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August 28, 2012


Brian Torney

Storytelling is the fundamental ingredient in toy and game creation. I had a very interesting conversation on this topic with a 30-year veteran of the game industry, who was under the belief that "emotion" is the special sauce in the recipe. But What is emotion? How do we portray emotion? Emotion is experiential, meaning it is directly tied to events and how events relate to other events.

Story, in its simplest form, is a progression or series of linked events constructed (or assembled, in the case of actual events) to generate emotions including understanding, amusement, interest, sadness, happiness, etc. Screenwriters understand story movement in terms of plot point A and Plot point B, and the links between, the precursors, and the results afterward. If Greedo is going to get shot by Han Solo on page 40, make sure the gun is in its holster on page 30. Cause and effect.

I would argue that virtually every toy and game portrays story, albiet sometimes in extremely rudimentary ways. A board game is an easy example, often depicting character avatars progressing across tiles in a race or adventure (winning and losing, victory or defeat, in itself is the great conflict in most human stories, particularly because humans are mortal, fear death, and have daily conflicts that arise and are given metaphor form). But a simple yo-yo also demonstrates cause and effect. The up and down rebound momentum is of particular parallel resonance to conflict and mood swings portrayed in adolescents.

Preschool toys often impart learning through action. Humanity devised storytelling for the purpose of imparting information, entertainment, and understanding. Playing with blocks is all about building and dismantling. Peg-based toys are all about process and discovery. These are infantile stories given form.

As kids get older, fantasy plays a bigger and bigger role in play. Kids begin using fantasy to generate understanding regarding conflict in their lives (conflict sometimes as simple as those of a child growing older).

I don't think the question is as simple as "do leaders in the toy industry inject enough great storytelling...?" Toy companies are master storytellers. Marketing to mom and kids is a terrifying and powerful art. The bigger topic at hand is how can the industry better use storytelling to capture the imagination and learning of kids and adults? How can we better play into the play fantasy? How can we better promote the important learning areas at various growth stages?

How can we devise products that are so synonymous with vital stories that kids cherish and remember them forever, imparting those products and stories onto subsequent generations? How can we make the legacy brands of tomorrow?

Richard Gottlieb

Outstanding comment.

Sarah Dugo

Thank you Brian-a wonderfully insightful addition to the article!

Leslie Wallant

I'm going to buy The Storytelling Animal. As the daughter of a storyteller and one who is just launching a story that fits the storytelling steps to a tee, I know storytelling is a central tennant of humanity, of culture. It is the oral stories created in the human imagination of myth and social comportment that were written into the Bible. All religion, once oral, now written is taught through storytelling. Without storytelling we have no culture, no religion, no knowledge. In Darwinian terms, storytelling is a human survival tool: The processes of the imagination organized into adventurous story helps us create technology, address fears of the unknown, organize society.

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