It’s no secret that video gaming, a massive $100 billion industry, is one of the most pervasive players in the media today. Two-thirds of American households have someone who regularly plays video games, whether on a smartphone or a console. This week, the Ad Council invited four experts from the game design industry to speak to our staff about the power that game design has, and gain some insight into how we can harness that power for social good. Here are five key takeaways.
1. Avoid Chocolate-Covered Broccoli
In the educational game design world, there’s a phrase that gets tossed around — “chocolate-covered broccoli.” As the name suggests, it refers to the practice of manipulating people into engaging with content that’s nutritious by not-so-subtly hiding it beneath a layer of something tasty.
In game design, this phrase is used when you need to teach a tough topic like math by sneaking it into something, like a misleadingly named quiz. This tactic is transparent to everyone, and fun for no one. Avoid this by taking your message and embedding it well—don’t try to force it into a format that just doesn’t fit.
Panelist Marguerite Dibble, CEO of Game Theory phrased it best; “Using games to solve problems isn’t a way to manipulate people into doing things they don’t want to do, it’s a way to frame learning in a way that makes it enjoyable.”
2. Keep and Foster an Empathetic Perspective
For Marguerite, the most important people in the game design process are the users, because they’re the ones who will be living with the experience. She knows the game is for their needs rather than hers, and it needs to be something they’re comfortable with.
When designing content for other people, it is not enough for you and your team to be satisfied with the result. No matter what you create, it is essential that you take the perspective of your audience, rather than the perspective of a marketing professional. You may be able to create a sleek, stunning design—but if your user can’t use it, it hasn’t done its job.
If you’re using a game to foster empathy, consider utilizing role-playing strategies, or new tech like VR to fully immerse users in a different perspective. Give them a chance to step into someone else’s shoes.
3. Design for Different Voices
People within your target audience are coming from different backgrounds and ability levels, so spend some time making sure your concept is accessible for a variety of people. When designing her card game The Ultimate Clapback, panelist Mary Martha Ford-Dieng realized that her audience—comprised of people 18 and up who love to “throw shade”—was split into two camps. There were those who adamantly felt that there shouldn’t be swear words in the game, and those who felt that the game just wouldn’t be complete without them. The solution? Keep the original game cuss-free, and add an expansion pack for those with fouler mouths. Adding some additional measures to make your design more approachable to different facets of your audience doesn’t take much—just a little innovation.
4. Don’t Try to Be Everything to Everyone
That being said, no one can design something that satisfies everyone.
In social good marketing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting one project to solve every issue. Make sure your goal is clear, and that your experience reflects it.
Panelist Greg Trefry, co-founder of studio Gigantic Mechanic, discussed his experience in creating an interactive game for the MoMA—millions of people visit the museum each year, and there was no way he could make one game to cater to everyone’s tastes. Instead, he designed a game around a clear set of goals and tangible personas. Targeting a specific, narrower demographic might reach a smaller audience, but it will result in greater impact.
5. Prototype Fast, Fail Hard
Our panelists were no strangers to failure. Before they could put out a single experience, each of them made dozens upon dozens of prototypes, trying to create games that people would actually play.
Game designer Matt Parker knows that journey as well as anyone. He said once you get started on your design journey, “You have no idea how many things you’re going to be wrong about.”
His advice? Don’t get too stuck on the planning phases. “You can survey as many people as possible and do as much research as you want, but there is no substitute for playtesting and constantly iterating.”
Pro tip—your prototypes don’t need to be fancy. At all. When Mary Martha first came up with her idea for The Ultimate Clapback, the first few versions were made of printer paper and trading card protectors. Don’t be afraid of keeping it simple, and don’t be afraid of failing.
We at the Ad Council are no strangers to using games in our campaigns, but we know that the power of video games can be used even outside of the digital realm. The next time you’re working on a project, don’t be afraid to get creative—and game on!