Intelligent life: Exploring AI’s place within the toys we play with

It’s interesting to think of VHS as a vital step in the evolutionary scale of technology. In fact, anything you have to shove a pencil (or any rudimentary tool, come to that) into from time to time and give ‘a crank’ in order to get it working, by today’s standards, is practically prehistoric.

However, time was it was with glee that audiences would feed such technology into the mouths of their video players and watch the image flicker and whirr to life on a TV set that would likely kill them if it were dropped from any kind of height.

Today’s tablets are much safer in that regard, and if the 1990s was the era of the VHS and one of board gaming’s first real introduction to tech – we remember games such as Mattel’s Atmosfear and earlier still, Milton Bradley’s The Dark Tower – then it only makes sense that we find the board game titles of the 21st Century exploring new regions of development through virtual reality and even artificial intelligence.

As that timeline suggests, it is in our nature to explore new technological possi- bilities and – just us our predecessors did so with video – find new means of bringing that into the way we play today.

If we focus on board gaming specifically for the time being, the lines of distinction between analogue gaming and digital gaming are becoming ever increasingly blurred. Asmodee Digital, for instance, the aptly named digital arm of the board and hobby game behemoth Asmodee, has made no bones about its plans to take its popular analogue titles to the pixelated platform. Its most recent announcement was around its plans to bring Carcassonne to the Nintendo Switch, while Settlers of Catan has leapt into the new age with Catan VR.

It’s far from the only company to be combining traditional methods of board gaming with the expanding world of tech. The UK’s Sensible Object has just received a further round of funding to continue its exploration of Amazon Alexa as it brings voice technology to the tabletop through titles such as When In Rome, while even Hasbro is at it, with the likes of Monopoly Ultimate Banking.

Such is the explosion in the field that it has even initiated research papers, doctorates and practical studies into the fusion of analogue gaming and emerging tech, encompassing virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence.

One such team of experts in this area is Manchester Metropolitan University’s scientific duo, Dr Sam Illingworth, senior lecturer in science communication and Paul Wake, reader in English. Together, they are the co-founders of the Games Research Network, a research group with a focus on analogue and digital gaming, and the inter- section between the two.

Most recently, the pair has secured funding to open a PhD study into the implementation of AI in analogue board gaming.

“With such rapid development in digital technologies, it is an exciting time to be thinking about the role these technologies play within analogue games. Whether it be in the development of hybrid games such as Mansions of Madness and Monopoly Ultimate Banker, the appearance of analogue classics such as Catan in the realm of virtual reality, or the translation of born-digital games such as Dark Souls into a purely analogue format, there is a great deal to consider,” Illingworth tells ToyNews.

“Artificial Intelligence is ubiquitous at the moment. From advances in medicine
to driverless cars, AI will have a significant impact on both work and leisure for current and future generations,” adds Wake.

“But it is important not to overstate exactly what AI is and is not capable of. Part of the role of academic research is to explore questions such as this, and we believe that by considering the parameters of AI in analogue board games, we might better hope to understand the challenges and opportunities that are afforded by its development.”

Ten years ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking this the chatter best reserved for an episode of Star Trek. Today however, AI is already at play in the board gaming space. Temple Gates’ Race for the Galaxy, for example, started out as a research project itself, but is now being used by the games developers in the digital version of the game, as well as to potentially develop the game in the analogue space.

Together, Illingworth and Wake have embarked on a journey to better understand that area in which the lines of distinction between analogue and digital gaming are becoming ever more the blurred. But what does it all mean for the developers, retailers and ultimately the end consumer themselves? With such crossover and this expanding conceptualised field of ‘connected play’, is board gaming a space in danger of cannibalisation?

Illingworth doesn’t believe so.

“There’s definitely room for both,” he says. “People will want the tactility and social interactions that come from playing board and card games in the physical format, and digital adaptations don’t necessarily replace this, but they do make them easily adaptable.”

A good example, he suggests, is Days of Wonder’s Small World, a game that in the analogue world takes 40 to 80 minutes to play, but on tablet, takes a mere 15 to 20.

“So it is important to remember that these are different and complementary experiences,” Wake continues on the point. “Furthermore, as a greater number of people discover analogue games through their digital equivalents on computers, tablets and smart phones, we predict that the analogue games market will continue to grow, as new audiences are introduced to the wonders of gaming.”

Wake’s point is a nail struck firmly on the head. The tech experience is wholly a different environment to the analogue play.

It ultimately begs the question: what need is there for such exploration if it doesn’t fundamentally benefit the playability of both board games and toys, and enhance the child’s or user’s overall playing experience? That is a question quickly answered by Sensible Object’s head of marketing, sales and growth, Alex Bertie.

“We believe there is a huge opportunity for digital platforms to add exciting new layers to the pleasure of sitting down with friends and family to play a game together," he says.

“Technology is such an all-encompassing word and it opens up so many different avenues for game designers to explore: hardware, software, screen, audio, AR, VR or even new kinds of materials – so it definitely opens up a host of creative possibilities that have the potential to appeal to both existing board game fans and to open up new markets.”

According to Juniper Research, the connected play space is projected to grow 200 per cent over the next five years. Within that sphere, smart toys will represent an $18 billion hardware and software market by 2023. That’s up from an estimated $6 billion in 2018.

It’s not an area occupied solely by the start-up industry, either, with some rather big names attached to it.

“Hasbro has continued to explore different technologies and experiences across its product line, for example,” explains Valerie Vacante, executive collaborator at Collabsco.

“The Angry Birds Star Wars Telepods or Transformers Telepods lines incorporated the greatest hits of Hasbro: entertainment, gaming and characters that kids know and love. While the likes of Sphero and Osmos continue to innovate and break new boundaries in the development of connected play.”

Spin Master, WowWee and a plethora of others are all there, too.

Meanwhile, Illingworth highlights that tech such as AR is an ideal mode of making gaming more accessible, both in cost and portability, citing the “global phenomenon that was Pokémon Go” and the “recent success of Tippett Studio’s Hologrid: Monster Battle” as indicators that “this is an avenue that feels ripe for development.”

“If games designers manage to create an experience that feels integrated rather than disjointed, then we see this as being a fantastic new arena for analogue board gaming in the future,” he adds.

It would seem that there is a definite market for big brands as well as start-ups in this evolving tech space, and it makes sense that Sensible Object – among a number of others – is keen to place themselves firmly within it. 

Its latest title, When In Rome is the first launch in the company’s planned wider Voice Originals brand, an outfit dedicated to exploring the potential of Voice technology in play. 

The flagship game integrates Alexa for several features such as sound effects, keeping track of progress and teaching players the rules of the game. It also introduces players to locals in cities (played by voice actors) around the world through trivia questions. Adding to this, the firm is also working on music licensing with local artists to bring new elements into the game. 

“The possibilities really are infinite,” adds Bertie. “We’re very attracted to Voice right now because smart speakers tend to be centrally located in the home and used by the whole family. They’re ambient and communal in a way that mobiles and tablets are not.” 

The company is not shy of sharing its initiatives and concepts with the wider playscape and, in fact, has hinted at potential plans to make its toolkit for creative board games with virtual assistants such as Alexa or Google Assistant available to third-party creative. 

Of the communities investing the heaviest and innovating the furthest, it falls upon the UK to take the accolade of leaders in the field. It’s not by accident that the North of England is dubbed the Tech Powerhouse as it includes several clusters around Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Rotherham, Leeds, Hull, Sunderland and Newcastle that, combined, boasts a value of £9.9bn. 

“The UK is home to some of the brightest minds in the industry,” enthuses Vacante. “It is a solid market to experiment with in research and product development. It is a diverse and smaller market and things can move fast and grow here as it allows companies to get the kinks out and find a solid model to build from before ‘going big’ stateside.” 

It’s a nice testament to take on board as we face the economic uncertainty of a messy Brexit, at least. 

But what are we saying here? That as a country of creative developers we should clear the path for the perpetuated evolution of technology in products that at some point in time will become quicker and smarter than the audience it’s intended for? There’s a piece of dystopian imagery for you, yet if you’ve ever played a round – and lost – to Anki’s Cozmo, not a totally unrecognisable reality. 

A recent study conducted by researchers at MIT discovered that kids actually believe AI toys and devices to be smarter than they are. 

“This is the opposite of what technology toys are supposed to be doing,” states Ross Atkin, the mind behind the AI enabled cardboard root, Smartibot. “They should be helping kids really understand how technology works.

“This is important, obviously for those that will work with technology, but even those that don’t will need to understand it, if they are going to participate in democratic decisions about how it is used.

“By the time today’s kids are adults they will be grappling with all kinds of questions about how AI is used in policing, healthcare, the military. We don’t want them approaching these issue with ignorance.”

It’s exactly why Atkin started out on his project to deliver a range of AI integrated toys that were accessible for children by creating an open-ended creative experience that sees them construct their robot from the ground upwards in an effort to break down the ‘perceived barrier between children and their technological toys.’

“We’ve seen a huge amount of activity focused on toys that get kids to code in the last few years,” he continues. “There has been everything from products to teach pre-schoolers algorithmic thinking, to initiatives like the BBC Micro:bit, a small programmable circuit board that was handed out to every 11 year old in the UK.

“But technology is moving really fast and we are realising that understanding how to work with AI is going to be just as impor- tant as coding when these kids enter the workplace.”

Now, he enthuses, is a great time to start the process of playing with AI in toys. After all, powerful AI is beginning to run on chips in smartphones or inside of a toy itself, “allowing, for the first time, for the toy to understand what is happening around it quickly enough to be fun to play with.”

“AI can make almost any toy more fun to play with, and is reaching the point where it can run in chips that are very cheap. Because of this, it’s not unreasonable to imagine AI finding its way into every battery-operated toy; as the chips it would run inside already have. There is even scope for AI to affect non-battery operated toys, as Sensible Object’s board game itself shows.”

Where does the industry go from here then? The DCMS reports that the £92bn creative industries sector is growing at twice the rate of the overall economy, meaning that the need to get today’s children confident with technology is greater than ever.

The role the toy industry has to play in this regard, according to Ed Barton, CEO and co-founder of the AR consumer product developer, Curiscope, is in “the mainstream integration of tech and play.”

“Right now, connected toys are a subset, but I think long-term, the expectation from kids will be that all toys are connected in some way and enhanced by tech,” he says. “There’s going to be a bit of VR in there, a bit of AR, some AI, some robotics; a complete mash-up.

“But the common thread will be that toys will be more tech enabled than not.”


About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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