A new age for toys: how playtime finally grew up

Toymakers are booming again and meeting a significant rise in demand for games, puzzles and board games – and this time the demand isn’t being fuelled by kids as you might expect, but by adults.
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The disruption of supply chains, lockdowns and curfews in most economies around the world made last year a pretty rough one for the vast majority of industries. But not toys. Another $30 billion will be spent on them by 2025, according to a global forecast from ReportLinker. And it turns out that not only will your kids never tire of playing with toys; adults won’t, either. Around 70% of millennials alone bought themselves a toy to fill their downtime with last year.

While the closure of major entertainment venues and theme parks forced parents to shift from expensive entertainment facilities to affordable toys, even before lockdowns there was unexpected growth in certain categories such as games, puzzles and board games, especially in the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and several other European countries.

Sure, toys and games aimed at adults have been around for a long time. From collectibles and licensed merchandise all the way through to architectural models and building kits, toys for adults have always been associated with geek subcultures and pop-culture fandoms. In China, Japan and South Korea, the ‘art toy’ market has seen physical toy stores and vending machines pop up that are purely aimed at adult consumers. But the word ‘kidult’ – a marketing term used to describe an adult who still plays with toys – has an infantilising and alienating ring to it.

‘Every few years, the market of toys aimed at adults gets redressed,’ says Billy Langsworthy, co-founder of Mojo Nation, a collective of creatives and designers in the toy industry.

‘A few years ago, dark humour was at the forefront with Cards Against Humanity and Telestrations After Dark. More recently, toy companies have been repositioning as lifestyle brands.’

This new wave of well-designed toys is speaking to a certain kind of lifestyle, and it’s not the same one as the collectible dolls or model train kits; they’re eco-friendly, wellness-focused and aesthetically appealing. ‘These toys are deliberately not mass-market,’ Billy says.

It’s the smaller brands that have spotted the gap for design-centric toys. In Sweden, Snego is producing sustainably dyed building blocks. Hand-crafted in Miami, Luxe Dominoes’ colourful packaging extends across its range of Mahjong, Rummy and Tic Tac Toe sets. Monikers is a fully illustrated card game emulating Charades and Heads Up!. Jigsaw puzzles – a product category that saw a 19% increase in uptake in 2017 and is due to continue growing by 18.6% every year until 2027 – are going through a high-resolution revolution. Piecework Puzzles in Indiana, Journey of Something in Melbourne and Jiggy in New York are all encouraging a new generation of puzzle enthusiasts to make art out of jigsaws.

While Covid-19 and the stay-at-home mantra were undoubtedly important factors in the rapid growth of these companies – UK sales of jigsaws and board games jumped 240% in the first week of lockdown in March 2020 – they were by no means the initial catalyst. The designer toy trend was bubbling away in the background before the pandemic. It’s at the epicentre of a few different, but converging, factors.

The first is the self-care and wellness movement, which has been pushed even higher up the agenda as people have been confined to their homes. The second is the rise of crafting and other forms of recreation that require focus and hands-on work. And, finally, regardless of sector, consumers are showing more design-consciousness, wanting to know not only how their products were made, but also demanding that they be beautiful items. These homeware items, in turn, have started to become ingrained in self-care rituals. And the virtuous circle keeps going.

For Philip Lee, founder of Hong-Kong based toy manufacturer playsometoys, the new demand among adult consumers is ‘for toys that are not for hardcore toy fans. They have a trendy feel to them, and they make a statement. You’re more likely to find them in a hipster cafe than you are in a toy store.’

‘The toy has become an object that you don’t want to have to put into a box when you finish playing with it. It’s like the books you put on the shelf in that it says something about you and the space you’ve created in your home.’

Lluis Mosquera, a toy designer from Madrid, agrees. ‘The toy has become an object that you don’t want to have to put into a box when you finish playing with it. It’s like the books you put on the shelf in that it says something about you and the space you’ve created in your home.’ As Lluis, too, points out, well-designed toys and games have been seeping into the homeware and decor space – a sector of the market that grew extremely quickly last year.

With all of these trends, it makes sense for toy companies to pivot to focus on adults, with their higher purchasing power and increased control over their consumption choices. And even though toy manufacturers could, in theory, get their products out to children via millennial parents, research shows that adults without children are spending more on toys and games than those with them.

At the same time as adults are demanding well-designed toys, children are shifting further away from them. The toddler and preschool toy category alone dropped by 8% in 2018, driven largely by a decline in the US and Europe. Combine this with a falling birth rate and people having children later in life – a social phenomenon that East Asian countries have been experiencing over the past decade – and it’s not at all surprising that adults have been fulfilling their childlike curiosity in other ways. The emergence of these new toys for adults is currently pulling up the rest of the toy industry.

Read more: Three adult toy brands changing the game

This article was first published in Courier issue 39, February/March 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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