Playing with character

What came first, the property or the play pattern? The answer may be a moot point—you can't have one without the other when it comes to kids consumer products.
June 14, 2011

No longer considered a frivolous activity that occupies youngsters before the more serious problems of adulthood beset them, play is now deemed an essential part of growing up. In fact, the move to recognize play as something much more important than simple amusement has led to the enshrinement of the “right to play and relax” in UNICEF’s Conventions on Rights of the Child, right alongside vital necessities like access to clean water and physical security.

“If you look at where play behavior resides in the brain, it’s in the very deepest part of the brain stem,” says Dr. Stuart Brown, author and founder of the National Institute for Play in Carmel Valley, California. “The force that begins to be stimulated during play is located in the early ancient brain stem centers.” Similarly, Insight Kids/Insight Research Group’s Stacey Matthias asserts that the types of play in which kids participate all have a “developmental job” to do. “Emotionally, cognitively and physically, kids are playing and they are doing exactly what they need to do to help them grow up,” says the founder and co-CEO of the New York-based research and strategic consulting company with a client list that includes Nickelodeon and PBS Kids.

While Dr. Brown says that the understanding of the evolutionary purpose behind play is “reaching the evolutionary understanding of where sleep and dreams were 15 years ago,” he stresses that there is a disconnect between the science of play and the very companies whose business it is to develop playthings based on established characters and intellectual properties.

“They are not [aware of the current research],” argues Stuart, who has worked as a consultant to different toycos, including Mattel, in the past. “Some of the products are clever and have market niches, but they really don’t touch upon the real essence of play behavior.”

However, when tasked with creating an IP or even making a toy line based on an existing one, most executives would say they often consult the research to discover more about the play patterns, or play types, that kids are exploring. In doing so, they often layer archetypal narratives (a.k.a. familiar storylines) on top of specific stories and characters to help their audience more easily access the play type.

“Things like Disney Princess or Cars, stories revolving around good vs. evil—those archetypal narratives are really props for a play pattern rather than a play pattern itself,” says Matthias. “Kids need the characters, but it’s really all about providing a spark for their imagination.”

So when developing an IP and its attendant consumer products and licensing program, it might be helpful to take a look at what defines play patterns or play types, how some popular IPs tap into one or more of them, and finally what play types are ripe for exploring in the current marketplace. Along the way, we’ll also get a glimpse at some emerging archetypal narratives being employed,  and examine the tightrope creators and brand executives must walk to make a successful toy line.

Jacqueline Harding, director of UK-based media consultancy Tomorrow’s Child, has built her career in child development around deciphering and delineating play. She often cites 16 recognized and well-established universal play patterns/types. “A true understanding of how play patterns work can really inform the work of IP owners and help them target and match children’s established and researched routines of play,” she says. A quick glance at the list (See our sidebar, “Play patterns defined” on page 58), and it’s not hard to associate some very successful properties with their complementary play patterns.

“For parents, it’s becoming increasingly important to know what their children are doing, what kind of play they are engaging in, and what benefits are associated with it,” says  Harding. She points out that toycos such as Mattel and V-Tech are classifying their products online according to play patterns, adding that an understanding of play patterns is growing amongst the toycos and consumers themselves.“It’s those companies that really know the strength of their products and can really exploit it in a positive way around a specific play pattern that find success,” she says.

Case in point is Spin Master Toys. The Toronto, Canada-based manufacturer has grown into one of the major players in the industry by zeroing in on specific play patterns throughout their product offerings.

“We strive to realize the value of play,” says Mark Sullivan, EVP of marketing at Spin Master. “There seem to be some innate play patterns, and by tapping into them we have our greatest successes.” For example, there’s the recent launch of boys property Redakai. Taking a multi-pronged approach, Spin Master is exploring the gaming aspect of the IP for the older portion of its boys six to 12 target, while concentrating on Redakai’s role-play appeal to engage the younger end of the group.

Redakai’s trading card game likely falls under the category of mastery play, where participants try to control their environment and are tasked with employing pre-existing rules to win the game. The role-play element, no less important to the IP, gives younger consumers a chance to indulge in imaginative play and take part in the overarching narrative, participating in the main character’s quest and battling against a variety of enemies.

These two core patterns are being developed to underpin the success and expansion of the franchise. As well, there is a collectibility aspect that appeals to the older demo.

“It’s really not just one play pattern,” says Sullivan. “We wanted to bring more to the table.”

While a mature program will most likely cover a number of different play patterns/types throughout its myriad extensions, there is usually a core pattern that is inexorably tied to its success, like Bob the Builder, for example. Clearly the HIT Entertainment property hones in on “building” and role-play. Something like Marvel Entertainment’s cast of characters, meanwhile, is created upon an archetypal foundation that pits good against evil. What would Spider-Man be, after all, without a host of villains to defeat? But, underneath their establishing narrative, most of the Marvel characters tap into kids’ desires to role-play, and then craft related toys and consumer products.

“It’s become synonymous really with Marvel,” says Paul Gitter, president of consumer products for North America. “Kids will say ‘I’ll be Spider-Man, you can be Destroyer’ or ‘I’ll be the Hulk’,” he says.

The importance of role-play is something Marvel is well aware of as it looks to other licensees to extend its various properties. “We try and take the most aspirational characteristics of the particular property and drive them home through the initial launch,” Gitter says, pointing to the multi-billion-dollar Iron Man program as a good example of the strategy at work.

“With that property, we knew we would concentrate on flying, and particularly the aspirational element of it. After we developed action figures and other toys around that idea, we moved out towards other product categories a bit further away from that core idea, like games and novelty. For us, it really does start with that core play pattern.”

Another iconic and successful IP that keeps a laser-beam focus on play patterns is Sesame Street. Foremost to the brand’s appeal is its cast of Muppet characters representing a large spectrum of familiar, relatable personality types that appeal to Sesame’s preschool target.

“What’s unique about our brand is we have created a community that is unlike any other children’s brand,” says Rosemarie Truglio, VP of education and research for Sesame Workshop, the New York-based nonprofit behind the 41-year-old IP. “It’s populated with lots of personalities and children can see themselves in them.”

While the narrative and characters tend to capture the hearts and minds of Sesame’s audience, the Workshop keeps tabs on where play patterns are headed to bridge the gap into the world of consumer products. For instance, the initial rollout of a new Sesame Street program often begins with plush and taps into what can be described as socio-dramatic play, where kids enact real, personal or domestic experiences. “Plush plays a significant role for us,” says Truglio. “The character becomes a friend, and the child can travel and play with their friend in a social-emotional way.”

Of course, after the initial connection with the character has been fostered by plush, additional extensions are readily accepted. Sesame Workshop has licensed a number of different products that can arguably fit into most of the 16 established play types. However, Sesame’s key to success—beyond establishing such relatable characters—is that it makes the connection between the product and the play pattern it embodies explicit. It’s an approach that is applauded by Harding from Tomorrow’s Child.

“I think IP owners should articulate this very clearly to parents,” Harding contends. “They should be discussing the advantages and the benefits of a particular play pattern. They should find the real strength of their IP, stick to it, and talk to parents directly about it.”

Character comes first or so says every company in the process of developing a new IP, where creating a relatable central character to drive the content becomes the primary goal. “Do we script it to end up with a product or play pattern?,” asks Sharon Lisman, VP of creative and product development at Scholastic Media. “It just doesn’t work that way at all. I look at a play pattern, but I don’t invent a brand because of it.”

Melissa Segal, SVP of global consumer products at The Jim Henson Company, agrees. “We are attracted to ideas and characters that are unique and fresh,” she says. “We don’t take a prescribed approach [and primarily consider] whether the IP will lend itself directly to a merchandise program.”

That said, there is no denying that when a media company invests in a concept, one of the most significant ways of recouping its investment (or even getting a TV series off the ground in the first place) is to land merch deals—particularly a master toy partner if we’re talking about preschool properties. HIT Entertainment is currently in production on Mike the Knight, a CGI series co-production with Nelvana that will bow in the US and Europe in the latter half of the year. What’s driving buzz around the property, however, is Mike’s employment of an arguably under-used historical archetype—medieval knights, dragons and battles—and its related potential to spawn a new iconic IP.

Jon Owen, SVP of HIT Brands, says he was first attracted to the idea because it brought a relatable and funny main character back to preschool TV, which he contends has been populated by more conceptual and abstract fare in recent years. “The narrative is our starting point, and I think it has to be,” he says. “Our first priority was to bring the hero character back to preschool.”

Along with UK master toy partner Character Options, HIT then began the process of developing a toy line with a decided emphasis on role play. “It will be led by figurines and playsets,” says Owen. “However, the series has to stand on its own, and we think it does. The danger exists that the extensions will seem too contrived. And we know that our core business is to produce a TV program, but throughout that production, we are considering what play pattern we want to hit on with the extensions.”

A survey of development experts, IP owners and toycos yields one area of absolute agreement—they all contend that the key to developing a successful toy line is striking the perfect balance between dictating the play pattern and letting children explore and develop their own ways of interacting with it.

“It really is about providing the right amount of spark to get them going,” says Matthias. “If it’s really prescribed, there is not enough room for them to play their own way. But if there aren’t enough contours in the narrative, then they won’t know where to begin.”

Furthermore, Harding agrees that as a result of the heavy emphasis on character-driven IP, play is becoming too prescribed and perhaps even limiting. “It’s getting far too structured,” she says. “The spontaneous nature of play should be an integral part of childhood. It’s hard for parents to be hands-off, but it’s important that there is a spontaneous angle to almost all play.”

Spin Master’s Sullivan says he takes the idea that creativity is the engine of play into account and he respects the need for children to bring new elements to the overarching play pattern of a product.

For example, in the development of Dr. Dreadful—a brand targeted at boys that features gross-out experiments and fits into the category of creative play—Spin Master has added more DIY features over time.

“We try to look at the classic play pattern but make it even more engaging,” he says, explaining that the line has evolved to allow more creativity (which in this case means providing different combinations and ways of serving up bodily fluids and exploding appendages). “If you just make it ‘paint by numbers’ and try to do the same thing over and over, it’s just not as engaging,” he adds.

And while some of the play patterns have been mined and continue to be exploited with the full force of product offerings, there are some opportunities that have largely been ignored by major toycos and IP owners. Of course, some patterns are easier to tap into than others, but Harding says people in the business could learn from the current research and perhaps capitalize on it.

One category that is under-developed is deep play, defined as any activity that allows the child to encounter risky and even potentially life-threatening situations to create survival skills and conquer fear. There are some obvious reasons why deep play might be avoided by IP owners and toycos, but Harding says the emphasis need not lie in its perilous elements, but rather in creative ways of working with that idea.

“I also think there is an opportunity with social play,” Harding says. “Etiquette itself has sort of been lost and we would benefit from play that shows us how to get along with each other better. And if we do have a falling out, how to make amends.”

Harding says while it is hard for her to pin down exactly what toy product could be developed around these principles, an understanding of the general framework and the innate pattern could be helpful in such a pursuit.

About The Author
Gary Rusak is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He has covered the kids entertainment industry for the last decade with a special interest in licensing, retail and consumer products. You can reach him at garyrusak@gmail.com



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