The lucky strike of my marketing career is that it led me to play. What I love about working in this dynamic category is the gamers themselves, the people who have figured out how important play is in life.
Regardless of their age, gamers are still in touch with the kid inside, who knows how important play is. These are the people in our culture who have given themselves permission to play.
One cultural myth that persists, much to my annoyance, is that gamers are an isolated niche of young, anti-social guys sitting in their parents’ basement wasting their lives playing games. This is a terrible misunderstanding. The truth is that the proliferation of gaming has yielded a remarkable demographic diversity among gamers. Year on year people are playing more games on more platforms for more hours a week than ever. And on the whole, our quantitative data shows that people who give themselves permission to play video games are more active and social than their non-gaming peers. Gaming is getting bigger and broader every year, as is our cultural commitment to play.
So why do we play, as individuals and as a society? Obviously, the drive to play is nothing new. Playing is a fundamental human pursuit, and playing video games is just an extension of what we’ve always done. Borrowing some thinking from Marshall McLuhan, we know that any technology is an extension of an existing human capacity. As such, modern gaming is just a technological extension of our consciousness, a higher-tech expression of playing a board game, rolling dice carved from stones, of playing tag in a field. We play games because it feeds our human need for creative expression, emotional experiences, and social connection.
Many gamers I’ve spoken to through the years report that playing a game is a form of creative expression — gamers create their experience with their skill, problem-solving abilities and their imagination. The experience doesn’t exist until it is created through play.
Play is also an emotional experience. I was once moderating a focus group among some male gamers and spontaneously asked if a video game had ever made them cry. One brave soul admitted that indeed he had. It happened while he was playing an RPG in which the mother of his character was killed by some enemy tribe. His own mother had died recently, and the act of playing through the narrative helped him work through his grief. Not a single other guy in the group batted an eyelid because they knew what it was like to be that emotionally invested in a game.
Not every playing experience will be this profound. But if other popular art forms can move us, why not a video game in which you invest your time, your imagination and actually participate rather than just consume?
We also know that gaming is a means of social connection. For example, the enthusiasm my own son has for playing everything from Minecraft, to Clash of Clans and Skylanders helped him make connections with kids at his new school. When kids are not playing games, they are in the playground talking about what they love, what they’ve figured out and what they need help with the next time they’re playing, either alone or together. I believe that joyful connection is something to celebrate.
More provocatively, I will also offer that there are some leading thinkers in the gaming space; playing may even be a means to a higher good.
A growing movement called Games Based Education is bringing a new form of learning to the classroom. One study showed that students who played the game Spore while learning about evolutionary biology scored higher than the control group who did not play. The makers of Minecraft discovered that maths, physics and history teachers were using the game to bring their curriculums to life, and now they’ve released an educational version of the game to better serve this educational need.
A game created at McGill University called Phylo gamifies the task of codifying DNA sequences, a task better suited to humans than computers because humans are better at recognising and sorting visual patterns. By gamifing this task and opening it up to the public as a puzzle to solve, they’ve collected data from thousands of players who are helping them gain new insight into genetically-based diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer.
These examples demonstrate some of the exciting ways in which giving ourselves the permission to play can add value to our human experience.
Ultimately, the bigger promise of modern play is the application of the skillset to the meaningful problems of our time. Not all game publishers are on a quest to save the world, but it is a thrill to get to work in an industry that brings out the passion in players of all kinds. Perhaps we’re creating a generation of gamers who help us achieve things we never believed were possible. Permission to play is all it requires.