How Tech Saved Playtime for Adults

Anyone reading marketing industry publications can easily catch the message: the hottest new tech toys are clearly serious business.

We, as technologists and marketers, are quick to beat our drums about the tactics, the tools, and the techniques of the trade – “this season, it’s all about ARGs,” we said. “No, this season it’s all about wearables,” we retorted, while often failing to recognize the fundamental forces at work that create the very buzz the industry salivates over.

As adults, we may not consider it in our daily movements, but the sensation these pieces of technology activate in us isn’t really about the tech toy itself - it’s about the imagination these products inspire in us.  We want to play with them, not dissect them. Disguised as ‘grownup’ advancements in interactivity, what these technologies are truly doing is reaching into some fundamental drives that operates in every human, regardless of age – they give us a reason to play again.

Augmented reality lets us see new things in our world – V.R. lets us enter new worlds. That’s a big deal. These sorts of techs may rank as areas we want to explore for business reasons for our clients and consumers, but, let’s be honest: there’s as much curiosity-for-curiosity’s-sake as there is any sense of business acumen. The heart of what we try to do is provide our audiences and our clients’ audiences experiences they want to have, not that they are obliged to have, and play is at the core of that.

According to Psychology Today,

Play is, first and foremost, an expression of freedom. It is what one wants to do as opposed to what one is obliged to do. The joy of play is the ecstatic feeling of liberty. Play is not always accompanied by smiles and laughter, nor are smiles and laughter always signs of play; but play is always accompanied by a feeling of “Yes, this is what I want to do right now.”

As it becomes more difficult to break through to consumers, whether they be boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, or preschoolers, tech becomes the avenue through which the exploratory nature of play is best experienced.

The Roots of Play

All play is rooted in our imagination. Good products tap into that imagination to stir our creativity for lasting and memorable experiences. Many of the toys we played with as children are still popular today, in their identical forms. Some have been with us for generations. Playing with Playdoh, dolls, models, whatever it may be – it doesn’t really matter what brand it is, we have an innate ability to transfer our imagination to physical props. To build, shape, and imagine new experiences. Kids continue to have a good time playing with these products because they are so core to our cognitive and physical development. Although we don’t really think of them like that, we just think they’re fun.

Imagination and Play have and will always be associated with these types of products because of their universal design…or sheer usability. In other words, we’re able to imagine and create without inhibition because there is very little friction between thinking and doing - just pick up and play.

As we develop in age, the same rules apply – but the details shift away from physical imagination play, and into a form of play that has clearer goals and rules. Toys are for kids; games are for adults. 

Playing with Purpose

It’s extremely unlikely that an adult will be entertained for more than a few minutes taking, say, a spatula and going ‘pew pew pew’ like a laser gun, but this is par for the course for kids.  However, put a VR helmet on, or introduce a person to an exciting new mobile game, and disbelief is quickly suspended, play patterns are duly activated, and hours can go by without complaint. As influential game researcher Jesper Juul puts it:

Games have goals.

Goals provide challenge to players.

It is the mental challenge of a game that provides the fun.

If the challenge is right, the player is in a state of flow.

A game with rules makes more ‘sense’ to an adult. It’s not the desire for play that ever stops, it’s the ease with which we come into unguided imagination and ‘make believe’ that shifts as we age.  The goals and guidance inherent in games, adding to the convenience and sheer prevalence of digital media, have arguably made this current global populace of 2016 the set of humans who’ve play the most games in the history of our species.  Let’s look at some numbers.

According to Pew Research’s recent Dec 2015 report on gaming, Half of American adults play video games – and adult women now make up the largest demographic group of gamers in the country, at 36% of all gamers (bigger than teen boys!) And yet only 10% would ever call themselves a 'gamer' - why the stigma, mom?

To really drive the point home, look even older: a whopping 58% of those ages 30 to 49 play video games – what kid in 1985 would have imagined that of his parents, in his wildest dreams? The message is clear: make play accessible (as mobile has), available and attractive, and people of all ages won’t just dabble in it, they’ll flock to it.

This is the reason we’re seeing brands that, twenty years ago, might not have ever been affiliated with gaming and play, turning their eyes to tech that stemmed straight out from the gaming industry.  When even the store where your older brother buys his khakis is getting in on V.R., you know that there’s something to it.  People are yearning for their own window into play…in a way, to give themselves permission to feel like a kid again.  The prevalence of tech, its importance to our global economy, and the fact that so much of the advancement is being driven by interactive experiences and gaming, makes it the most convenient time for a ‘non-gamer’ to experiment with play, and still have a ‘grown-up’ excuse for it.

The Point

Creating clear pathways to discovery through the power of tech can actually inspire imagination, action and interaction for entire generations of people who assumed that they ‘just didn’t like that stuff.’  Brands who desire a stronger affinity from their audience need look no further than the extremely fertile crop of consumers of all ages who have more room for fun in their lives, but just haven’t given themselves the license to unwind.

Where our aging imagination might falter in readily creating worlds we’ve never fathomed, technology can help reactivate the possibilities – it’s not that we’ve lost the childlike joy of fun and play, it’s that digital helps us uncover quicker ways to get to back center of the Tootsie Pop, so to speak; to dig out the nugget of what resonates so well in the first place, and trigger our imaginations again. The new tech isn’t the engine, it’s the spark plug.