The Experience Designer’s Toolbox: Games and Immersive Design
By Uriah Findley & Anthony Rocco and Jessica Lachenal
In the course of our work, we’re often asked to define just what it is we make. If you’ve spent any time on our home page, then you’d know we’re an agency dedicated to the art and science of experiences. But if you’ve ever been to any of our events, then you’d know we also don’t shy away from designing a game or two if the experience calls for it.
With this in mind, consider the following questions for a moment: what makes a game a game? What makes an experience an experience? Is a game an experience? Is an experience a game?
We’d like to try something with you. When you read the word “Jump,” I’d like you to jump. Can you do that?
So, tell me: was that a game we just played?
Let’s consider some of the elements that make up a game.
- Were there rules?
- Was there a goal or objective?
- Were you challenged by something or someone?
- Did it incorporate any interactions?
Arguably, the task set before you could be thought of as a game, as you were posed with a challenge, a request, and a goal. Whether you carried through or not was entirely up to you, and it was a decision that existed solely in your head. But in that same sense, what you did could also be considered an experience.
Experiences, as defined by our practice, incorporates many game-like elements, designed to, frankly, keep you entertained and engaged. Play, in its many forms, is one of the fastest ways to get human beings to develop bonds or emotional connections — positive or negative. So to incorporate game elements into an experience does not make that experience a game.
How is that? Well, for one thing, experiences oftentimes don’t have a goal or objective per se. Certain experiences are simply goalless ventures; they exist purely for the sake of existing. In the creation of such experiences, many artists seek only to deliver a feeling in its purest form, and in many cases, the inception of that feeling doesn’t require a ruleset or a clearly stated objective. In all cases with immersive experiences, you’re simply asked to be open to participation, with or without a clear goal in mind.
Of course, with all that being said, the criteria for what makes a game and what makes an experience are always shifting. The goal post is always moving, because as each form innovates and develops new philosophies and technologies, the line between game and experience fades.
Throughout history, philosophers have argued endlessly over what we’ve just tried to define here in the last 400 or so words. And at the risk of leaving you (even temporarily) with a short, unsatisfying answer, it’s well worth noting that there’s likely one thing everybody seems to agree on: it depends.
As mentioned before, in our practice, game design and immersive experience design are thought of as tools in a toolbox. Each one can look and feel different from time to time, but as with the use of any power tool, it’s important to understand when and how to use the right tool for the job.
The incorporation of game design and game-like features has already been granted a spiffy buzzword thanks to the tech industry and startups circa 2013: gamification.
One particularly prominent example of gamification is Habitica’s HabitRPG. By using game mechanics familiar to people who play role playing games, they’ve effectively gamified everyday life. Whereas in a video game RPG, the earning of Experience Points (and thus, “levelling up”) is granted through combat or character interaction, here, the player (or participant, i.e., you) gains Experience Points and levels by completing chores and important tasks such as going to the dentist. The reward of levelling up and thus earning new gear for your cute 8-bit avatar is deliberately designed to grant you the same endorphin rush you might get from beating a difficult video game boss. Your life is thus gamified.
When it comes to experience design, the use of game mechanics serves a few purposes. Firstly, it grants you a quantifiable outcome. As anyone who has designed an experience can tell you, trying to quantify or otherwise predict the feelings of any given participant or audience member is next to impossible. In immersive experiences, sometimes you just have to design and hope for the best. In an ideal world, everything could be accounted for, but seeing as how that’s not the world in which we live, we try to quantify and get a hard count on as many things as we can. This allows for greater confidence in and a modicum of control over the moments where we don’t know the outcome.
Second, game mechanics provide a sense of progression. Central to any well-told story is the feeling of flow, that points are developing either because of your actions or in spite of them. It’s important to feel like the story you’ve now invested all your time into will actually go somewhere. This mechanic can take many different forms, but usually what you’ll see in experiences is the use of real world insignia, tokens, or trinkets.
Lastly, the inclusion of these game mechanics can make a non-fun interaction or scene feel fun. The thrill of accomplishing a goal or objective — no matter how outlandish or conventional — is universal. This idea goes hand-in-hand with progression, as it often just feels… well, fun to know you’re going somewhere you want to go.
But it’s important to note that game mechanics have their disadvantages as well. Despite their ability to create connection amongst similarly-minded people, game-like elements don’t appeal to anybody and everybody. Folks who may consider themselves “gamers” or “gamer-adjacent” may become incredibly invested, but for every one of them, there are an equal amount of folks who would be completely turned off by the inclusion of mechanics like these.
Most of all, however, the addition of game mechanics can often trivialize the impact of whatever meta narrative you may be trying to get across. If, say, the tone of your content is heavy or deals with particularly weighty issues, making a game out of it might send the wrong signal. The tone doesn’t match the mechanic.
As always, it’s about knowing the message and the story you want to send. Spending time with and really weighing out the ins and outs of your story will help inform your decision as to whether you should use game mechanics or not. Again: the right tool for the right job.
When it comes to designing immersive experiences, the chance is particularly high that your work will be perceived as a game. That’s just by virtue of the current face of the industry and the work available out there right now. It could be a valid perception, depending on your production, but it’s a benefit and a curse. Gamers may walk out of there feeling like they played a game, but will find frustration when a game isn’t offered further down the line.
Conversely, whereas games and game mechanics can often be thought up impromptu and on the spot, immersive experiences often require a greater amount of development time. This time affords designers the chance to more thoughtfully express an idea or concept, but it also carries with it the pressure of a higher level of engagement.
Deciding whether you should make a game or an immersive experience really depends on you and your goals. Not all immersive experiences are games, and not all games are immersive experiences. Each can certainly incorporate elements of the other, but they are, inherently, two different disciplines, two different tools in a vast toolbox. On the same note, don’t be afraid of games that don’t look like games, and don’t be afraid of immersive experiences that don’t look like immersive experiences. Be open to using both of these tools, and your work will be stronger for it.