That Thing You're Making? That's Not What People Are Wanting: What Game Design Teaches Marketers


Thanks to Gareth Kay’s recent recommendation, I’m delving into Jesse Schells’ book, The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. I’ve only just begun, but a couple of passages leapt out at me:

“Without experience the game is worthless”

“The game is not the experience. The game enables experience but it is not the experience

“The player and the game are real. The experience is imaginary - but game designers are judged by the quality of this imaginary thing because it is the reason people play games”

“Like building a ship in a bottle we are far removed from what we are actually trying to create... We never truly see the output of our work, since it is an experience had by someone else, and ultimately, unsharable”

Professor Schells’ book is written from a game-designing perspective, but because he writes from a deep interest in human nature, it has implications and relevance for all of us.

His words remind us that whatever we’re in the business of making, people don’t want our artifact (your app, ad, product, event...) for itself. They want it for the experience it creates. As Gian Luigi Longinotti Buitoni, the former CEO of Ferrari North America has put it, “The dream is not to own a crown. It is to be a king.” Does what we create make someone’s life - if only for a fleeing moment - easy, fun, satisfying, enduring, memorable, precious... ?

Whatever we - client or agency - think we are making, at the end of the day, we are in the business of stimulating and enabling responses. If in the real world, in the lives, hearts and minds of people there is no response, no experience, then we have failed. Responses and experiences are our real product and everything we create is a means to this end.

Dylan Williams, Head of Strategy at Mother put it well once: "Most of the stuff that inhabits popular culture starts from audience response and works back to an idea. We in advertising tend to start with our message and work outward. We are spending too much time on what we want to say, rather than what people want to hear. Maybe we should flip the traditional planning process. From message-out planning to audience-back strategy. Dispense with propositions and focus on more thoroughly understanding what people are into. Spielberg said he wanted to make everyone in a cinema feel joy. Then worked back to ET. What would we make if our development process worked this way around?"

The obvious implication is that we must look beyond the thing - its characteristics and features - that we are making. We must look beyond the product horizon. That’s still a new habit for many. But the artifact is the beginning of the process, not the end of it. Our artifact enables and stimulates that response, but as Schell reminds us, it is not the response. Our efforts therefore must begin not with asking "What can we make?" But asking "What experience do we want to create?" We must start with the end in mind. And that demands as it has always done, that we place a premium on understanding people, and the experiences they are seeking to create for themselves: Who do they want to be? How do they want to feel? Where do they want to be? How do they want to look? What sensorial, emotional, and social experiences are they wanting to create for themselves?

Looking to agencies, given that our efforts are no longer limited purely to messages, but creating and enabling experiences, these feel like newly relevant and urgent questions.

Schell reminds us that we cannot forget that we are working a good few degrees removed from this experience. Whether that’s at the supermarket shelf, the breakfast table, the swanky cocktail bar. Which is why spending time understanding and gaining insight - even if through a glass darkly - into how people respond to what we make remains so valuable.

Oh, and do read his treasure-trove of a book. It’s about so much more than gaming.