Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Gifts, Surprises and Serendipity



Ok, so this is more than a little geek for your Tuesday morning.  The embedded video today is from one of my favorite video games of all time - Kingdom Hearts II.

I was invited to give the keynote address at this years Affiniscape Connections 2012 conference and I decided to talk about the impact of gamer culture on the membership experience.  One of the major points I wanted to reinforce is that games are not all about melee fighting.  The best games also include an epic storyline, memorable characters that you come to care about, strategy and tactics as well as something I refer to as "gifts, surprises and serendipity."

One of the reasons video games are so powerful is they have features built into them that are primed to activate a release of dopamine into your brain.  Dopamine is an incredibly important substance that is related to the rewards center in your brain.  Not only is dopamine associated with some of our more fundamental drives - food and sex - it is also associated with learning.  Learning can become addictive and game designers know this.  (By the way, if you think you aren't a gamer and you play Angry Birds, Farmville, Words with Friends or Solitaire I have news for you - you are.)

Pleasant surprises pepper the learning experience embedded in the game.  Cues in games like treasure chests ("What's in that box, oh I bet it's something good!") - combine two fundamental human drives - curiosity (what is it?), learning (I opened it and now I know) and then give the reward (cool, it's a potion! ahhhhh.)  Better yet, add the element of surprise such as going into a new area and discovering a lever that activates or oooooh even better, a hidden door, and if you are like me you can almost physically feel the chemical rush inside your neural cortex.

Game designers are smart and have embedded these features in order to elicit a response and keep you engaged in the game.  However, the reason it works is this is a common activity. Humans replicate this experience repeatedly throughout the year during holidays like Easter, Halloween and the annual bacchanal known as Christmahanakwanzaakuh.  But even that isn't isn't enough.  We also find excuses to engage in this behavior on birthdays, anniversaries, baby showers, Valentine's Day, etc.  Sometimes we even give a gift "just because" and those surprises are even more powerful because the recipient was not expecting it.  To top it off, we create memories and associations that can stay with us for a lifetime associated with the incredibly potent dopamine release we get when we open that Red Ryder Bee Bee gun (yes Ralphie, I'm looking at you) or whatever it is that really floats our boats.

Now, to associations.  What do associations do to tap into the powerful motivation and engagement that can be elicited through the use of gifts, surprises and serendipity? Really, not a whole heck of a lot.  If the only gift your member gets from you all year is a dues invoice, then you are a bad game/member experience designer.  If the only surprise was a dues increase, well then you just scored a negative two-fer on the "I love these guys" scale.  We sort of give gifts in terms of communications such as magazines and newsletters.  Sometimes there is serendipity involved if the articles are particularly good.  But in the information age, that isn't enough.

We have to find ways to give gifts, surprises and serendipity throughout the year.  Gamers crave it.  They love to learn, to interact and to connect. Maybe it's as inexpensive as giving random members a call every few months just to "see how they are doing."  Maybe it's surprising members with a discount once in a while that they weren't expecting.  Maybe we can create in person experiences that increase the chances of random interaction with peers they don't know.  Maybe we elevate our conference learning experience to game level status.  How can we offer little treasures, little surprises, little gifts along the way to show members they are progressing in their member experience?  How can we show members they are leveling up from "noob" to "awesome?"  Let's be more intentional about building the human drive to obtain rewards into the membership experience.  But it has to be thoughtful, and something someone really wants because just "stuff" ain't what I'm talking about.  We have to make people feel like they matter, and then help them create positive memories associated with us using the most basic human drive imaginable - reward.

I haven't cracked the code on this yet, but you better believe I'm working on it.  In the meantime, I have to get some work done for a client so I can get back to knocking trolls out and looting treasure chests.  Dopamine, here I come!

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