The Power of Games

I’ve spent the last 9+ years breathing the hot air of marketing soothsayers.  It’s unavoidable.  Whether you’re a CMO or Brand Manager, a Creative Director or Account Planner, or a Media Planner or Marketing Analyst, you’ve been subjected to all the “new” and “change” and “disruption” of the industry.  And while there is fire somewhere deep in all that smoke, I’m not sure the size and direction of it is represented well through all the talking head puffery.

Back when I was a talking head myself, my sole role at the Agency being the “Innovation Guy,” I presented to a global CMO, 3 hours worth, on all the new.  But my partner and I anchored our presentation with the simple fact — humans don’t change much.  And we don’t.  What and who we are change at the pace of glaciers.  ”How” we are changes like the wind.  It’s easy to get caught up in the new “how.”  Industries are being built on leveraging the ever-changing “how” of our “real-time” lives.  But the key to staying ahead of the next how is to start from what and who — rooting yourself in what doesn’t change helps you evaluate meaningful change and differentiate it from chaos or noise.

So rather than talking about what is changing in marketing and advertising, let’s start with what doesn’t change.  Branding and advertising have always been about influencing and teaching through story.  Stories have been one of the most powerful media agnostic forms of teaching since the birth of language. The difference today is the format and medium of that storytelling is no longer as simple as an oral tradition passed on in small geographically constrained ways.  It’s not as simple as a written document reproduced and distributed with wide reach at high latency.  In fact, it’s beyond reach and speed.  Stories now have more reach and speed than ever before, but they also take on limitless shapes, forming and reforming across mediums in place and time, shaped continually by many tellers and retellers.

Marketers are struggling with how they best influence that story.  And in the process, they are experimenting with new forms of storytelling.

But I think there is a very different (and complementary) approach.  While stories, at their best, can inspire people to think and feel differently, and even to act, they aren’t very effective at teaching people how to act.  Marketing isn’t just about branding and advertising, it’s about helping people buy, use, and advocate for your product/service.  The more disruptive the “how” of your product, the more time you need to spend teaching people the “how.”  If stories aren’t enough, what are?

Games are not stories. It is interesting to make the comparison, though: Games tend to be experiential teaching. Stories teach vicariously. Games are good at objectification. Stories are good at empathy. Games tend to quantize, reduce, and classify. Stories tend to blur, deepen, and make subtle distinctions. Games are external—they are about people’s actions. Stories (good ones, anyway) are internal—they are about people’s emotions and thoughts.  A Theory of Fun For Game Design - Raph Koster

 

Could games be the answer?  Not directly, no.  I am NOT saying you should build “gamification” into your marketing plan.  You have to go deeper into what a game really is:

They are ““iconified representations of human experience that we can practice with and learn patterns from.”

The risk, and probably aversion to this train of thought, is that you end up with very rational, practical communication that does nothing for you.  It’s more than that.  I’m not talking product demos, product cut-aways, making ofs, etc.  Games have a more powerful impact.  They influence in more subtly fun ways.

Games have these characteristics: They present us with models of real things—often highly abstracted. They are generally quantified or even quantized models. They primarily teach us things that we can absorb into the unconscious as opposed to things designed to be tackled by the conscious, logical mind. They mostly teach us things that are fairly primitive behaviors, but they don’t have to. A Theory of Fun For Game Design - Raph Koster

Primitive behaviors — now you’re talking.  That’s the power of games.  You simplify complex reality into the core essence, create methods for learning the patterns and actions of that reality that are fun, and people actually change their behavior as a result.

I started this whole thing off with marketing and advertising.  Here’s what I’m proposing:  to leverage the power of games in a marketing context, you have to move beyond simple gamification tactics.  You have to define the essence of your experience, then build fun ways for people to learn the patterns of that experience.

More on that to come…

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