Gaming the System: What Can Live Events Learn from Video Games
I’m really into videogames. They’re my one diversion that allows me to simultaneously relax and unwind while also challenging my brain in ways few things can. All the while satiating my primal competitiveness and instinctive need to be part of a community.
I’ve found there’s no better way to tap into that corner of my subconscious where all my best ideas like to germinate than while taking on a Main Battle Tank from an underpowered M2A2 in “War Thunder” or while clobbering super-mutants with a musket in the post-apocalyptic world of “Fall Out.”
I really enjoy the escape videogames provide. The feeling of accomplishment. The sense of discovery. The outsmarting of competitors from around the globe. And, of course, the accumulation of in-game loot. Lots and lots of loot.
The way they get me thinking got me thinking, “What can live events learn from video games?”
After all, this year alone, revenues from video gaming are anticipated to surpass $138 billion. And while, as my wife will attest, a very large portion of that sum came from my household alone—I’d be the first to profess it was money well spent.
Turns out, the satisfaction I get from video games comes from fulfilling the remnants of primal desires that once helped humankind survive as a species eons ago, but now go neglected far too often in modern life.
As the theory goes, humans were programmed very early on with a dopamine reward system in our brains that encourages us to seek experiences that increases the likelihood of species survival while shunning those experiences that threaten it.
As a result, when we overcame an obstacle like, say, escaping the jaws of a sabertoothed tiger, our brains rewarded us with a surge of the pleasure-inducing chemical, dopamine, imprinting on our caveman minds, “Escaping being eaten, good!,” “Being devoured alive, bad!,” hardwiring our brains to seek out only those experiences that offered similar rewards.
The same reward system is at work when we make friends. Back in pre-historic times, even more so than now, being part of a community greatly enhanced chances of species survival, so, naturally, people would be rewarded with a surge of dopamine when they came across others whom they were simpatico with. And as he or she did something that contributed to the common good, an influx of dopamine would ensure they felt good about it and encourage additional such behavior.
You’d think that no longer having to worry about being eaten by a sabertoothed tiger would come as a relief. But as it turns out, our primitive brains still seek epic challenges of that scale—the kind that few of us encounter in daily life.
In their ongoing efforts to improve the appeal and entertainment value of their games (not to mention profitability), videogame designers have invested no small amount on research aimed at discovering these and other motivational factors behind why people do what they do.
You’d think after all the years of evolutionary progress; the results of the game developers’ research would’ve been more intuitive:
People seek experiences that make them feel good.
The fruits of the game developers’ labors and the resulting popularity of massive multiplayer online games are something that live event planners would be wise to emulate. After all, the similarities of the two industries are striking, including the goals, motivations and makeup of their respective audiences.
In multiplayer gaming, the game mechanics are orchestrated in such a way that players can play each scenario as individuals; however, in order to be truly successful and master the game, players must work as a team.
Braid McQuaid, designer of the popular online multiplayer “EverQuest” explained it this way: “Without community, you simply have a bunch of independent players running around the same environment. Players won’t be drawn in and there won’t be anything there to bind them. The key to creating community, therefore, is interdependence.”
Which might explain why, for many of us, we turn to videogames. After all, where else in our daily routine could we duplicate the rush that comes from escaping the gaping jaws of a sabertoothed tiger?
Live events! That’s where.
If done right, live events could easily duplicate the dopamine rush of video games. For instance, in many “loot-based” games, players are kept on the hook by random loot drops.
In those games, every time you conquer a foe or discover a hidden room, a box is left behind that may be filled with anything from rations to treasure. The unexpected and unpredictable reward (and the resulting dopamine infusion) is enough to motivate players to trudge on to find even more.
Which made me wonder, could unexpected loot drops have a similar effect during your event? It could be anything from balloon drops with valuable coupons hanging from tassels, to random prizes taped to chair bottoms, to prizes for participation.
What’s more, dopamine neurons don’t just produce dopamine on the fulfillment of a challenge, but also go into full production with the mere anticipation of the feel-good reward that follows such an achievement. As an event designer, you know you’ve earned your pay when attendees can count on a surge of dopamine with the mere thought of your event.
The question is how?
In his blog, “Making Magic,” Mark Rosewater—game developer for, Magic The Gathering, describes “the ten things that every game needs.”
1) Clear goals or objectives.
“There needs to be a point for your game. What are your players trying to do? How do they win?”
2) Rules and parameters
“There needs to be a list of what players are and are not allowed to do. Restrictions are an important part of a game. Accomplishing your goal shouldn’t be too easy.”
“There needs to be some aspect of the game that encourages the players to react to one another. What does your game do to make the players interact?”
4) Catch up feature
“There needs to be a way for players that have fallen behind to catch up. A game becomes frustrating if a player feels like he or she has no chance to win.”
“There needs to be something in your game that moves it along towards completion. You have to have something built into your game that makes sure it ends.”
“There need to be elements of your game that the players cannot predict. People enjoy being surprised. You have to make sure that your game has moments that are unexpected.”
“There needs to be something in your game that allows players to get better over time. The reason people like playing games again is that they want to use knowledge from past games to do better in future games.”
“There needs to be something that allows the players to enjoy themselves. The number-one reason people play games is for entertainment. If your game isn’t fun to play, people won’t want to play it.”
“Besides having mechanics, a game wants to have a trapping. It wants to be about something. Sometimes this comes first and the game is built around it. Sometimes the mechanics come first and a flavor is found to match it. Either way, games are more fun if the elements of the game refer a story or an environment or a theme.”
10) A hook
“If you want people to play your game, there has to be something about it that encourages people to want to try it. If you’re selling your game, the hook is what you use to market it.”
While some of the items in Rosewater’s list apply to live events better than others, chances are, the more you can find creative ways to include in your event planning—the more rewarding your event will be for attendees.
In designing your event, it never hurts to refer back to the groundbreaking findings of the online gaming industry: People seek experiences that make them feel good.