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2:05PM on Apr 19
By Kristy Lantz Astry
Transitioning from technical writer and software designer to board-game entrepreneur may seem like an unusual career path for some, but not for savvy auntie Eileen Thournir of Lakewood, Colorado. She’s drawing on her life experiences to create unique children’s games that encourage fun, meaningful interaction with peers and adults. She hopes children apply ideas they learn through playing her games to life – establishing their place in society, helping others, even sustaining the planet. Thournir founded her company, Enlightened Play!, to produce a series of theme-based games to fulfill a niche that she believes has just been waiting for her to discover.
Reinventing herself as a small-business owner and board-game creator hasn’t been easy. Thournir, 54, left her Riverside, California, home after high school to pursue a degree in Education at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. After graduating with her Bachelor of Arts in 1976, she moved back to California only to find no job openings for teachers. For the next four years, she worked as an electronics assembler and apprentice electrician in the Bay Area. She moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1980 and spent the next 27 years pursuing diverse careers, working as journeyman electrician, Public Service Company dispatcher, technical writer, and software designer.
Although she enjoyed designing software, Thournir was frustrated and saddened by events that occurred in late 2006 and early 2007. Her sister-in-law found she had uterine cancer. The release of her software product was delayed due to corporate issues. “At that time I was struggling with my role in society, and [in] determining my purpose in life…was I giving back? Have I done what I need to do here? My resounding conclusion was No,” Thournir said.
In early 2007, she left her job to write a mystery novel set in Blacksburg, Virginia. At the same time she was researching lodging in Blacksburg on the Internet, the Virginia Tech massacre was occurring. “I’m looking for a place to stay, and here comes this story about Virginia Tech. At first I thought I was looking at a historic piece but then I realized it was live…Suddenly there’s this incredibly powerful drama happening at that moment that completely superseded anything I’d been writing. I was appalled, I was deeply affected, and I couldn’t write any longer,” Thournir said.
Not long after the Virginia Tech shootings, she witnessed her then 11-year-old nephew playing a free Internet video game on his computer. “The ones that he played were very mild compared to what-all is out there, but he was yelling ‘I’m going to get you, I’m going to kill you’ at the game…My nephew is a sweet boy, but he was getting involved in this violence. That’s when I decided I was going to do what I could do to bring something into the world that was fun for kids but at the same time educated them.
“I wanted to create games that were non-violent, non-gender specific, that had good social values, that families could play together, and that teachers could bring into classrooms,” Thournir said. She nixed the idea of creating a video game because of financial constraints. And she didn’t like the isolation aspect of video game play. “I’d rather see families and friends playing a board game where they could talk over issues because I think there’s so much more that we get out of that kind of direct interaction,” she said.
One night, she dreamed about the game she was to create. “I woke up with the strategy for this game in my mind,” Thournir said. She founded her company, Enlightened Play! on April 23, 2007, the day after Earth Day, and began developing the game she called EcoRanch.
The game is set on a ranch that rehabilitates neglected and abused animals.
Representing ranch volunteers, players adopt an animal and collect food, shelter, water, and veterinary-care tokens for it, donate their surplus supplies to other players, and help herd the rest of the animals to foster pens. To move about the game board, players must make choices based on their answers to true-and-false, multiple-choice, and “inner-awareness” and “social-awareness” questions. While the first two question types have correct answers, the inner- and social-awareness questions do not. Instead, they’re meant to spark discussions about players’ thoughts and feelings and how to address critical issues facing the global community. Acknowledging the game’s sophistication, Thournir decided the audience best suited for her game was children aged 12 and older.
EcoRanch made its debut at Toy Fair 2008, a large toy-industry convention in New York, in February 2008. “I introduced it [at Toy Fair 2008], but I first offered it for sale at the Seattle Green Festival, which took place April 12th and 13th. I sold 23 games in two days to direct customers, and also sold games to two toy stores in Seattle, Izilla Toys and Blue Highway Games. It’s very difficult when you start out in the industry, especially in this economy. They [the toy stores] try not to take on new inventory, and often the last thing they want is to take on is a toy or game that they consider unproven,” she said. When asked why these toy stores took a chance on EcoRanch, Thournir answered, “Because of me. I went to them, I opened up the box, I played the game with them.”
Although building her business has been a rewarding experience, Thournir said her biggest personal regret was not having a child. “I still have this huge need, and I think most women do,” she confessed. “It’s the most creative thing you can do in life.” She believes that more women should create toys for children. “Women have that instinctual nurturing side that is lacking in so many of the toys and games on the market now…There are some new game and toy manufacturers that are women…but it’s very difficult where you’ve got the big boys [such as Mattel] that have the money to do the advertising, who get the media attention. Of course they’re also the ones doing the recalls of toys because it’s always [about] the bottom line.
“But when it comes to children, we can’t do ‘bottom line.’ Just like education, which cannot be the last line in the tax budget, or the first item in the city or government budget to get cut. Children are the future. It’s such a trite thing to say, but people haven’t gotten it yet. So I think we need to put those kinds of values into games. It just seems to me that women who give birth are the natural propagators of games and toys,” she reasoned.
While creating EcoRanch, her biggest self-discovery was that she was able to reach out to others so readily. “I can ask for help, and I can put my baby – my soul – out there for others to experience and [to] not be afraid of their reactions,” she said. “That surprises the heck out of me. I’ve been an introvert almost all my life. It’s really been hard for me, in business; that whole standing up in front of people at a business meeting. Or in a classroom, where you’re afraid the words are just going to fly out of your head.
“All my life it’s been about, ‘What would people think of me? How will they judge me?’ But with my game, I’m the exact opposite. It’s amazing. Where did this come from? It must be inner strength,” she said.
Her efforts are paying off. In June 2008, the Sundance Channel’s Greenzine, a weekly electronic magazine covering environmental news and exclusive interviews, covered Thournir and her company in its Featured Eco-MMUNITY Story of the Week: “Enlightened Play! – Toys for Sustainaholics (sundancechannel.com, Greenzine, Issue 1, Volume 9).” In late June, EcoRanch was awarded the 2008 Preferred Choice Award in the Kid’s Board Game category of the Creative Child Magazine’s Creative Child Awards Program. EcoRanch also was awarded the Seal of Approval for Fall 2008 by the National Parenting Center. In late September, EcoRanch was featured on Denver television station KUSA’s morning news program, which resulted in several orders from viewers. In April 2009, Thournir was named WomanOf the Month, and her story was featured prominently in WomenOf.com (www.womenof.com).
Eileen Thournir wants her company to be known for producing high-quality, family-friendly products that reward mindful play. Her website, www.enlightenedplay.com, is more than a marketing tool. It features inspiring quotes, suggests ways to enjoy life’s treasures, and encourages self-enrichment through good intentions and actions. Helping children become socially aware is just one of her goals. Encouraging game players to discuss ideas and take actions to benefit their community is another. She summed up her beliefs by saying, “If we pay more attention, and really listen, and really see, I believe we can bring about huge changes. And we can live our lives so much more fully, and be that much more connected with one another.”
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