This Is Your Brain on Games

“The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time,” wrote philosopher Bertrand Russell. I concur. We all need time to go on autopilot, to disconnect and decompress. To accomplish this, we participate in activities and hobbies that clear our minds. Some pursuits are social, some are cerebral, and some are physical. But they all offer a respite from the 9-to-5, paying bills and covering our responsibilities. Activities and hobbies allow us to recharge our batteries so we can return to our routines with renewed spirit and energy. In other words, a mind needs downtime or time to waste.

Whether or not you’re a proponent of games and game play, it’s now impossible to deny that games have eclipsed most media in the competition to “waste our time.” And I mean that in the positive. Much has been said and beginning to be understood about the positive applications of games in everything from education to training simulations. Matt Story, director of Denuo’s Play, wrote an excellent column, “Video Games, From Toys to Tools,” offering some current examples.

While games are becoming increasingly important to education, training, and the economy, let’s not neglect the societal benefits of gaming when viewed purely as an entertainment pursuit. To elaborate, consider my experiences with games and the impact they’ve had on my family and friends. Plus, they’ve connected me to people across the United States and the globe. I assume you’ve already dismissed the misconception that gamers are social misfits who spend hours on end disconnected from society and plotting lunatic rampages. If you haven’t, my experiences may help you to do so.

Connecting Family

My brother and I share lots in common. We grew up with different aspirations but played the same sports, shared similar interests, and held similar values. Only three years apart in age, we were very competitive with each other. That competitive spirit didn’t always manifest itself in a positive way. I can remember playing football in the backyard with many games ending in injury or fights.

On the other hand, my brother and I also owned virtually every gaming console from Atari 2600 through PlayStation 2. Our favorite game was EA’s Madden Football. We’d play for an hour or two at least three times a week. I can vividly recall the fun we shared, the escape it offered us, and the closeness we experienced in those moments. Most notably I recall the all stakes game when my back was to the wall, down four points, his Giants on my Raiders three-yard line, 10 seconds left, a fumble, a Raider running it back 97 yards to win, and both of us on our feet screaming the whole way. Call me a geek but that moment still brings a smile to my face. Our game play offered us many moments like that. Many nights in which we escaped together, and in doing so, forged a stronger bond.

Building Friendships

Throughout my youth, my friends and I always found room in our schedules for games. We were your average suburban kids, playing sports, chasing girls, and getting in trouble. My point is, we were far from misfits and nevertheless we valued gaming as a staple activity. Again, vivid memories come to mind such as the odd “micro second” pause in RBI Baseball when a homerun was hit, the hitter reveling in the impending home run and the pitcher’s stomach dropping.

As well, I recall the lazy Sundays in college with eight feet of snow on the ground and a houseful of friends playing FIFA soccer tournaments for money. Sure, Budweiser from a keg was part of the experience but the tournaments brought us together and were the focal point of our gatherings. Again, games afforded us an opportunity to clear our minds from academic demands, strengthened our friendships and, many times, offered a commonality that accelerated friendships with newcomers to the gatherings.

Crossing Borders

Online games and the advent of the networked console have brought us an opportunity to connect with and develop friendships with strangers. If we have an interest in playing a game, we no longer need to recruit an existing friend to play with. We simply tap into networks of players ready to share the experience. I spent a decent amount of time on weekday nights in my mid-20s playing chess online. I never invited my own friends because none played chess. However, I could always find players of varying skill levels online. I’d play with people of all walks of life, diverse backgrounds and geography, both genders, all ages, and social status. Although the experiences offered an escape, a lot of fun, and an outlet for my chess cravings, I valued the chat application running along side the game most of all.

Through the play style of a game like chess and the accompanying chat, I was afforded an opportunity to interact with and learn much from people I’d likely never meet in person. I learned much about people from various parts of the country and their cities and states of origin. On a global level, I was able to detach from politics and newsflashes as a primary source of information about other parts of the world and form my opinions by learning from and forming friendships with people all over the world. For me, games built bridges to places I hadn’t been and people I’d likely never meet.

Although these are my personal experiences, they apply to many others from my and subsequent generations growing up in a networked global community. Games provide a tremendous societal benefit that will become even more pronounced in the future. As an activity, games let us clear our minds, connect us deeply with our friends and family, extend our social networks on a national and global level, and offer cerebral challenges. Given the meteoric success of games like “Dance Dance Revolution,” and the Wii, the industry is even beginning to incorporate physical challenges.

So that leads us to the question: What’s a marketer to do with this information? The answer is simple. Believe it and remember it. If you do, then your role as a marketer will become crystal clear. You have an opportunity and obligation to identify and finance, through advertising, pockets of the game industry that offer societal benefit and deliver your target audience. As for the actual implementation, ask your target audience what they play, then develop that experience or enhance existing ones, and weave your brand messages into the game. Your message will fall on receptive minds in positive states.

Thanks for your mindshare.

-KC

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