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Dear Tim . . . In an increasingly digital world of play, what’s at the core of our attraction to...

In an increasingly digital world of play, what’s at the core of our attraction to physical products? (Another in a great series of questions from Nick Metzler.)

At one point, several years ago, I owned as many as 300 vinyl albums. But CDs followed, and then the iPod, and then streaming services. I could plug into and out of the digital music ecosystem at any time and from any place. Choice was limitless. The music was literally in the ether.

And then…my kids bought me a vintage stereo receiver and turntable, and I was right back in the physical world. Picking up new copies of albums I’d bought a generation before, opening the gatefolds, perusing the liner notes, and waiting for that magical click when the needle first hits the groove. Why? (Or, as my wife cried plaintively, ‘whywhywhywhywhy?’ I have now bought Who’s Next at least 4 times.)

How to explain why something physical, tangible, breakable, and frankly inefficient can be superior to a streamlined, nearly touchless digital experience?

Well, precisely because you can feel it. It is tangible. In the toy world, the act of playing with a physical toy literally helps give order to a child’s world. The snap of a LEGO brick, the sensation of combing a doll’s hair, the satisfying spin of a toy car’s wheels – these and more all add up to a child’s better understanding of how things work. Whatever creative medium most applies – fingerpaints, Play-Doh, Spirograph – and despite the digital options that abound – kids will still want to MAKE something. To touch, feel, and smell both the act of creating, and the satisfaction of the output. That’s the essence of play, and to constrict that experience to only one dimension is terribly limiting…and not a reflection of the real world a child inhabits.

So…how does that explain why someone feels the need to perch a Star Wars figure on his or her desk, or why someone collects and builds a literal wall of Funko figures? Well, there are different needs being met there. Hundreds of years ago, totem poles told a tribe’s story – they enshrined what was important to its culture and heritage. So if you don’t think that Boba Fett figure says something about who you are and what matters to you, think again. (Just ask the Aaron Rodgers Funko Pop staring at me right now.)

None of this is to suggest that digital entertainment and experiences are not relevant and important to kids’ worlds today. The depth and intensity of engagement in robust virtual worlds like Minecraft and Roblox suggest otherwise. What a child gets to do in those worlds is absolutely PLAY – and is just as fun and exciting as anything a three-dimensional toy might provide.

But a diet of only one kind of play experience ultimately isn’t going to be healthy in the long run. And isn’t it wonderful that kids today have the option to explore and play in both kinds of worlds?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get up and flip the record over.


In additional to penning his thoughts here, Tim Kilpin is enjoying his role as President of PlayMonster. To read more about Tim's career in the toy industry, check out this interview with Tim last year! Tim Kilpin - I’m a very proud elf. Every Christmas morning...

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