As a child, Ontario-born entrepreneur, Laura Robinson (no relation to me), loved playing parlor games. Harnessing her childhood passion, Robinson has forged an entrepreneurial career path inventing games and selling laughter for forty years. Not only has she turned fun into fortune but her work is helping people connect and bringing the nation together in a time of turbulence and disconnection.
In her mid-twenties, Robinson and partner Paul Toyne created the international mega-hit, Balderdash. Next cameparty games like Pictionary Mania, Identity Crisis and Size Matters. And then Robinson created two family games Count Your Blessings with the Chicken Soup for The Soul books series and The 7 Habits of Happy Kids for Stephen Covey. Perhaps her biggest claim to fame was her role as Emmy-nominated executive producer and creator of the hit show, Celebrity Name Game, hosted by Craig Ferguson.
But her business ventures haven’t ended there. This month Robinson debuted her creative force as executive producer (along with Richard Gerrits) with the new show Blank Slate, hosted by Mario Lopez on Game Show Network. I was curious about what would lead someone to think about turning their play into a career? And what was it about games that attracted Robinson? I sat down with her, and she told me her backstory that started with the mega-successful Balderdash.
‘Games Connect Us With One Another,’ Robinson Says
Games saw a comeback during the pandemic when we were all locked down, Robinson points out, and they kept us connected when we were isolated. As AI and automation overtake the work world with the potential to further disconnect us from one another, parlor games have enjoyed a renaissance, according to Robinson. She says games are important in today’s world because people everywhere are hunched over their cell phones, passively watching videos and interacting, isolated in their own little worlds—perhaps to escape the troubling times in which we live. Her observations underscore Gallup’s Global State of Social Connections, showing that 24% of the global population feels lonely, and young people aged 19 to 29 are more lonely than older adults from ages 65-plus.
I asked the game aficionado if Gallup’s figures could be attributed to cell phone attachment among youth? “When we’re on our phones, we’re detached from ourselves and one another, disengaged from our own innate sense of creation,” she notes. “When we play computer games, we observe in a detached way from the outside in. And that’s different from face-to-face games when we’re in it together, sitting on couches or around the dining room table.” She insists that games keep us from becoming more and more disconnected from ourselves and one another in times of turmoil.
Robinson believes when we get away from the technology and pull out a face-to-face game, we’re instantly connected. “It brings people together and restores a sense of connection,” she explains. “I came from a big family. We always hosted Christmas. We were always playing games, and I loved the connection. I was recently at a big party, and when somebody suggested playing a game, a bunch of intellectuals resisted. But once we started playing, they loosened up yelling, screaming and laughing their heads off. The kids were playing with their grandparents and parents, and we were in each other’s faces. What I loved about it was the games brought everybody together, livened up the party and evened the generations.”
As Robinson spoke, I couldn’t help but think about my Forbes interview here with Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, and his 85-page advisory that cites social isolation and loneliness as an underappreciated public health crisis, stressing the importance of social connections for our mental and physical health. “Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled and more productive lives,” Murthy states.
Robinson Says Games Are Psychologically Empowering
Through games and game shows, Robinson continues to build connections among people. She told me that she creates games to engage people on couches around the world, where they watch Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy over their TV trays. “You watch Family Feud and Steve Harvey is cracking everyone up,” the entrepreneur observes. “It’s great to see how people come to life playing games. There’s power in play, and we don’t want to lose it. That’s what makes game shows so popular. You’re not just sitting watching the television. You’re actively engaging—yelling your answer, like ‘How could they miss that?’ Your brain is engaged, you’re connected to it and you’re personally invested in it, plus, it’s fun.”
Robinson asserts that fun is underrated and that games are not frivolous. “Maybe we need to re-define that word to mean ‘essential’ instead of ‘unnecessary,’” she posits. “Frivolity is contagious and infectious in the best sense. The games I create are pure fun and neither intimidating nor a test of what you know. And everybody can play—even introverts who might feel intimidated in a group setting. Games are important for mental health and balance to lighten up our hearts. Sometimes imagination trumps intellect, especially in Balderdash.”
The game enthusiast told me that whenever she meets people and they discover that she invented Balderdash, their eyes light up and they say, “You know, we play that game every Christmas or New Year’s Eve. The game is falling apart, but we kept the little pieces of paper that Uncle John wrote the craziest definition on. We don’t remember the real definitions, but we remember the ones we laughed so hard at.” She emphasizes that you can make a whole room laugh from something you pull out of your mind. “There’s a psychological benefit to our nervous system because you feel good and connected to whoever you’re doing it with. That’s part of my legacy, bringing fun with all the things we worked on and created over the years.”
The Five P’s Entrepreneurs Need To Know
Robinson cites five P’s for entrepreneurs: passion, packaging, pitching, perseverance and pivoting. She explains that the process starts with having passion for your ideas, and that gets the juices going. Then you create a package, in which you do the research and show why your product is better than what’s already out there and if there’s a place for it in the market. Next, she says, you pitch your idea until someone accepts it. And if that doesn’t happen, you muster the persistence to keep knocking on doors. Robinson advises that if the persistence isn’t working after a while, you pivot and do something differently to get your message out there. She believes that whatever you’re trying to do as an entrepreneur, if you believe in it and have passion for it, you can sell it. “I’m driven with so many spinning plates, and there’s always more and more I want to do,” she concludes. “My husband tells me, ‘You’ve made millions of people laugh all over the world. Isn’t that enough for you?’ And I say it’s not enough, but when I remind myself I’ve been selling laughter for forty years—something that does good in the world—that’s a good feeling.”