Coffee and Game Design

Considering Coffee’s First Level

I’ve played video games for my entire conscious life. The original Super Mario Bros. features prominently in my earliest recollections along with the joy that those early experiences brought me. In the past few years I’ve gravitated toward story driven games such as Mass Effect and Metal Gear Solid. These are games designed for exploration and unravelment, lauded for their ability to immerse players among their detailed histories, settings and characters. At the center of it all is the player. Their discoveries, interactions and decisions advancing the story forward, shaping the landscape of a world they knew so little not long ago.

In time, I hope that coffee culture could be viewed the same way.

I work at an established coffee roaster within San Francisco’s craft coffee scene. As part of the Third Wave of coffee, our practices focus on creating a sustainable coffee market that grants our customers access to delicious coffees and ensures that our producers are compensated fairly. However, I’ve found that one of our greatest challenges has little to do with the coffee itself. It lies in improving our outreach and how we can go about reinforcing the value of our work through story, immersion and participation while withholding from the mindset of good coffee versus bad coffee.

“Fun is giving respect to something that doesn’t deserve it.”
- Ian Bogost, Game Designer

There’s an inherent challenge in giving credence to something many find simple and inconsequential. Coffee as a product has been largely commoditized though the vast majority of production occurs outside of the developed countries which lead the world in consumption. The people, places and cultures from which it grows anonymized by the biggest companies in the industry. Outside of the metropolitan areas where craft coffee has thrived the last decade, attempts to expand upon the idea of a premium, considered and more expensive coffee option is often scoffed at and even met with resistance. Or alleged hipster-dom. That happens kind of often. The point is, coffee benefits from incredible visibility but hasn’t found a central idea to speak for its breadth and depth in an approachable, inviting way quite yet.

Recently I’ve begun to look to media and industries beyond the culinary bubble San Francisco has become for a solution. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon the Game Maker’s Toolkit, an excellent video series by writer Mark Brown, that I considered drawing inspiration from game design. His series analyzes the thoughtful ways in which games garner engagement and personal investment from players. Oftentimes by encouraging them to learn, of all things.

The entire series is a fascinating dissection of interactive media through the lens of game design but this particular video touches upon a concept that is central to involving more and more people into the coffee conversation. The conveyance of depth. How to curate an experience significant in scope for an audience fragmented in their desire to explore it.

In this light, we can communicate that the baseline, “learner” experience can carry the same weight of accomplishment and meaning as the “master’s” pursuit. The idea that a customer who strolls into a cafe and orders a cup to-go is as important to the world of coffee as the people who own that same cafe (and there are way more of the former as well.) The characteristics of a good cup of coffee are no doubt subjective, but the idea that those who devote their lives to literally cultivating such a thing don’t deserve their due, isn’t.

Good games make you feel capable. Great games make you feel central, important and ripe with potential. You too could be all of these things. Just let us know if you’d like room for cream.

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