makes people feel part of something. Magic, The Gathering is Hasbro 2nd biggest product. It run global events, like Comic-Con, where thousands of fans come to connect and discover what’s new. Hasbro said that people tend to adopt the game after being introduced by a family member or friend. The community and competition keeps them hooked.

Stripping off the societal straightjackets

Demography is in flux. Today’s parents continue to upend family structures and social dynamics, and they want more diverse representation. Disney research found a disconnect between the way men see themselves and their media portrayal. The brand understanding the financial imperative to change is spearheading a new movement calling on the industry to better reflect modern family structures and ditch the ‘tired dad’ stereotypes.

‘Growing up’ is also being challenged. Adults have a desire to break free from a life that feels stressful and restrictive. They want the freedom to determine their own path. In 2016 the LA Times reported that millennials are delaying car ownership, previously a marker for adulthood. The Grow Up campaign by Mercedes-Benz includes a series of short films questioning different life lessons with A$AP Rocky reflecting on his non-conformist career choices. The move towards more modernity, progressivism, and dynamism across the Mercedes-Benz brand identity recognises the economic implications of millennials taking longer to become an adult.

Play matters

Philosophy, from the ancient Greeks to Freud “oceanic feeling” to Martha Nussbaum “A Hidden Wholeness,” champions the importance of play.

Every element of the human saga requires play. We evolved through play. Our culture thrives on play. We may think of play as optional, but play is fundamental to evolution. Without it, humans and many other animals would perish.

Science storyteller Diane Ackerman in ‘Deep Play’ believes it belongs to the spectrum of experience, as “one is temporarily unshackled from life’s chains the ones we wear as self-imposed weights.” Interestingly, she notes, very few adults are conscious of how this form of play continues throughout adulthood. The benefits are multiple. It relieves stress, stimulates the mind and cultivates creativity.

The challenge is that society tends to see play with a goal as socially acceptable for adults. A climbing frame requires physical achievement. The ‘playful’ person is not necessarily the serious one. This potentially limits an adults inclination to break out. The consequences are far reaching.

Play is critical to development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognise it as a right of every child; they need as much free, unstructured playtime as possible. But what about the grown-ups? Why is the thinking and subsequent research on how play can cultivate healthy adults minimal compared to that of children?

Thanks to Lego, this might change. In 2017, Cambridge University announced a search for a “LEGO Professor of Play, Education, and Learning” who will will lead an entire research department dedicated to examining play.

Facing the future: A play(full) response

Better play for adults needs wider attention, but the rise in Kidult gives us hope. There are emerging narratives of what it means to ‘grow up’, breaking the rigid, restrictive one size fits all that previous generations followed.

As today’s lives become governed by technology and screen culture, adults everywhere are looking back fondly to the simpler days of their childhoods, and paying good money for the privilege.

Below are a few examples where play and playfulness can be better utilised.

  1. At work

In 2016/17, 12.5m working days were lost as a result due to work-related stress and anxiety. Bruce Daisley, VP EMEA of Twitter says that people are overwhelmed and companies need to help people ‘decompress’.

Play builds resilience, especially in times of uncertainty. Encouraging adults to use playful techniques has strong social and economic incentives, and is potentially more accessible. Dr Stuart Brown believes “playing can even access parts of our brain that are blocked to mindfulness, meditation, and cognitive behavioural therapy.” Robert Rasmussen, is a business consultant working with companies to help solve problems using the LEGO Serious Play (LSP) methodology.

The creative industries have been quick to recognise the value of an original playful environment to grow culture and commerce. Companies can better use design to make their spaces spark conversation and unlock ideas. How can businesses reframe the conversation of play with their HR and leadership to manage employee burnout and reduce hours lost in lack of motivation and decreased productivity? Normally is a London based design firm, with a four day work week, who believe a good work-life balance means better team collaboration.

2. At home

Home is the new battleground. Something Netflix and big tech have been actively investing in. Home entertainment is poised as an exciting space for brands to build connection and intimacy amongst family and friends, but the answer doesn’t always have to be hi-tech.

Where once it was ‘Netflix and chill,’ in 2018 people are starting to re-engage with the world and others. Brands that can create affordable products and services that foster fun interactions will win. Technology is best when its subtle and heightens the ability to play through the detection of changes in weather, mood and even food.

3. At large

Brands must practise greater inclusivity. Word-of-mouth is critical for player adoption. Brands that build a fan-first strategy will win by appealing to the entire family.

As the games industry moves to a service based model, this opens up opportunities to have a more holistic relationship. Bold brands will go beyond the ‘transaction’ and take on complex challenges. One approach could be shifting the business model to include the health and well being of the individual and communities through play, giving rise to different formats. Business also needs to move away from ‘chain behaviour’ and become truly local by using their spaces as a destination point and adding to the local community through the provision of different services.

and jump

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