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Why Play Matters More than Ever

Christine Arena(Written by Christine Arena) Ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of media messages, e-mails, texts and tweets coming at you everyday, yet cut off from what gives you a deeper sense of purpose in life? Join the crowd. A recent Digital Lifestyle Information Survey from online content company reveals that most people, 64.2 percent, say the information streaming toward them has increased by more than 50 percent during the past year alone. A staggering 72.7 percent of them describe this deluge as: “a roaring river,” “a flood,” or “a massive tidal wave.” Not exactly descriptors indicative of an improved quality of life.

“Something happened when the world went all virtual and mouse-driven,” says XEODesign president and mobile game Tilt creator Nicole Lazzaro.  “We gained access to a lot more data and choice, but lost some of the essence of what makes us feel so good.”  

Like a growing number of game designers out there, Lazzaro believes passionately that while the digital world grows more crowded and overwhelming to people, games and gamification represent a way to make life more satisfying – prompting us to play, drawing us closer into the present moment, and potentially transforming the way we live, work, learn and create.

“Today, the way that we design tasks, the way we design software, the way we design our spaces and our organizational systems really ignores one of the most important components of human abilities and that’s the emotional component,” Lazzaro says. “What games do better than most other platforms is tap into human emotions – creating opportunities for novelty, challenge, social interaction and meaning.”

Lazzaro’s perspective on play is rooted in science. Research reveals how starting from infancy, basic play behavior helps wire our brains, form our intellectual strengths and anchor our emotions. Data clearly indicates that the more we play – even throughout adulthood – the smarter and more productive we become. That’s why experts contest that play be taken far more seriously as a field of study and integrated more deeply into daily aspects of modern life. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of today’s most innovative companies are already leading the movement toward a play-based society.

For instance, at this year’s Sustainable Brands conference (June 7-10, Monterey, CA) – an annual event targeting socially-minded companies like Nike, Walmart, Starbucks, eBay, HP, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Timberland, Saatchi & Saatchi S and many others – the  “Play On” theme touches on, among other things, how fun and games can transform cultures, consumption patterns and help make the world a better place.

“There is no doubt that we must continue down the path toward sustainable consumption, or that those brands that crack the nut in learning how to deliver sustainable solutions that respect and delight all stakeholders in both current and future generations will win in the 21st century battle for brand leadership” says conference organizer and Sustainable Life Media CEO Koann Skrzyniarz.  “One problem up till now has been that the vast majority of communication about the importance of sustainable consumption has lacked creativity and leaned too heavily on guilt and fear. One of the things we’re driving home this year is that humor and play can be much more powerful tools for garnering attention and prompting behavior change.”

Behavior change is a worthy end goal for any business wanting to encourage support for its products, services or socially responsible initiatives. Yet, for the majority of companies out there, this outcome is an elusive one. Many brands learn the hard way that when it comes to inspiring people to think and act differently about pivotal issues, traditional marketing tactics often fall short.

“The way that most businesses communicate doesn’t move the needle fast or far enough, particularly in the realm of sustainability,” says Saatchi & Saatchi S CEO Judah Schiller. “Every message gets dull after a while. But what games represent is a way to extend the life of a message or a proposition because players actually gain that internal reward of progressing and engaging.”

“We’re all driven by the needs and desires for reward, status, achievement, competition, self expression, altruism,” adds Rajat Paharia, founder and chief product officer at Bunchball, a leading gamification company. “But you look at most websites, applications and programs today, how do they address or leverage those fundamental human needs?  For the most part they’re not.  They’re completely ignoring them, but game designers clearly know how to do this.”

Perhaps that’s why the gaming industry has blown up in recent years, reaching over $60 billion in annual revenues. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Global Entertainment and Media Outlook, the gaming industry’s compound annual growth rate of 10.3 percent exceeds growth rates achieved by the majority of competing entertainment sectors, including movies and music. By 2012, gaming is expected to be a $68 billion business.

“The number of people playing games is huge,” says Michelle Byrd, co-president of Games for Change, the organization behind 3rd World Farmer, Climate Challenge and the soon-to-be-released Facebook game for Half the Sky. “It used to be that you had people who called themselves gamer, but what’s happening now is that games have become so pervasive and the barrier to entry to being a player has come down so dramatically that the opportunity to engage people through social impact games is on the rise.”

“Today, everyone’s a gamer,” adds Richard Tate, vice president of marketing and communications at Hope Lab, a research and gaming organization targeting youth health issues. “Whether it’s Angry Birds or Bejeweled, it’s not just kids online playing World of Warcraft in their dorm rooms anymore. That evolution has really opened up the opportunity for games to shift the way people think about issues beyond entertainment. It extends the potential for games to have a huge social impact.”

The fact is that, owing to their highly emotive and ubiquitous nature, games are having a marked social impact. Take Zamzee, Hope Lab’s latest game designed to promote physical activity amongst young teens. “As we know, young people are increasingly sedentary in their behavior,” says Tate. “Zamzee motivates kids to move around about 30 percent more than they would without the product. That’s equivalent to a marathon a month of running for each kid.”

Additional examples abound. For example, if you own a Wii Fit, you know how fun action combined with positive feedback encourages you to stay in shape. If you’ve ever donated through a crowdfunding site like Kiva or Kickstarter, you’ve been encouraged by leaderboards, badges and metrics to get more involved and ultimately give more. If you drive a Ford, Nissan, GM or Toyota hybrid vehicle, you’ve witnessed the in-dash gaming system tracking your performance and subtly prompting you to improve your driving patterns in order to save gas.

“These are very substantial investments in a core idea, which is that by providing gamified feedback to a user, as they engage with a product, you can subtly shape their behavior,” says Gabe Zichermann, entrepreneur and co-author of Game-Based Marketing. “I think we’re looking forward to an incredibly fun future in which every type of interaction has some game elements in it, and we’re rewarded and positively engaged around all the behaviors that are best for us.”

Saatchi & Saatchi S’s Schiller agrees: “People really want to play,” he says. “They want to have more fun than they have been having lately in their lives, and they want to share those experiences with others. We talk a lot about social media and gaming -- the two are intertwined and in the future they are going to play off each other in ways that we can still only imagine.”

In order to better understand the intersection between social engagement and games and where the play movement is headed, Saatchi & Saatchi S recently commissioned both a quantitative survey of 14-45 year olds and a series of videos highlighting perspectives from industry thought leaders (disclaimer: I created and directed the videos). Both pieces of research will be unveiled at the aforementioned Sustainable Brands conference in Monterey this June.

by Christine Arena

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