If a board game is played at a kitchen table and no one is there to film it, did it really happen?
For generations, toy companies did not bother with such existential questions, content in the knowledge that Parcheesi and Sorry battles rarely left the confines of family game night.
But faced with the reality that it’s increasingly hard to draw digitally native children — and adults — to nondigital play, toy makers have begun developing a new category of board games that embrace, not avoid, our smartphone habits.
Gone are the days of hunched shoulders and rolled dice. Today the focus is on creating moments of zany physical comedy that can translate into viral moments ripe for sharing online — a phenomenon that is contributing to a surge in game sales.
It’s called the “YouTube effect.” Games have seen a 20 percent spike in sales this year, and are the fastest growing category of toys, and that’s before sales during the busy holiday season are tallied, said Juli Lennett, a toy industry analyst with the NPD Group.
Much of that uptick, she said, can be tied to videos featuring a subset of demonstrative board games. There’s Pie Face, where players contend to see who will get smacked with whipped cream, Speak Out, which involves a garish jaw-widening plastic mouthpiece, and Wet Head, aRussian roulette water helmet game.
It’s a simple formula, really. Design a game that makes Player A look foolish, knowing that Player B will have a smartphone at the ready, capturing the moment of idiocy for all the Internet to see.
Videos of the resulting family mayhem — sometimes a moment of serendipity, sometimes a construct of the game-makers’ marketing department — have found vast audiences on YouTube and Facebook.
Either way, game night, one of the last bastions of old-fashioned, cross-generational fun, might have finally succumbed to the pull of the screen.
“We’re kind of a social media generation and people want to share their life experiences,” Lennett said.
It also affects the way games are made and marketed. Josh Loerzel, vice president of sales and marketing at the Portland, Ore.-based toymaker Zing, said the shift has changed the way the company develops its toys.
“When we look at a product now, the first thing I look at is, literally, is this demonstrable for YouTube or not?” he said. Zing has seen sales of Wet Head spike after orchestrating a viral YouTube campaign.
Eager to replicate those successes, toy companies are keeping tabs on trending videos, and finding ways to translate them into games. And they’re using YouTube and other social networks as the primary method of promoting their products, believing these camera-ready games will encourage “viral play patterns.”
For Rhode Island-based Hasbro, the leading game maker in the toy industry, the shift began with Budgie.
In April 2015, Martin “Budgie” O’Brien and his grandson Jayden filmed themselves collapsing into giggles as they playedPie Face, which was distributed by the British toymaker Rocket Games. The video eventually drew over 240 million views on Facebook and YouTube, and caused the phones in Hasbro’s Pawtucket offices to ring off the hook as customers sought a way to purchase it stateside. Hasbro quickly acquired the rights to distribute the game globally.
The bet paid off. Hasbro rushed Pie Face to toy stores last October, and retailers sold out of the game last holiday season. As of October, Pie Face was the best-selling game of 2016, according to NPD group’s Retail Tracking Service. This year Hasbro released a new version, Pie Face Showdown, just in time for peak holiday sales.
The “YouTube effect,” said Jonathan Berkowitz, senior vice president of marketing for Hasbro Gaming, has been a “great positive force for the industry.”
On the hunt for its next big hit, Hasbro noticed “mouthpiece challenge” videos cropping up online this spring. The gag involves players trying to sound out a variety of challenging phrases while wearing dental cheek retractors that peel back a wearer’s mouth and lips. Berkowitz’s team saw a party game in the making. “We were running around dentists’ offices all over Rhode Island trying to find these mouthpieces,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one with that idea. Joe Santagato, a 24-year-old comedian from Queens with 1.7 million followers on his YouTube channel, also noticed the trend, and filmed a video of himself and his siblings wearing the mouthpieces. It was as contagious as Santagato had hoped: The video garnered 3 million views on Facebook overnight.
In a matter of months, at least a half-dozen mouthpiece games were on the market, including Speak Out, which Hasbro launched in partnership with Santagato in just 10 weeks.
“Honestly it’s ridiculous,” Santagato said. “Imagine you did that with your family and that happened. And now it’s a game. It hasn’t hit me yet.”
Hasbro plans to continue to “harness the power” of YouTube with two new games next year: They’ve partnered with YouTube stunt group Dude Perfect to promote Fantastic Gymnastics, which plays off the popularity of water-bottle flipping videos, and will also release Toilet Trouble. Essentially it’s a variation of Pie Face that soaks players with “toilet water.”
For decades, word-of-mouth was the only rule that mattered to the game industry, said Chris Byrne, an executive at TTPM, a site that posts review videos of toys, and baby and pet products.
Today, videos shared on social media play a similar role in building that community, he said.
“The same way that from the ’60s on people looked for the ‘TV moment’ for selling games” in advertising spots, “people will now be looking for the sharable moment in creating a game,” Byrne said. The videos resonate, in part, because “today’s 10-year-olds have never known a world without a smartphone. Physical things are actually novel to them.”
Toy industry executives stress that for a game to find viral success, the fun has to be genuine. But they aren’t above tapping the increasingly powerful influencers on YouTube to help hasten the process.
Such was the case with Wet Head, a game that failed when it launched 15 years ago, but found new life in a YouTube era, said Loerzel, the marketing director of Zing toys. Buyers at retailers like Target and Walmart were incredulous when Loerzel told them he was forgoing television ads and using YouTube influencers to promote the game instead. But the plan worked. The original YouTube video posted to the Family Fun Pack channel now has over 38 million views and spawned hundreds of copycats.
A creator with millions of followers “has a major, major weight and influence. When you see a creator endorse something, it’s a much more personal level than if you just see a commercial,” he said.
But such strategies have been condemned by advocates, who note that children are particularly vulnerable to persuasive messages in advertising. To kids, a 10-minute video of a family playing Wet Head is just funny. They have no idea that the family was paid for their endorsement and that’s it’s essentially just another form of advertising.
Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said the line between advertising and content is far more fluid on YouTube, making it nearly impossible for children — and their parents — to distinguish between the two. Earlier this year, the Boston-based nonprofit filed a complaint asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and take enforcement action against companies that create and distribute child-directed “influencer” marketing.
Golin also worries that something much larger is at stake. This type of marketing, he warns, has the potential to shift the very nature of how — and why — we play games.
“It changes the whole dynamic. You’re performing for an unseen audience, you’re not there in the moment with your friends,” Golin said. “It’s a shame that we send a message to kids that the act of playing with each other isn’t enough anymore.”Janelle Nanos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.