Those who know me know I don’t shy away from controversy. From the time I started in the games industry as Marketing Director for the Game Developers Conference (GDC)/Gamasutra/Game Developer magazine (I led the rebrand to GDC from CGDC under Jen Pahlka’s aegis), to my six years spent helping build and sell Trymedia (arguing that downloadable and online games would be more important than retail), I’ve been fortunate to be in the eye of the storm for more than one major revolution.
So it didn’t come as much of a surprise when Ian pounded his virtual fist on the table after reading about my latest endeavor, the publication of Game-Based Marketing (Wiley, 4/2010). This book is the first comprehensive look at how game mechanics are reshaping marketing and consumer engagement on and offline. The result of over ten years of research, Game-Based Marketing argues that game mechanics are going to be increasingly used to market all kinds of products and services. But the more I talk about game mechanics, and the more people I meet working with them, the more I am convinced that the future of everything, not just games themselves, is about fun.
In fact, two GDCs ago, my dear friend and brilliant game designer Nick Fortugno pounded his real fist against a real table over the same subject. We were at a speaker dinner, and he strenuously objected to my observation that many things in life seemed to be games (he disputes my recollection of the evening, but my memory is pretty solid). As I am only too keenly aware, examples of “passive play” seem to abound, with point systems, badges, levels and leaderboards used with extraordinary frequency in the world outside of games.
In my research for the book and my FunwareBlog where I cover many of these topics, I’ve come across a simple pattern that appears to be repeating itself: As consumers become more broadly comfortable with games as part of their lives, they are more open to game mechanics in other areas. Simultaneously, game designers continue to refine the complex game systems they build based on their experience of the real world (which is becoming more game-like), resulting in ever more banal, accessible and successful game designs; see FarmVille. In some ways it seems, the very notion of a game as a distinct idea is imperiled by its own success in the popular culture.
But I am categorically not a messenger of doom. Unlike many of my in-situ counterparts, I do not believe this shift to games everywhere portends the collapse of the game industry; hardcore publishers will take care of that themselves, thanks. Rather, what my research and instinct strongly suggests is that the market for game design – and game designers – just grew by an order of magnitude.
As one of the most interesting new disciplines of the 20th century, game design has had an outsized influence on our lives. But its medium has been largely confined to games-as-entertainment and marginal opportunities to work on “serious games” (one of my least favorite phrases ever… a notch above military intelligence). But the time is coming, perhaps measured in months – and definitely in single-digit years – when game designers will be working at almost every company, from large brands to small startups; from healthcare and finance to food and social networking. In short, the game design era is nigh.