Our Product is an Experience

December 28, 2011

Calling them “games” is just an excuse, a pretense to get people to act in ways they otherwise might not.

This isn’t an original observation, of course; it seems like every game studies book that gets published these days opens with a similar declaration. Huizinga called this characteristic, among other things, the magic circle and noted that “there is no formal difference between play and ritual,” since both create a heightened awareness or reframing of otherwise normal activities that encourages participants and observers to behave differently and treat the experience as something distinct from everyday life.

As I noted several years back, I can get you to do anything (or nearly anything) by putting it in the context of a game. When we talk about “game design” in this context, what we’re actually talking about is experience design. While there are strong traditions about what games entail that seem to place restrictions around the kinds of experiences we can design, in reality, we have the entire breadth of possible human experiences to use as our canvas to create “games” or, more accurately, experiences.

This is what I meant in the post linked above, when I said that “Our river has run into the ocean.” Our river, of course, is games and the ocean is all of human experience. As the metaphor attempts to suggest, they’re both essentially made of the same stuff, but “games” are traditionally confined to a narrow channel while human experience contains and connects everything and everyone. Categories, even categories as broad as “games,” are too limiting to accurately describe the current state of game design and play, which is pretty crazy considering how long games have existed as recognized things in human society. We’re probably stuck with “games” for a while, lacking a better term to describe the things we create (at least one that isn’t incredibly pretentious), but it’s important for us to recognize “games” as a term of convenience and not an accurate description of everything that’s possible in our medium. (This is partially why arguing over what is and isn’t a game is kinda silly; “games” isn’t the be-all and end-all of what we do anyway. And “gamification” is a somewhat problematic concept, since games aren’t especially distinct from other kinds of experiences.)

What exactly is our medium, then? I would call it something like experience design, except that Wikipedia informs me that “XD” is already a thing. Luckily, if we can trust Wikipedia at all, I mean something roughly similar to the industry definition, at least in terms of its focus on human experiences, adjusting behavior, and being highly interdisciplinary and cross-medium.

However, experience design from a games tradition (dare we call it XP design?) differs significantly in perspective and focus from the marketing background of XD. We’re not designing an experience to market a product (that’s what we do with demos) but as a thing in and of itself: the experience is the product.

That, I would argue, is critical to remember. To describe it in crude semantic terms — just for the purpose of this argument — rules, books, PDFs, cards, images and diagrams, verbal explanations, texts of all kinds, are not the game, at least not in and of themselves. A game is not something you can buy or sell; those are simply the tools or materials for playing the game. A game only exists as an experience, though experiences can happen in all sorts of ways, not just in the ways we typically consider part of play: reading texts, looking at images, “lonely fun,” etc. Put in these terms, the act of designing a game, I would argue, is not designing the materials used to play it, but designing an experience (or, really, a range of experiences) that can be had — in which some materials may play a useful role, but maybe they are just everyday objects that you are using for different purposes, not necessarily things or texts you designed from scratch.

Likewise, I would suggest that thinking about games as commercial products is a velvet prison. Yes, you can certainly create great games that are commercial products. That’s why it’s a velvet prison! It’s supposed to be nice and comfortable and full of terrific, fun things. But human experience, in all its variety, is full of things that can’t be easily commodified, either because they contain things that are intangible or irreplicable or because not many people are all that interested in or capable of experiencing them. In the same fashion, you could design an amazing game that only one person is ever able to play. That’s a terrible commercial product, unless they are a very rich patron, but it might be an incredible experience for that person — and maybe even the people they tell about the experience. Surely it’s still worth doing even if you can’t sell hundreds of copies of it, just like a myriad other things in life.

So, please, design an experience that exists as an oral tradition or ritual practice, not something written down. Design a physical experience that is more like a sport or dance. (Have you tried to read descriptions of sports on Wikipedia? They’re nearly impossible to understand and provide a terrible idea of what the sport is like to play or watch!) Design an interdisciplinary experience that spans the boundaries between “games” and other categories of human experience. And, when you do that, be confident that what you’re doing is not crazy or strange or experimental, not really. It may look that way from the perspective of the boats on the river, but from a broader perspective — when you’re sailing out with the ships on the ocean — it looks just fine. It doesn’t matter if one person experiences it or a million: if it matters to you, it’s worth doing.

And maybe, sometimes, you’ll end up creating something that can be easily turned into a commercial product that fits an established category — like a card game. That’s great too! There’s never anything wrong with making something you love that brings other people joy. But remember that there’s more out there, there’s the whole world of human experience, and it’s worth experiencing, playing with, and using as the medium of our creations.

When people ask why games are important, how they can possibly make any difference in the world, I just have to laugh, because “games” are essentially the same thing as life, just reordered in different ways. How could anything be more important? What else is there?

Love and Happy New Year!

8 Responses to “Our Product is an Experience”

  1. You are on fire, my friend. This is hitting me right in the “Games=Ritual=Experience=Religion” button, if that makes any sense. It’s all a big soup. Or ocean.

    • Sweet! Now that I’ve set out the big picture, I definitely want to talk more concretely about experience design, using the experimental worship services from my teen years at youth camp as examples. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject too!

  2. Simon Says:

    Here’s what this made me think about:

    We are all already experience designers, and we’re pretty good at it. We invite over a select group of friends, cook some good food, listen to some music, have a few drinks, and have intense intimate conversations. We design that experience, and depending on your friends, that’s a pretty excellent experience. I also think that’s the minimum bar of quality for formal design. Whatever the experience you’re designing, it’s gotta be more fun that you would have sitting around just chatting with those people. Or if not more fun, then more enlightening, more memorable, more intense, more surprising.

    I think (and I’ve been kinda down about this for a little while now) surprisingly few roleplaying games pass that test.

    • I get what you’re saying Simon, but it’s also hard to compare different kinds of experiences, right? Is it more enjoyable to play a solid game of tennis with a mate or eat a really nice steak? Ideally, you’d do both, at different times.

      I do think that game enthusiasts — myself included, at some points in my life — often treat games as their default social experience, when hanging out and having a beer would be a lot more enjoyable in many instances.

      But it’s not just about the quality of the experience but also the type, right? Sometimes a strange, awkward, or even painful experience is worth having, even if it’s not enjoyable, because it offers other things. Of course, I don’t encourage folks to keep playing games that aren’t fun, and if you’d rather just hang and have a beer, great. But I think trying to insist that every play experience match up to any particular standard seems a bit harsh. As long as it’s something you’d prefer to do on certain occasions, right? Doesn’t have to be preferable to friends+beer all the time (then you’d never have a beer with friends!).

  3. Simon Says:

    Oh sure, totally.

    I think mostly where I’m coming from is that I’m at a pretty low ebb with gaming right now. Even the best games seem pretty hit-and-miss as to whether they’ll be good. I’ve had enough great play that I won’t settle for just ok anymore, and I have great friends for having a few beers with.

    It seems like there’s some strange alchemy in whether a session is going to be just good, or actually magical and great, and I don’t know how to bottle that. I mean, I guess that’s true of hanging out with friends too. Sometimes you have a few drinks and a nice chat and go home and it was nice. Other times you stay up into the small hours telling personal and intimate stories and your relationships grow deeper and stronger. What strange magic makes that happen?

    I guess as designers we feel like we’ve got this one lever to crank (system), and we’re pumping away on it. The result (experiences) changes sluggishly and unreliably. Maybe we need to think more about the design that happens between reading the book and the start of play: Choosing players, relationships between players, interpersonal roles, lighting, drinks, food, setting, seating, etc.

    • Sure, that sounds like a fruitful area of exploration for me. Personally, I find that I can’t play games with the same people all the time. Even the standard arc of Apocalypse World is a little long for my tastes, since I tend to run out of steam after 6-8 sessions and want to play a different game with different people. So variety is really critical to me, as is the level of engagement on the part of the other players. Also, I can’t play more than once a week; I need time to do other things and replenish my creative juices.

      I also feel like there’s a way to approach a game that intentionally turns it into a different kind of ritual space and experience that’s really fulfilling to me, even as a one-shot. Both Silver & White and Metrofinal operate in that space, but I don’t have enough experience with those yet to tell you exactly what it’s about. Maybe you can play Polaris like that too, but I’ve never been able to achieve the heightened ritual space with Polaris. I feel like past play of Bliss Stage, especially the refreshment scenes, has been pretty close, though.

  4. Rob Alexander Says:

    That’s interesting. I’m going to think about this some more. There may be an element here of abstracting so far that many uses (eg ordinary game design) become impossible. And surely a danger of setting out to “design an experience” is that you try to force the “experiencer” into a very narrow range of experiences. Traditional rpgs allow a wide range of experiences, although as you point out they don’t naturally lead to the range of all possible ritual experiences.

    But a great article.

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