Playing Stories

by Brian Torney

I have a theory: If storytelling is how we pass down lessons, morals, beliefs, ideas, and learnings, then play is how young people safely implement and internalize those things.{jcomments on}

When I was in kindergarten at Briar Glen Elementary School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, my teacher Mrs. Beckle got a bit irritated that I brought my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to class with me. Sure, there were a bunch of toys strewn about our classroom. I remember a stuffed Kangaroo, a windup telephone, and art easels. There were books and audio tapes and stuff. But heck with that, I wanted to play Turtles! I brought Leonardo, Donatello, Bebop, Rocksteady, and The Shredder in a big cardboard box and just started making epic mutant wars with a few of my friends. I was Krang, this little brain-shaped dude, and I was taking over the world or something awesome, like usual. Death to humans and mutants alike! The fun only lasted a few minutes because Mrs. Beckle swung down and abruptly ended the battle, tossing my Turtle dudes back into their box, which found its way to the top of a very high shelf. Krang very, very angry.   

Some educators posit that entertainment toys like action figures, games, and videogames are the vile opponent of reading and literacy. I’ve always found the argument baffling: Reading is just another form of entertainment, alongside action figures and other toys. I think educators would be startled by the vast similarities between toys, games, and prose fiction…it’s all storytelling!

A bit about me: I am the child of two educators – my mom is a reading specialist and my dad a history teacher. I graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a degree in Fiction Writing and a minor in Screenwriting. Since then, I worked first in comic book publishing (another vile pursuit) before transitioning to the toy and game industry. I have spent the last eight years creating and marketing toys under the belief that toys and games are just another venue for storytelling, and thus an essential tool in combating illiteracy and in cultivating the endangered imaginations of our children. I believe that toys and games, like fiction, are utilized to convey lessons and moral themes. If we want kids to read, we need to expose them to lessons and morals they find valuable. We need to let them play what they have learned.

For example, those super-awesome Ninja Turtle action figures that are still probably sitting on the top shelf in a kindergarten classroom back home. In its most basic form, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the story of four youngsters entering a new and strange time in their lives. These youngsters feel different from those around them. Their adopter, an anthropomorphized rat named Splinter, teaches them martial arts in order to ground their lives in discipline and purpose, despite the crazy world around them. Throughout their adventures, the Turtles learn that each of them has special quirks and abilities crucial to the overall team. They learn teamwork, discover morals, and engage in various dramatized conflicts.

Yep, conflict. As in, violent ninja combat. As much as we may not like it, boys and girls seek out conflict in their fiction. Entertainment properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Harry Potter, Ben-10, and X-Men are thematically important, addressing ongoing conflict in youngsters’ lives. Kids “digest” conflict through entertainment, and moreover through play. And when did any great hero of literature learn a lesson without conflict?

Mrs. Beckle might have been right. The classroom wasn’t necessarily the best place to play Turtles. But I was lucky enough to have parents who understood the developmental power of action, adventure and heroes. Action figure play patterns allow children to act out conflict and emotion without negative impact on those around them. If reading stories teaches important lessons, morals, and themes, playing stories safely implements and practices them.

Card and board games have a similar relevancy to reading and storytelling. A prose novel and a board game are often identical in structure, albeit a social experience rather than an individual one. The players are both their own protagonist and the antagonists of other players. The winding journey of gameplay is akin to the rise and fall in action of a story. Each player must make difficult choices that will lead to unforeseen consequences over the duration of the game. Heck, there’s even inciting incidents and random happenstance (dice roll).

Recently, at a family function, I was introduced to a distant cousin named Luke. He was 6-years-old, and totally nuts about games. Luke’s favorite game was one I hadn’t given huge thought to, despite its popularity. The Bakugan strategy card and toy game, developed by Spin Master and Sega Toys, introduced a series of spherical, spring-loaded miniature figurines. The Bakugan pop open when rolled onto a special metal card. Luke explained the game and rolled a few rounds as demonstration. I immediately became enthralled with the experience. This was social storytelling! The Bakugan figurines were characters and cards fulfilled all of the other necessities of storytelling, like object, location, action, modifier, qualifiers, even interjections! The transformation of a Bakugan from its spherical shape into its secondary form is also important; stories aren’t stories unless change occurs. Bakugans are changed by the gameplay experience. Bakugan has all of the tools kids need to learn about nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and the structures of story. Plus, it’s fun.

Think of toy categories like genres of fiction. There are important themes that specific genres of fiction echo time and again, and toy categories approach themes similarly. Animal plush facilitate nurturing fantasy. Action figures actualize conflict at a hand-held scale. Board games show how a choice can have ramifications down the road. Suppose there is a hidden link between low reading scores and the decline of toy industry sales: Reading levels for adolescent boys have diminished as action figure and role play toys become less popular. Are kids imaginations suffering without these facilitators of storytelling?

After a classroom reading session, teachers usually follow with a round of question and answer. But what if we followed up reading with loosely structured play? Let’s put more storytelling power in kids’ hands and see how hungry it makes them for more stories. Get those Turtles off the shelf and out of their box. Time to play.

In his roles as Strategy Director of Entertainment Brands at Manifest Digital and Co-Founder of invention studio Otherdoor Entertainment, Brian Torney directs groundbreaking creative and interactive initiatives for industry-leading toy and game companies including Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Step2, McDonald’s, THQ and Hasbro. Brian also practices ancient Jedi techniques of mind control… These are not the droids you’re looking for.

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