Kids Industries’ Gary Pope on the importance of play – yes, even if it’s virtual

“I could tell you that the explosion of gaming in the hearts, minds and wallets of our children is because of technical advancement, because of wonderful narrative and compelling characters, because of the nefarious arts of marketing, or because of the addictive nature of the soon to be banned loot crates.

But I won’t, because it is far, far more fundamental (and simple) than that. The digital playground is now literally transcending the physical and is enabling children to define and assert their social status amongst their peers; Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is here and it’s 25 years early.

The digital vistas that entice and enthrall are no longer a vacuous wasteland inhabited by (possibly) maladjusted young men in darkened rooms. These digital landscapes are an explosion of collaboration, colour and conversation. The truth is games can be really very good for our children – and they know it. And that is why gaming is now the biggest, strongest, fastest growing pillar of the children’s entertainment world.

The key components of all games – card games, board games, playground games or video games – are universal: goals, rules, strategy, challenge and, most importantly, interaction. It will not be surprising to you that more than 9 out of 10 children today are playing video games regularly. And one of the reasons for this steady explosion over the last 20 years is that true, deep meaningful interaction between players has become more and more accessible. And as a result, fun. Meaning more and more people want to do it, meaning more and more money and time gets invested in making it better, meaning more and more people play it… You get the idea. Businesses give consumers what they want, and what children of game-playing age want is interaction.

Effective socialisation is arguably the most important aspect of our development as a species, a fundamental building block for life. It’s one of the core need states that we consider here at Kids Industries whenever we’re developing product – digital or physical – for young people. ‍Childhood is perhaps the most social time of our lives; at school, kids are basically locked up with 30 other people for eight hours a day. Relationships are forged and broken with startling velocity and, as in all social groupings, it is shared experience that binds us or parts us. And gaming is the epitome of shared experience in 2021 for the digital native.

Today’s children live in an entirely new world facilitated by a new generation of hardware; the cross-platform, internet-driven world of live conversation with friends, doing stuff together whilst being physically apart. And with games, you always “do”, you don’t just watch. Unless you happen to be at an eSports stadium or glued to a Twitch stream, that is – but even these seemingly more passive activities have something of the gladiatorial spectacle about them.

For children, games are a conduit through which they extend their playtime shenanigans. From chat to party modes, interactive representations of others are accepted and considered a valid extension of the self. The lines between the physical and digital worlds are becoming increasingly blurred, and young people are perfectly at home with it. Even before the pandemic, this was an obvious and charted trend – the Metaverse was coming. Ernest Cline’s romp through entertainment culture is here and it’s real.

The good news is that despite the march of digital progress, real play cannot be surpassed. We’re not quite ready for our consciousness to connect to the cloud. The kind of play where you’re outside running around with your friends, or exploring imaginary worlds with action figures, or building something with your parents has a place and roots so deep that it will learn to exist in partnership with digitised play. Play is the work of the child, it is what children need to do to become who they are destined to be. And this last year there’s not been enough of that play. And the digital babysitter has perhaps been a little more prominent than many of us would have liked – but you know, that’s okay. It’s okay because our kids are digitally native, it’s okay because tech has enabled children to socialise and continue that fundamental pathway of development and it’s okay because a lot of what they’re playing could actually be good for them.

When we hear the scary figures around screen time it’s easy to make assumptions about impact. But data, and I trade in data, is only half the story. Data gives you a stable platform, but it is what lies behind the numbers that really counts. The what, the why and the how behind the headline number is where the insight is, and if this past year has told us anything, it has told us that kids will be kids, whatever they have to play with.

So, as balance finally returns, don’t be shocked if your children are even more connected than they were pre-Pandemic; take a look beneath what’s on the surface. Chances are – as they have in every single generation since the very start of time – they will just be different kids to the ones that came before them.”

Gary Pope is co-founder and CEO of Kids Industries, an award-winning research, strategy and creative agency that specialises in the family market. 

About Tessa Clayton

A former Chief Sub of Red magazine, Tessa Clayton is the Digital Editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. As a freelance journalist she specialised in writing about parenting and family life, and has contributed to a wide variety of publications and websites including Tesco online, Mother & Baby, Livingetc, Junior, Boots Health & Beauty, Practical Parenting and babycentre.co.uk. Get in touch at tessa.clayton@biz-media.co.uk

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