About a decade ago, a board games parlour came up in Bangalore. The idea was simple: a collection of board games, a flexible seating arrangement and a small snacks corner. Staff helped you play new games or you could just pick up a game to play. The place soon shut down; probably it was an idea way ahead of its time. It was also a time when our lives were swiftly transitioning online and everything on the web fascinated us.
Around the same time, three IIT students designed the first Indian languages version of scrabble called Aksharit. Their company Madrat Games focussed on creating learning games in multiple Indian languages. Some of their games are still available on ecommerce portals but the company has no website, the founders have moved on and I could not find any news about them after 2016.
Today, 90% of toys in India are imported from China and Taiwan. This is despite the fact that the oldest known games, especially the board games, find their roots in the country and its ancient stories. An industry worth at least $1.5 billion and a potential for a projected $2-3 billion in the next four-five years, given our demographics, is no child’s play. Globally we have only about a 0.5% share of the toys market. Read it as a giant opportunity to export sustainable indigenous toys made by our MSME units. Of the 600 members of The Toy Association of India, less than 50% are manufacturers; others only trade in them.
Only a handful of clusters like Channapatna and Kondapali make traditional toys. Innovation here remains a challenge, resulting in their sustenance being dependent on patronage rather than consumption. Existing new age toy manufacturers are huddled around a few big cities in India. In the fancy craft fairs, we see beautifully designed board games in fabric, but the prices would make them more of a collector’s item rather than something accessible to the common kid. This can be easily scaled up given our textile heritage and diversity.
The Government of India had launched the much-needed Toycathon, followed by The India Toy Fair, inviting people to work on rediscovering and redesigning traditional games and creating new games. The set of ideas invited are quite comprehensive with the focus on educational and social games in both physical and digital formats. There is no doubt that it will inject the required momentum. A quality control order for Indian toys can give a level-playing field against cheap imported ones.
Let us look at the state of the ecosystem of these games, especially non-digital ones, that are played with other players. As pre-mobile era kids, we used to play in the parks near our home, in the courtyards of our homes or school playgrounds. Most of these spaces are either lost or have been abandoned in favour of a screen at hand. I am reminded of the board games etched on the floors of ancient caves and temples and puzzles on the walls and ceilings. Public spaces of today promote a bit of formal sports and fitness but do not leave an unstructured space for people to get together to play games. We need forums and platforms where people can talk, discover and ideate about new games.
Every village, town and city has a public library in India. Most of these are rarely optimally used. Can the citizens ask these libraries to have a collection of games that people can borrow and play? Can we have a play area marked in public libraries for different age groups? In fact, one of the problems with games for children is that they get wasted once children outgrow them. So, a better utilisation would be to have a public game bank accessible through libraries that can be reused for many years. The collection can be replenished with new and updated games from time to time. Other public places that can be used are airports and railway stations where people spend ample time waiting.
Local language games can be made accessible as they are not so easy to get as of today. Consumption of these will encourage designers and creators to create more games, fuelling a self-sustaining economy. Can we provide kits to people to help them create their own games, like the ones developed by Dr Arvind Gupta? Can we revive ancient strategy games like Ganjifa cards and Chaupar? Of course yes, but to nurture a games culture, we also need to promote the playing of games that need nothing—like the games we played by drawing on the floor or just by running around the place.
To fuel the industry, we need to look beyond just creating games and selling them. We need to bring back a culture of playing games, especially in the real world. We need to create spaces where people young and old can come together to play for entertainment or edutainment. Just as the entertainment industry needs its theatres and platforms, the games economy requires them too. Only a strong soft infrastructure can keep the games economy rolling. So, it’s time to get up and play.
The writer is an author and founder of blogging website IndiTales
She can be contacted at Twitter: @anuradhagoyal