Play As A Lifestyle

How digital forces are transforming the way we play and what brands need to do in response

Richard Yao
Mar 7, 2019 · 11 min read
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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Everybody loves to play. We grew up playing with toys, our family and friends, and by ourselves. Then we move on to other hobbies and leisure activities that delight us and make life worth living. As with many other aspects of our daily life, play is also being transformed by the spread of new technologies and digital media. Instead of a purely offline activity, play is increasingly influenced by various digital forces and becoming a boundless hybrid of physical products and digital assets.

Play is not just for kids anymore; it is now something that is for all people. Across ages and states, Americans are spending more time on play, in various forms that range from video games to board games. Infused with creative exploration and a growing sense of identity fueled by online and real-life connections, play is becoming a lifestyle choice of self-actualization as it is integrated into other areas of life as part of a generational shift.

Play is becoming a lifestyle as the concept of gamification percolates through many aspects of modern life. For example, who would have thought that The Vatican would be openly endorsing a Pokémon Go-clone mobile game, which lets players collect Catholic saints instead of Pokémon? While it has always been linked to entertainment, play is also becoming a primary way of socializing with family and friends, as well as a popular method in education, all amplified by a convergence of digital play and physical toys.

Play as Entertainment

Increasingly, the best toy companies are starting to look like media companies, for good reason. The 2017 American Time Use Survey found that across the population, watching TV is the leisure activity that occupies the most time for Americans across all demographics. However, as linear TV continues to be replaced by on-demand viewing, especially among younger generations, streaming content, both long-form and short, is quickly taking over as a main source of entertainment. Toy unboxing and review videos is now a distinct genre of entertainment for millions of kids watching YouTube, just as Twitch livestreams have been taking attention away from traditional media.

As a result, online video and social media content have become a major driver for toy sales, and as a result play products are increasingly being tied to content and other forms of entertainment, gradually becoming part of a bigger entertainment bundle. Of course, using content to drive toy sales is nothing new. In fact, that is pretty much the core strategy in Disney’s playbook — using content and IP to drive toy sales and other types of play products, be it theme park rides or cruise ship trips. And with the upcoming direct-to-consumer streaming service, Disney is one step closer to building out an entertainment bundle that integrates content, merchandise, and theme park tickets into one super-sized yet cost-effective offering for the Disney households across the world.

Licensing popular IP to produce products will remain a big growth opportunity for toy brands, especially considering how streaming content providers like Netflix and Apple are investing heavily into children’s content or family-friendly fares. However, there is also a real opportunity for toy brands to compete with entertainment platforms by building out your content library and becoming a media company that makes toys (almost like a reverse Disney).

Unlike other forms of entertainment, however, play inherently denotes a sense of interactivity. It indicates a willingness to engage with content beyond passive consumption. Games are the meta-manifestation of play, and as with the times, they are becoming inherently digital as well. There is no denying that video games and esports take up a big part of our playtime today as they steer attention away from traditional play and sports.

Even more impactful is the rise of esports, which turns gaming into a kind of user-generated entertainment content that has created a billion dollar industry and lots of brand opportunities. On average, young gamers (ages 18–25) worldwide spend an average of 3 hours and 25 minutes each week watching other people play video games online, which is nearly an hour more than what they spend watching traditional sports. This kind of generational shift in viewership toward esports is something that most people could never have predicted ten years ago, and yet this is exactly the kind of cultural shift that the internet has enabled.

As much as pundits and parenting gurus love to pass moral judgment on video games and excessive digital playtime, video gaming has in fact won increased parental approval. 68% of U.S. parents surveyed in 2018 by Pew Research say video games are a positive part of their child’s life, and 62% of parents whose children are gamers play computer and video games with their children at least weekly. Perhaps this should come as less of a surprise, considering the group of younger parents today is perhaps the first generation of parents that grow up playing video games too.

As a result, video and mobile gaming is a natural part of play for the digital-native generation from a young age. In fact, gaming is now a bigger industry than TV and movies as far as consumer spending on entertainment goes.

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Chart source: Reuters

Beyond kids, the rapid growth of mobile games is converting a lot of non-gamers into casual gamers, as more and more smartphone users play mobile games to fill in the gaps in their daily lives. Online versions of classic board games are also popping up, further blurring the line between physical and digital play

In the future, the potential to merge content with other forms of entertainment will create new interactive formats of play. Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch demonstrates bold experimentation in interactive content, and we can expect to see more content like this that blurs the line between an interactive game and movie content. Similarly, AR and VR games will also unlock new experiences that blend digital content with the physical environment. For example, Audi is teaming up with Disney to develop a new VR format that is tailored to each car ride’s length and motions. As our entertainment becomes more and more interactive, partly enabled by the new digital channels they now live on, it will only increasingly blur the line between play and entertainment content, making play more rooted in content but also making content consumption much more engaging and interactive.

Play as Education

Another important aspect of play as a lifestyle lies in the educational experiences they can offer. Educational toys have been around for a long time, but new digitally enhanced toys are bringing new value to play and offer modern parents new meaningful ways to engage with their kids while perhaps learning a thing or two themselves in the process.

STEM-themed toys are gaining traction among parents, while many classic toys tend to focus on sparking creative thinking and spatial skills as toymakers increasingly explore adding digital layers to enhance playability. For example, Beasts of Balance is a new kind of tabletop stacking game that offers a dynamic, hybrid experience that trains players to think both in the concrete and the abstract. While you stack objects on a physical podium, a real-time strategy game takes place on a synced screen, as the pieces on the podium and the digital gameplay reflect and affect one another.

Teaching kids engineering skills and coding through gamified experiences is also something that many toymakers are exploring. For instance, the Nintendo Labo kit lets players across all generations transform modular sheets of cardboard into interactive creations called Toy-Con. From a piano to a motorbike or a robot, each Toy-Con comes to life when combined with Nintendo Switch in different ways. Similarly, the Harry Potter coding kit developed by Kano guides you to learn basic coding on an app with the fun pretense of constructing magic spell with logic-based pieces, which can be later activated by waving a plastic wand in the air.

Some video games can also be a great vehicle for knowledge and skills. For example, Minecraft is lauded as a great educational tool. The special Education Edition of Minecraft allows educators and students to explore, create, and play in the virtual world of Minecraft. Not only can they develop computational thinking and coding skills, they also need to apply their knowledge across various STEM subjects to build their virtual creations. Gamified tools, such as Habitica, are using data-driven video game mechanism to teach kids about daily responsibility and forming healthy habits

More importantly, many kids today are growing up with touchscreens and voice assistants. For them, a sense of playful interactivity comes naturally with nearly all digital gadgets they come into contact with. If the purpose of your brand is to facilitate play, especially among children, then mobile and voice-enabled devices should be considered as crucial touchpoints to deliver new kinds of play experiences that are either touchscreen-based or audio-driven, or even a hybrid of both.

In some classrooms, AR and VR experiences are already being deployed as immersive tools for education. The “Field Trip to Mars” group VR experience that McCann New York created for Lockheed Martin is a great example in this regard as it took schoolchildren on a virtual tour of Mars by outfitting a school bus with immersive VR tech and motion sensors to make the view out the windows look and feel like the Martian landscape. In the future, things like voice assistants and visual search could help further integrate play as an educational tool into the real world and the outdoors, teaching kids about what they see in a contextual way with digital layers of information.

Beyond toys and classrooms, play could serve as a lifelong education tool for people of all ages. Many apps are leveraging game mechanism to encourage people to exercise, eat healthy, and read more, but that doesn’t just stop there. By incorporating game design into pedagogy in a broader way, play could transform the way we learn about all new things, whether for self-enrichment or professional growth. LARPing, for example, could be designed to teach participants about history and culture while AR is already being used for various corporate trainings.

Play as Socialization

Socialization is another big part of play that is being transformed by digital innovation. Play used to be a proximity-based activity, built upon real-life social networks. Kids go on playdates. Adults get together for game nights. Facilitated by the internet, however, play is also breaking out of a family-based unit and developing into a more community-driven activity, with various interest-based niche communities organized online via social networks and platforms such as MeetUp, and congregating in the real world to play.

Whether it’s good ol’ board games or newer inventions like escape rooms, it’s never been easier to find people who share your interests. LARPing is a novel form of group play that is gaining traction in recent years thanks to online platforms, and brands are taking notice. HBO designed a Westworld experience at SXSW 2018 to bring visitors into the world of the show, complete with professional actors LARPing as characters from the show and carrying out varying storylines that visitors could choose to follow and engage with at their free will.

ComicCon and other community-driven events are taking over the traditional network for play and transforming the way players connects with like-minded fans. Similarly, esports is also bringing the gaming communities together offline to attend tournaments and fan events as online connections spill over into the offline world. In 2017, 173,000 people attended the finale games of the IEM 2017 World Championship in person, as millions more watched the matches online.

In addition, esports platforms like Twitch and MMO games are starting to create digital playgrounds and social spaces for new kinds of virtual socialization. The hottest esports title right now is Fortnite, with over 200 million registered players worldwide. in fact, it has gotten so popular now that young people log into the game to hang out with their friends virtually. It is less about the results of the gameplay, but rather the digital presence and the process of playing.

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Source: Statista

More intriguingly, Fortnite recently hosted a live virtual concert played by DJ Marshmello which was attended by over 10 million players worldwide, showcasing its enormous potential in becoming a virtual playground where all sorts of group leisure activities could take place, be it a live concert, a movie screening, or a round of Cards Against Humanity. As Fortnite grows, it could end up becoming a unified virtual space where people can roam as their virtual avatar and partake in various social activities, like the kind of “Metaverse” that science fiction writers and technologists have long hypothesized.

Maybe it won’t be Fortnite that ends up building the kind of multi-functional virtual social playground that will transform the future of play. Maybe it’ll be APEX Legends, which is rapidly emerging as a strong competitor to Fortnite as it grows in players. But that is beyond the point. For many in the younger generations, the concept of our physical world being “ the real world” is becoming outdated as the virtual world simply become a natural extension of the physical world.

Conversely, we are also seeing digital tools seeping into offline play that bring people together in real life. For example, Alexa-powered Echo Buttons are designed to power your game night and allow Alexa to serve as a virtual MC for various group games. Toy designers are also leveraging digital layers to add multiplayer features designed for groups. Augmented reality is one easy way to do so, as Lego’s iOS AR game demonstrate by bringing the Legos to life it for group play.

The Future of Play Is Boundless

Looking at the future of play, new extended spaces for play could emerge with mass adoption of future technologies. Autonomous cars, for example, will free up people’s time and attention during transit and allow for new kind of ride experiences. Besides the aforementioned Audi-Disney collaboration, a Gotham-themed immersive experience developed by Intel and Warner Bros. also showcases how the in-car experience could evolve from passive media consumption into a more interactive play experience. Once AR glasses become a reality, then suddenly the entire world becomes a digitally enhanced playground like never before. Even something as simple as finding which way to go could be gamified and become a play experience, as Google is already exploring by adding AR navigation in Google Maps.

Further down the road, automation will perhaps have an even larger impact on our collective lifestyle. Beyond autonomous cars, in a best-case scenario, thoughtful, responsible application of automation technologies could liberate millions from repetitive manual work while avoiding social unrest sparked by labor displacement. If that comes to be, all the time and energy freed by automation could be redirected towards creative endeavors that no A.I. can fully master. Thus, hypothetically, play will truly grow into an all-encompassing lifestyle for all, as we are free to pursue whatever fun, creative activities that make us happy.

In the short term, this means toy makers and other kid-oriented brands will need to embrace a hybrid kind of digitally enhanced play and double-down on their content development while entertainment and other leisure-related brands will need to rethink their media strategy to meet customers where they play with a more lifestyle-leaning strategy. In the long run, all brands will need to adjust their positioning to reflect the impending change in our collective lifestyle, for better or for worse.

The future of play is boundless. Is your brand ready? To learn more, and discuss how your brand can leverage these opportunities, reach out to Josh Mallalieu at josh@ipglab.com.

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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