3 Lessons I Learned From Creating Digital Games
As the sweeping success of Pokémon GO showed us, the lure of gaming is so powerful that it can even prompt teens to visit their local parks and get some fresh air.
This is a notable achievement because as parents and advertisers alike will tell you — this demographic does not like to be told what to do.
Nevertheless, the gaming mindset dictates much of what we do. If you’ve ever run through a list of errands and tasks to get to a reward (an ice cold beer maybe and/or some uninterrupted time on the couch), then you’ve gamified some of your everyday activities. Since gaming has been both a job and a pastime for me, I’ve seen how applying wisdom from game mechanics can make you better at your job.
Here are a few lessons in particular that are equally relevant in both spheres:
Lesson 1: Attention Is A Finite Resource That Should Be Respected and Accommodated
Humans now have shorter attention spans than goldfish. But we weren’t always this way — while goldfish are believed to have attention spans of nine seconds, a recent study showed that only since 2000, the average human attention fell from 12 seconds to eight seconds. What did researchers identify as the most likely culprit for the decline? Mobile phones.
At one of my former companies, Cie Games, we found out that it’s shockingly easy to lose a player’s attention — and overall interest — if there’s any inkling of friction signing up, learning to play or buying upgrades.
Once we saw how easy it was to lose someone’s attention and loyalty, we started to respect it. Every product design tweak, even the size of buttons, and down to simplifying the language in instructions and advertising copy — we worked to make things as easy as possible. And this attention to detail applies to everything we did in business. We removed all unnecessary complexity in every PowerPoint slide and every email to a customer. Making things easy was critical to the business — why make people work hard to understand what you do or how to work with your company?
You, too, could benefit from using this philosophy when evaluating your business and strategic product decisions.
Takeaway: Put in the effort to make things simple.
Lesson 2. Game Mechanics Mirror Real-World Life Mechanics
Ever wonder why some kids are lousy students who hate homework but are aces at Gears of War? Ever ponder why some employees trudge through the work week yet don’t mind spending hours training for a marathon or competing in a grueling Tough Mudder race?
It has to do with feedback loops and the feeling of agency. Happiness depends in part with feeling that you have some control over the results of whatever you participate in. If you run a marathon, you more or less have 100% control. If your boss is a control freak, you have very little. Games have seemingly arbitrary rules, but clear feedback loops — real-time information that helps you assess your ultimate performance. Seeing feedback that your performance is improving or that you’ve broken though another new barrier is enthralling and totally absorbing.
This is very unlike many people’s work experience. The reason is that real-time measurement tools often aren’t available to rank-and-file employees and feedback is reserved for reviews that only occur once or twice a year. As Peter Drucker said, what you can measure you can manage. These days, many things can and should be measuring all aspects of your business. Journalists used to file stories into a void; now they can see in real-time how they’re performing. Teachers today have the ability to see how fast their iPad-toting kids are learning.
Takeaway: Set up feedback loops for your employees and give them the means to measure and improve their performance.
Lesson 3: We Play for Keeps … Even Though We Keep Nothing
As the old cliché goes, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. Like all such bromides, there’s a molecule of truth here. I’ve watched people sink hours and even hundreds of thousands of real dollars into games to collect prizes that were only virtual — nothing they could take with them outside of the game save for the joy of playing the game.
It turns out they were getting something — they were being entertained and absorbed into an activity. They were experiencing flow — the feeling of being challenged just the right amount where you feel progress without getting frustrated. Such players realize that they’re spending time in an artificial world where actions are of ultimately no consequence and so are rewards. In gaming as in life, you can’t take it with you. What they were actually doing was getting a break from a reality that often seems the same way. Paradoxically, the grit required to be good at gaming is also what’s often needed to bring meaning to one’s life.
Either way, we all know that at some point it will be “game over.” It’s what we do with the time between now and then that’s important.
Takeaway: In gaming and life, it’s the journey that’s important, not the prizes.
This story originally appeared in Forbes, 3 Lessons Making Digital Games Taught Me About Running Better Businesses and a Happier Life