Time To Take Playability Seriously

Video games are a big part of Gen Y’s lives. But a persistent media focus on violence may have distracted us from thinking about other ways they have influenced and shaped this generation. The unwritten rules, norms and expectations of this kind of play and playability have been woven into their psyches since childhood. 

There’s something marketers can learn from this generation of gamers, and from the billions of dollars staked on good play-testing: especially if we’re interested in brand experiences, as well as traditional messaging.

The first lesson of playability is the primacy of play. Forget, for a moment, the intellectual gamesmanship of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” and the new spins on winning points and tokens. Like the pursuit of happiness, the act of playing is more important than the purpose of playing. To this generation, it’s more about the journey than the destination.



Duh. But it’s an incredibly hard creative and technical challenge to make an experience that is truly fun and rewarding. And over the last few decades, videogame companies like Bungie and Valve have set the bar high. If marketers relegate play-value to secondary importance, behind a businesslike agenda, they’ll merely end up with a piece of Infotainment or Edutainment. Something that is not informative, not educational, and not entertaining. Triple fail. It needn’t be a trade-off. We simply need to make our experience succeed first at being fun to play. Otherwise, it won’t be worth the player’s time and effort to keep wading through. 

To create branded experiences that are fun to play, there are a couple of guidelines used by game designers that have interesting parallels. In Marc LeBlanc’s 8 kinds of fun, you might recognize some of the ingredients in a lot of big games. For Gen Y, these are now intuitively familiar to them, like flavors they grew up with. By themselves, they’re no substitute for a business case: but since consumer participation is essential to a program’s success, marketers would be wise to consider them. 

  1. Sensation: the fun is in how it feels, and how the game hits your senses

  2. Fantasy: the fun is in the wildly imaginative life & world you inhabit

  3. Narrative: the fun is in your role in an unfolding story

  4. Challenge: the fun is the obstacle course

  5. Fellowship: the fun is in the social framework and friends you make

  6. Discovery: the fun is the uncharted territory and buried secrets

  7. Expression: the fun is in what you can make and show the world

  8. Submission:the fun is in the sheer mindless pastime of it

Today, more marketers want their brand experiences to be social. Multiplayer games have one big similarity: other players can make or break an experience. And they don’t all share the same motivations and play styles. How does the experience you are creating appeal to them? How does it allow for ways they could change your game plan? 

The Bartle Test classifies player preferences in multiplayer games, based on character theory. Some people want to interact with, and others want to act on the game, or other players. Killers like to dominate and provoke others; Achievers want show off their scores and beat the game. Socializers like to spread knowledge and work in communities; Explorers want to dig around and find hidden secrets. This may be one area where people’s behaviors and expectations spread from game-playing to life. If difficult game design frustrates us, someone will know how to get around it. (An Explorer will find the answer, and a generous Socializer will share it.) 

Finally, we must confront the inadequacy of most advertising research to help us understand and improve the qualities of fun and play. Major game companies’ play-testers have no problem with ad-testing: but the methods that have been most useful for them are observational. Asking players to explain their opinions and attempts to articulate fleeting experiences don’t work as well. So why are we still testing experiences like it’s 1963? Is it just a fear that ‘play’ doesn’t sound serious enough for the C-Suite?

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