PLEASE OH PLEASE PLAY MY GAME… The art of engaging people Part 1: Three ideas

This last weekend I was a judge at the Mass Digi Games Challenge. It was a completely exhausting and really wonderful experience- practically a full 8 hours of games. There were a lot of games. They ranged from half-done student projects to fully fleshed-out game design studio projects but for those of us who have seen a lot of games, we consistently saw one problem that was overlooked. WHO WILL PLAY YOUR GAME?? This happens a lot: You have an idea. It’s awesome. Everyone will love it. They’ll all see the value. It will definitely go viral. Wait. That’s your plan?

Sometimes magically everyone does play. But educators and ed gamers, we need to get it firmly planted in our brains that this won’t happen to us. It’s irresponsible of us to act as if our game about gravity or the history of the Bread and Roses protests will catch on and get a half a million downloads. Like the lottery, it does happen to some people rarely but it’s a very bad idea to bet your organization’s budget on that. Who will play for real? What will YOU do to get them to play? Give this question the due diligence that it deserves! Whatever you do, don’t fall into the “if we build it, they will come” trap.

It’s not all doom and gloom. People WILL play your education game but you need to work at it. I like to geek out about the psychology of getting people to play. To me, here are three of the most important concepts I’ve learned about how to get people engaged:


Describe the person who will play your game. Careful, don’t say “everybody” and don’t say “millennials” because none of that is specific enough. Think of individuals and their stories. Marketing companies make user profiles and so should you! Fast forward 1 year, who is playing your game? Ask these kinds of questions about that person:

  • How did they find your game?
  • Why are they playing?
  • How much time do they have to play?
  • How long does it take them to actually begin playing? (Not learn how to play)
  • Are they playing alone or with friends?
  • Where are they sitting/standing as they play?
  • What are they thinking about? What are they worried about while they play?

After you ask, things may start to get more clear: Is it a mom keeping her kids busy on an ipad while she drives? Is it my husband, obsessing over playing a video game better than his friends? Is it someone who walked into your gallery with a friend and has 60 minutes to look at art? Think about how to reach out to precisely those people.


Now that you’ve thought about the story of your target, think about how they might share their experience with your game with their family or friends. How do they feel? How do they share it? Do you make it easy for them to share it with others?

Don’t let people be embarrassed by your game.

“Wanna play??!” “Sure!” “Do you have a smartphone?” “Oh I have a dumb phone.” Fail.

“Play with your kids!” “My kids won’t really spend time on things like that.” Awkward.

“Learn all about science!” “Actually, I don’t really get this.” Oh… right.

You want people to show up to your game prepped, ready to play and feeling like they’re experts. Don’t let them walk away from your game feeling defeated! How to make heroes will be different according to your game: maybe you’ll need to let people download it ahead of time. Maybe you’ll need to let people test it. Maybe you’ll need to put it in multiple languages. Either way, watch very carefully for play testers feeling dumb. That’s the sign that it’s going to be hard to spread this and you need to make some changes.

Let people be the hero who went to the museum and found that cool activity that the family all had so much fun playing. Let them be the kid that introduced all the other kids to that fun game. Let them be one of the cool, “early adopter” parents. If you can put people in this position, they will love you for it.


People are BUSY. They’re overwhelmed and they don’t have very long to make sense of what you’re trying to get them to do. If you have a video game and your player is alone at home in front of a screen, you have a lot more leeway than if you’re building a location-based game.

I build almost entirely mobile games so it’s become a rule of thumb for me that I have 16 seconds to nevermind. Somebody opens my game! HUZZAAAH! Can they play now? No? How about now? Try this exercise:

Open your smartphone and just fiddle with it blindly counting slowly to 16. Don’t check your mail or read the Times for 16 seconds- just poke at things and be confused. 16 seconds feels really long when you don’t know what you’re doing, right?

This is why your games have to have SUPER LOW barrier to entry. People have to be able to figure out how to download it, know where they’re going, know what is asked of them and be able to get there.

It’s not a great thing if you have a bunch of people open your game and close it- in fact, it’s much much better to have a few people open it and actually play. So do what you can to draw people in the second they open your game. You have 16 seconds to engage them, otherwise it’s going to be really hard to get them back.

Next week: 5 real things that you can (and should) do to get people to play your game!


One response to “PLEASE OH PLEASE PLAY MY GAME… The art of engaging people Part 1: Three ideas”

  1. I LOVE this blog post! As I build our Edventures @ Joslyn, I will keep this valuable advice in mind.

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