I have a Ph.D. in video games. I know. I sometimes find it hard to believe myself. Like so many of us, I graduated from college without the faintest idea of what I wanted to do with my life. All around me, wise and well-meaning elders dispensing unsolicited advice said that I should only do what I truly loved, and I truly loved playing video games. A few years and a few hundred hours in the library later, I was minted as a doctor in what I’m sure will continue to be a growing field of study.
And grow it shall: in addition to being, to borrow a complex academic term, freakin’ awesome, video games are ascendant because, being the first digitally native medium, they’ve a lot to teach us about various aspects of life, from relationships to religion. And business: convinced at first that my research would interest no one but a handful of equally obsessed nerds, I soon discovered that, in the still-new wilderness of the digital economy, video games make for excellent sherpas. Here, then, are the top five lessons every entrepreneur can learn from putting down that spreadsheet and picking up a joystick.
It’s not about the money. Way back when in the 1970s, when people still had to go to arcades to play video games, life was simple and straightforward: if you played well, you won a free game. It was a tradition adopted from pinball machines, and it made a lot of sense, a literal manifestation of that old adage about time being money.
A Japanese company called Taito changed all that. In 1978, it introduced a fun shooter called Space Invaders. There were a thousand games just like it in the market already, but Space Invaders had one nifty little innovation: instead of a free game, it let you register your high score, which meant that every time your friends played on that same machine, they’d see your name on the leaderboard. Taito realized something inherent and profound about human nature, namely that we may like material rewards, but it’s the emotional ones—like glory, or the ability to gloat to our buddies—that really motivate us.
Years later, Foursquare applied the same principle, letting its users compete to become “mayors” of their favorite places. Eager to outdo each other, users signed up in droves. If you want your company to attract a similar following, the incentives you offer better be all about feelings.
It’s emotional. Have you ever heard of Crush the Castle? It’s a great game. Operating a medieval catapult, you have to toss large rocks at the opposing team’s rickety structure in order to destroy their knights. When the game came out, many people played it, and it made the studio that created it some nice cash. A few months later, however, another game hit the market. It had the exact same design, except that instead of knights you had to crush evil green pigs, and instead of rocks you tossed around birds. Angry birds.
Why was one game a moderate success and the other a worldwide mega hit? I’m convinced it had to do with the brief video that launches Angry Birds, the one where you see those dastardly swine steal the birds’ eggs. After watching such a spirited intro, you’re not just trying to beat the game; you’re emotionally involved, dedicated to punishing those pigs for their bad deeds. The same principle applies to every other enterprise, online or off: it’s different when it’s emotional, personal, and urgent.
It’s a ritual. One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered about the way people play video games has to do with how little attention they actually pay to the story unfolding on the screen. Ask a group of young adults to describe the plot of the latest movie they’ve seen, and you’d be surprised at the level of detail they’d offer. Ask them to do the same for a video game they played just the other night, and you’ll get bits and pieces of incoherent recollections. This is because video games, like so much of good digital storytelling, isn’t really about the story. It’s about the experience, that all-consuming trance you go into once you sit down on the couch and commit to hours and hours of gameplay.
If you’re in the business of trying to engage people online, it’s precisely this ritual-like trance you have to offer: instead of focusing on complex attempts at commanding your users’ full attention, offer them short and thunderous engagements that, when repeated again and again and again, are impossible to ignore.
It’s about the little guys. Forget Superman, Batman, Iron Man, and the Hulk—superheroes are only good for a short engagement at the multiplex. If you want a character you can really live with for long periods of time—the average video game can now take more than 100 hours to complete—think small. Mario started life as a plumber. Link, of Legend of Zelda fame, is just a farm boy. We love them because of how ordinary they are, not in spite of it, and we form a special connection with these characters because, unlike most of the protagonists on TV or in the movies, they’re a lot like us, just regular schlubs trying to do their best in increasingly impossible circumstances. If you want to really connect with users, then, take a page from Mario and just be normal.
It’s about time. Before video games, media were very clear about the demands they made on your time. You want to watch a movie? That would be two hours. Interested in a TV sitcom? That’s 23 minutes, please. Video games changed all that. Increasingly, they’re geared towards giving players a growingly open-ended experience. Playing Skyrim, for example, an action role-playing fantasy game, you can choose to zoom through the game’s main quest, or engage in an endless stream of side-quests, wander aimlessly through the game’s gorgeous world, or even learn helpful skills like lock picking. Each player is free to build his or her own experience, based on how much time he or she wants to spend immersed in the fantasy. If you want users to reward you with their most precious commodity, their leisure hours, you have to let them choose how they’d like to invest their time.