Family demand, Internet spur market for faith toys
BOSTON — The “crazy, crazy Jewish fun” of Kosherland looks a lot like the board game Candy Land, except gefilte fishing substitutes for visits to the Ice Cream Sea.
In Catholic-opoly, like Monopoly, the job is to bankrupt your opponents. The difference is it’s done “in a nice, fun way.”
And role-playing can get pretty realistic with the Biblical Action Figure of Job, which comes complete with boils.
The market for religious board games and toys like these is tiny, and a bit quirky.
But sales numbers indicate demand is growing as families demand wholesome entertainment, selections expand and the Internet gives greater access to retailers.
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Abe Blumberger of Jewish Educational Toys said people are much more willing to buy religious toys since he helped create Kosherland in 1985. His game is now offered on UrbanOutfitters.com.
“I think there’s a recognition there’s a small niche out there,” Blumberger said.
Statistics on sales of religious games are hard to find. However, retail sales of inspirational gifts and merchandise, which includes religious toys and games, were an estimated at $1.9 billion in 2005, an 11.8 percent increase from the previous year, according to an April report by Packaged Facts, the publishing arm of MarketResearch.com.
The report projected 26.3 percent growth, to $2.4 billion, in sales in the gifts and merchandise sector by 2010.
The games and toys cover a variety of faiths, from Islam to Mormonism, and include Risk-style games such as Missionary Conquest and talking plush dolls, including the smiling and sneaker-wearing Pray-With-Me-Mantis.
In the Muslim game Race to the Kabah, players advance by learning the meaning of the 99 names of Allah.
Kosherland teaches about Jewish dietary law, requiring, for instance, that players move backward if they mix milk with meat.
In the Mormon game Mortality, good decisions help a player acquire “testimonies,” which strengthen his faith and help him endure life’s trials.
Many of the games were made by people with little or no toy-making experience who were inspired by deep religious conviction and an idea that wouldn’t let go.
Cliff Rockwood of Tyngsborough developed Holy Huggables because he wanted a doll for his daughter that reflected his family’s spiritual values. Using informal gatherings with friends as market research, he and his wife developed talking Esther, Moses and Jesus dolls, and have sold “tens of thousands,” though Rockwood declined to be more specific.
Thasneem Ahmed, creator of Race to the Kabah, wanted to promote family life after being deeply affected by the 1999 Columbine school massacre.
Ahmed paid $40,000 to produce 2,500 copies herself in 2001. Last month, she sold the last game of that batch.
“I felt this was really important for children and families,” she said. “That’s what it came down to.”
Rebecca Sachs Norris of Merrimack College in North Andover and Nikki Bado-Fralick of Iowa State University co-authored a paper on religious games and toys, which they say can be a powerful part of instilling values.
But they also worry about whether children can handle some of the more serious and complex messages the games try to send.
“These aren’t trivial,” Norris said. “They really aren’t.”
In some games, for instance, the losers don’t reach enlightenment or Heaven, Norris said. Missionary Conquest awards extra points to players who are martyred by stoning as they try to establish missions in the Middle East.
Rockwood said his dolls’ sayings portray what the Bible says in a way a child can understand.
In Holy Huggables, Esther says, for example, “My natural beauty won the king’s heart,” explaining how she was chosen to be queen by King Xerxes in the Book of Esther.
The dolls are meant to gently introduce children to the Bible, and kids have responded, Rockwood said.
The dolls have also proved surprisingly popular with senior citizens, who want to share the encouragement the dolls offer with their Biblical sayings, Rockwood said. It’s more proof to him that manufacturers are ignoring a bigger, religious-oriented market.
“There’s a population that would like to have these kind of products, and no one wants to make them,” he said.
That might be because retailers are just going with what they know.
According to Anita Frazier, a toy industry analyst for the NPD Group marketing research company, the major concern of toy makers considering new products or markets is where and how they’ll distribute it. They’re often forced to find lesser-known, alternative distributors for new products because mass retailers largely choose to stock their shelves with proven brands.
Kosherland’s Blumberger said his game has had short rides on the shelves of major stores, including Wal-Mart. But his hopes for a mega-marketing deal for Kosherland seem slight, even though trips to the Kiddush Wine Ocean or to visit a top-hatted Matzoh man still have appeal 20 years after the game was created.
“I don’t think any of the other game companies have to worry about us taking over the market share,” he said.