I recently watched this excellent video of Nick Fortugno at the Meaningful Play conference in 2008. If you are into designing games with a message behind them it is worth a watch.
Among other things, he highlights the basic split in entertainment between “form” and “content”. Form being the mechanics used to convey the message. Using examples from the past like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he shows clearly how known formulas have been used effectively to deliver what some might call, socially responsible messages. In the case of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, she used a fairly common literary model to inject a social discussion of abolitionism into the mainstream social conversation.
If you ponder formulas, you can find them in all types of media and entertainment. From a gaming perspective, you see them as First Person Shooters (FPS), Simulation, Role Playing Games (RPG), Board games, and more. From a film perspective, you might think about Action, Drama, Comedy or Documentary. It is essential to understand that each of these formulas attract a specific audience with clear expectations well trod by their previous experiences. People are attracted to a specific formula because of what it provides. How many nights have you said, “I am in the mood for a comedy”? – It is much more rare to say you are in the mood for a comedy about golf, or an action movie about the African diamond trade.
If you go see a horror movie, you will expect some blood and gore, creepy imagery, and most likely some scantily clad teenagers at a deserted lake. As long as the director provides those key elements, you’ll leave (to a degree) satisfied. You got what you ordered. If the entertainment meets that core need and provides the emotional experience you sought, then you are open to receive the message they are delivering. From a design perspective, you just have to honor the formula and provide the desired experience or it will cease to be enjoyable to the audience. If you deny them the pleasure of a deep belly laugh when they yearned for comedy, no matter how interesting you may find your message, it will be lost.
If you are a web designer you may see a parallel here when you consider Steve Krug’s views on convention. His opinion is that using expected behavior is good no matter how cool you think that flash widget is! Use a search box that looks the same as everyone else. Have a shopping cart icon that leads to the shopping cart. If you plan to reinvent how the shopping cart, search button, or the hyperlink work – you better have a very, very good reason. So your website formula is standard, the message (ie. content) is up to you.
So let’s connect this with the world of software that people use to get things done – email, task management, payroll, bookkeeping, project management, etc. – collectively “business software”. If entertainment like films, games and books have taught us anything, it is that you must first create something enjoyable. Play is paramount. In the world of entertainment, purpose is largely ignored (on a percentage basis), but you can see it shine through in films like Erin Brokovich, The Insider, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, among many others – documentaries are great at this. In the world of business software, the report card is skewed in the other direction, with purpose being the leader by a wide margin, and fun being largely ignored. The very idea of fun seems at odds with something of value. Both worlds could do with a bit of balance.
My hope is that the future of business software can assimilate the lessons of entertainment by making something people want to play consistently as opposed to a tool to get something done. We are already seeing simplicity as a key design principle, but I believe that the dimension of fun is next. My guess is that we will as an industry need to adopt or invent a new formula for software and apply them to the problems we are trying to solve in a novel way.
Who is up for a game of email?