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Creating playful users...

Playfulwork_1
If you're a game developer, the things you're building are all aboutplay. But what if your product or service isn't inherently playful?
Brains love play. Find a way to bring more play (or at least a sense of playfulness) into someone's life, and you might just end up with a fan.
Brains evolved to play, and apparently the bigger the brain, the more likely it is to play. Play turns the brain on.

So, OK, but what if the product itself is for an utterly non-playful task? You can still bring a sense of playfulness into the mix. One extremely difficult CAD program I heard about created a game to teach people how to use the software. To "get to the next level", you had to learn more of the tools.

Steve Zehngut, from Zeek Interactive started his company in the mid-90's by specializing in building interactive games for business, designed either for marketing, training, or both. One really cool game was designed to teach people about photocopiers (I think it was for Toshiba), and you (the player) were being attacked by your office mates who were throwing wads of paper at you. You had to figure out which copier to hide behind and use as a weapon. The best weapon, of course, was the machine that fired staples, but... you had to know your copier models in order to pick the most effective "weapon".

I was very disappointed that I wasn't able to attend the Serious Games Summit last October.

But playfulness doesn't have to mean games.

Helping people feel just a little more playful, especially if it's connected to their work, or with anything they do that's more typically associated with words like painful, tedious, boring, stressful (as opposed to words like "fun"), doesn't have to mean giving them a game. Even something as simple as making your documentation more compelling (and even a little whimsical), can make a huge difference.

You're a musician, and on your web site you create Make-Work-Suck-Less playlists (which you also put on iTunes, of course) for people at work. You tell them what to listen to for ever possible bad work situation. Want to kill your boss? Pick this track. About to head into yet another dull, pointless, loaded with marketing-speak buzzwords meeting? Pick this track. Encourage users to make their own making-work-suck-less playlists.

You put easter eggs in your otherwise ludicrously dull accounts receivable software, and spread hints about them on the internet. Suddenly it's a little treasure hunt cleverly disguised as a boring business task. (I know, I KNOW programmers have been fired for doing that. I came quite close, and that was for putting an easter egg into a--wait for it--GAME. My easter egg wasn't on the approved list of "features"... incredible that even when you're technically in the business of fun, "management" can be so serious).

You're a realtor and you hold feng shui workshop/parties (hoping your sellers will take the hint and whip their homes into shape...)

You're a huge rental apartment complex and you host dog parties for your tenants.

You're writing a computer programming book, and you put in puzzles, games, fun pictures, and festive examples with unusual characters.

Surprises are one of the best things you can do--psychologists claim that intermittent rewards can be more engaging than consistent rewards. Remember, surprise=delight.

I worked for a guy who ran an exclusive, foofy, insanely expensive health club. He took 100% of what should have been (back then, when Ads were King) his advertising budget, and instead put ALL of it into a monthly "member surprise" budget. Nobody ever knew what was going to happen. You'd be in an aerobics class with 100 people (it was a big place), and as you walked out, suddenly there were carts loaded up with bowls of frozen yogurt and a toppings bar. You're in the weight room when the employees start walking through handing out exclusive t-shirts, always with his logo, and always with a fun quote, that you knew would never appear on a t-shirt again. Members collected these things like rare beanie babies. The late-night exercise classes were the hardest to fill, but he would take the worst time slot and make it interesting... the 9 PM folks might walk out of class only to be handed a wine cooler or even a relaxation CD.

It always felt like a party in there! And employees fought over the chance to be the one who got to hand out the cool stuff. And there was no hierarchy in deciding who got to do that...everyone from the janitors to the office bookeeper might be "picked" to be the hero. I had never before, and never since, seen the kind of loyalty among both staff and members that I saw in that place. His attrition rate for both members and employees was less than half the industry average for health clubs at the time. (I'll have more stories about him in other posts--his name is Cliff Coker, and his father was one of the founders/inventors of the very first selectorized exercise machines (the ones with the weight stacks, as opposed to free weights), Universal Gym Equipment.)

Spend some cycles cultivating your more festive side. Think party. Think of that person you know who is so fun to be around. The one who manages to make a little adventure out of everything. If you can give your users even one moment more of that feeling, the world will be a better place. : ) [cue cheesy, sappy pollyanna music, and insert cute kid-with-puppy picture]

Hugh ("He likes us! He really likes us!") got me thinking about this with a quite lively (be sure and read all the comments) gaping void post on how Microsoft should be more playful. While that's beyond my powers of imagination, it's certainly an interesting challenge...

So, what are YOU doing to help your users be a little more playful?

Posted by Kathy on January 26, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Kathy, great post! Working in both the games and web industries, I know exactly what you mean. This is partly why blogs work; blogs are fun and interactive as well. I've been trying to help inject a sense of fun into everyone else I meet, regardless of industry.

Serious games are going to take the business world by storm. There really isn't a better way to learn than through making it fun.

BTW, discovered your blog (one way or another) around 2 weeks ago - and I'm an instant fan!

Posted by: Gabby Dizon | Jan 26, 2005 8:34:14 PM

Kathy, exactly what I needed to read in the morning!

Our little and very-much-in-the-early stage product is a run-the-business system, aka Enterprise Software. Enterprise Software sounds boring, made boring by current suppliers.

Now this happens: Our first customer have this tendency to 'play' with the system, having three new 'great' ideas to implement every morning, to the extent that I began complaining that our system has a weak point, a "Super Mario" effect, users got sucked into playing with it... and me being schtupid, I added "wasting too much time", "think first, then implement" and so forth...

That attitude hereby ditched by self. Will enhance the "Super Mario" effect with great pleasure and enthusiasm as of now. Thanks.
(What can I say, we actually say the system "is more like Lego". Next time I'll listen to myself...)

Posted by: sig | Jan 27, 2005 2:38:41 AM

As I was pondering the issues of the last post "Be brave or go home" and especially the horseshoe-shaped curve, I was imagining what the shape would look like if there would be a third dimension: the z-axis I was thinking of, would be something like "importance of who-moved-my-cheese constraints". The strictness of compliance to an approved list of "features" that blocked the easter egg mentioned in this post, would be something quantify on this axis.

I think the 3-d graph doesn't result in a vase or cone shape (i.e. a rotating horseshoe-shaped curve), caused by those z-axis inhibiting factors. It's more like a skiing landscape with green to black trails, I guess the braves are having fun on the latter.

I have to refine this idea, it probably it sounds complete and utter nonsense right now, but I just wanted to jot them down:-))

Posted by: Gian Franco Casula | Jan 27, 2005 5:38:33 AM

Damn - that was a great post!

Posted by: Arjun Singh | Jan 27, 2005 4:40:21 PM

Kathy - excellent post once again. I'm reading a book that deals a lot with this area, called "The Play Ethic", by Pat Kane. (Sorry there's no Amazon.com link - it doesn't seem to be available there just yet). I think you might like it.

Posted by: Matt | Mar 10, 2005 5:24:16 AM

Sorry - the href got stripped in that last comment - try:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0333907361/qid=1110458728/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl/026-0772525-1566051

Posted by: Matt | Mar 10, 2005 5:45:56 AM

"You're writing a computer programming book, and you put in puzzles, games, fun pictures, and festive examples with unusual characters."

Interesting you should mention that because that's exactly what Why did in his (her?) poignant guide. Very unique and playful.

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