🙃 Let's get weird 🤪

Happy Friday. Let’s get weird!

Way back in the early days of consumer-grade laser pointers, I went to see a stupid teenage comedy movie with my older brother. Something like Austin Powers but I don’t think it was actually Austin Powers. Even then - the movie was geared right at my white male teenage sensibilities, and I still remember thinkingm “Geeze… this is bad."

Afterwards, some kid who was in the theater with us came up to my brother and thanked him. The kid said my brother’s laser pointer was the only reason he sat through the whole thing.

***

Fast forward to 2012, and I’m in a room of maybe 100 people at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. We’re sitting at the Experimental Gameplay Sessions, and we all have laser pointers. And we are being explicitly told to shoot them at the screen in front of us because somehow these game developers have rigged up a camera system that recognizes the lasers on the screen, then uses them to form some kind of mouse input to a game.

What this turns into is 100 people simultaneously controlling a huge game of asteroids projected on a wall to thumping techno. People are shouting out strategy to each other because if a clump of lasers veers too far off course, the whole enterprise goes down. We have to stay together!

It was really weird and really fun.

***

Earlier at that same conference, I heard a guy speak who essentially launched a company off the press he got from making a game with his 4-year-old daughter. It was incredibly cute.

His talk was entitled, “How to catch lightning in a bottle,” and his message was incredibly clear:

You have to set up all the conditions right, yes. And then… you have to do something shocking.

I still remember that. I still believe it. All of it.

Have a great weekend,

Sam

Streak broken ☹️

Dang! I totally spaced on sending an email yesterday.

I’m really sorry.

I said I’d send one every weekday, and yesterday, I very much did not. I’m gonna try and make it up to you ASAP though with some sort of bonus 😊

Missing a day does give a good opportunity to talk about streaks though. Does your app have '‘em in some form? You know - the little notifications or badges that say, “You’ve gone for a walk 68 days in a row!” Snapchat has ‘em for conversations with friends. Headspace has ‘em for days meditated. They’re certainly motivating - people don’t like losing their streaks!

It also feels a little bit like building a really tall tower of blocks, each one right on top of each other. It’s really skinny and very vulnerable to a slight push. And then when you do knock it over, you’re starting at zero. If you have a streak of 500 days-in-a-row going (a very tall tower indeed!) it sucks that missing just one day reduces that big number all the way down to zero.

And if that were my only marker of success, it’d be a big bummer. But I believe all those previous emails, though no longer part of a streak, still count. It’s like working a muscle. The work has been put in.

Because in reality, we do miss days. And so do the folks who use your app. We’re all human, and despite our best intentions, we fuck up and break promises to each other and ourselves all the time.

So. A few questions to ask in your app design process:

  • How forgiving is your app of people who take breaks? What motivation is there for someone to come back after “losing” their streak?

  • Are you working towards a marathon or a sprint?

  • Are your visualizations of progress more like a tall skinny tower or a wide-based pyramid?

A wider surface area of success can catch folks when they fall. Because blah blah blah, it’s not how many times you fall down, it’s how many times you get back up. Trite but true :-)

Thanks for your patience on day 0 of this new streak.

-Sam

Gifts to give

How often do you reach for your phone throughout the day? My phone tells me I'm averaging five per hour this week.

It's very in vogue to shame ourselves (and each other) for this habitual behavior. I know I get down on myself and would like to do less internet surfing.

But clearly all this grasping points out that there's suffering, too. There's unease which drives me to pick up my phone.

Play is meeting that unease with kindness. Rather than ramping up, it helps ramp down. It's saying, “Sweetheart, I see you're having a tough time right now. Maybe you're anxious, or sad, or angry, or scared. Here's something to help relax your mind and body a bit.”

What a gift if we could all give that to ourselves, to each other, to the people who use our apps, and the folks who stop by our conference booths.

I believe it's possible.

❤️,

Sam

"But I'm not a gamer!"

“… except for CandyCrush!

And FarmVille back in the day.

Oh, and I play Wii with my neices…”

That’s kind of a common response among “gamers” of a certain age. Games are becoming more and more ubiquitous to the point that we don’t even recognize them as games! Sometimes we think that (mental image of bloody first person shooter) is a game, but this (little mobile phone time-waster) isn’t.

The truth is that a full 67% of all Americans play games regularly! (DL the study here: https://www.eedar.com/free-reports)

That’s a lot. As in, that’s most. It’s higher for teens (expectedly) since they’re at over 90%!

Most of us are playing games. Most of your customers are playing games.

What are you doing to connect with them there?

LOOKIT LOOKIT LOOKIT!

“LOOKIT ME! Watch! Mom! Watch! LOOKITLOOKITLOOKIT!”

There’s a definite thing that happens in marketing and sales that can make us very me-focused. We’ve got something to sell, and your job, dear customer, is to look at our awesomeness! Just check out how amazing it is!

Lookit lookit lookit!

I fall into this trap all the time, and it ain’t pretty.

We think we’re the hero of the story. That we’re Luke Skywalker. The trick is to be Yoda, instead.

When you’re Yoda, you’re guiding Luke on his journey. You’re the trusted expert. Your audience is the one whose story is important, and you’re just there to help them on their way.

When you start to view your role this way, everything shifts.

Instead of drawing attention to yourself, you start to think of what bests serves your client. If you’re at trade show, instead of thinking how to get people in the door, you ask, “what do attendees want to get out of their expo experience?”

If you’re designing an app, instead of thinking, “How can we boost our retention numbers?” you ask, “How can our meditators reach their practice goals?”

It’s kind of magic.

And then once you have an answer to those questions, you just do it. There is no try ;-)

Mmm… special sauce 🤤

Chances are, there are other companies selling a similar product to you. Or other organizations looking for donations in a similar domain to yours.

There are countless animal rights rescues and countless solar panel installers. “What” you do isn’t (usually) a huge differentiator. Even if you’re making an app. “Oh, you’re a meditation app?” That’s cool! Even if it’s new at the time, give it 6 months and if your idea’s great, you’ll no longer be the only one :-)

So. This truth is especially laid bare at trade shows.

Lots of people at trade shows are selling very similar things. Face creams at beauty shows. Gowns at bridal shows. Boats at… boat shows.

You get the idea.

You’ve really got to think: what really makes you different from everyone else there? In a sea of 200 very similar products, what is your special sauce?

What about your company or brand makes you different from the crowd?

The answer may lie in your product (a specific technological advancement that’s truly unique), but it can really come from anywhere. Is it a founding story? Is it your commitment to your mission? Is it your mission itself? Is it the way you do business - your connection to the community or your organizational structure or how you treat people?

Once you get something that’s different from your neighbors, you’ve got something to sell.

"Cosmic Bowling"

Shit. Remember before “Cosmic Bowling” was a thing? Remember when you just went to the bowling alley, and all the lights stayed on, threw your ball down the lane, and you got mozzarella sticks and cold cokes and sometimes stickers for 50 cents at the arcade?

At some point during my childhood, the alley near my house introduced “Cosmic Bowling,” and I was not a fan. Basically, the bowling alley turned into a night club during Cosmic Bowling. Blacklights, super loud music, fog machines… the whole works.

I guess they wanted kids to make out to the scent of shoe sanitizer?

Anyways, I was thinking of cosmic bowling today while thinking of trade show booths and environmental design.

Sometimes, your goal is just to get people in the door. Or really, you want people to see the door. And when that’s the case, you get sidewalk sign spinners, and searchlights, and loud music. You get cosmic bowling.

This is a super common event strategy for companies.

But your repeat customers, the backbone of your business, they might hate cosmic bowling. And your real goal of your event might be to have quality conversations with those customers. I remember how frustratingly impossible it was to talk to my friends over the loud music. How could they appreciate that I changed their name to “POO” on the scoreboard if I couldn’t tell them??

So for your next event, start with what your real goals are. Do you want maximum surface area awareness of your existence? Do you want intense 30 minute meetings? Or do you want a little bit of each and something in the middle?

Then adjust your fog machines, music volume, and black light settings accordingly.

Starting with why

You’ve probably seen the Simon Sinek TED talk on “Starting with Why.” And if you haven’t, check it out! The crux of the argument is that to really inspire people to action (and to sell things), it’s best to start with your mission and work outwards to your product.

The why (your purpose) is in the middle. The what (your product) is on the outside.

Blah blah blah, this is kind of old hat marketing speak tech babble so there’s not really a huge need to rehash it at this point.

Except…

What happens when you step on the trade show floor?

It all goes out the window!

Product demos as far as the eye can see! 100% leading with “what” over “why”!

It’s like, “Yeah yeah yeah. We know that building a brand and a loyal following starts with why. But… damn it! We’re in the thick of it now! THE EXPO FLOOR IS WAR!”

And all’s fair in war, right?

Well, sure. If you want to do what everyone else is doing, then hand out sample after sample and call it a day. “Phew!” you can say to yourself. “Glad that’s over!”

Look! Your trays are empty! You must have done such a great job! And feel how tired your feet are? What a successful day on the floor :-)

And yes, it is hard work handing out samples. It’s labor either way. You may as well make it count. You may as well start dealing in the why.

Now I’m curious: if you had to sum up your why in a sentence, what would it be? Just hit reply to this email and let me know. It’s the first step towards embodying it in your real-world marketing!

❤️,

Sam

Tasting Success

Remember Halloween parties as a kid? Did you ever stick your hand, blindfolded, into a bowl of real squishy human eye-balls? GROSSSS!

I mean, they were peeled grapes, but inside that dark box, they totally could have been!

Educational games are like that.

You can tell people about success. You can talk about what it’s like to achieve your mission - to clean the ocean of plastics and stop poaching lions, but it’s not the same. And I could tell you what it feels like to stick your hand in a bowl of grapes.

I’m doing it right now! Probably you feel some kind of way about it - gross, cold, squirmy.

And yet, it’s still not the same.

It’s not the same as that moment your outstretched fingers, groping in the dark, first make contact with those slimy, unknown globs of grape.

When you touch it, you know.

That’s the magic of games. They’re experiential. They’re all sorts of other good things (safe, forgiving, identity-making, etc.) but they work because you’re doing things. You inhabit them.

And when you’re trying to make a difference in the world, it can be hard to imagine success. Lowering greenhouse gases or achieving financial equality can feel so far away.

For me at least, big goals like that can feel disturbingly far away at times.

What games can do is make those goals real. They can let players taste the success. They can let people touch the cool, peeled, grapes.

Yum.

-Sam

Storytime!

Gather round, children - it’s story time!

This is the story of a visitor to your booth (or website). They’re a potential partner, or customer, or volunteer with your organization, but right now - at the beginning of the story - they’re an anonymous person. They have something in common with your org (they’re here after all), but you don’t know that much about them.

The story we are going to tell is one where this person achieves something or learns something very important to them. It’s dear to their hearts. This longing might be obvious to them or it might be buried, but it’s there within them. It very well may be the theme of the conference (if you’re at a conference).

But how do they get that thing? How do they bring clean water to the desert, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, free unlawfully imprisoned refugees?

How do they do it when they’re so small, the problem is so big, and the obstacles are so many?

Well… that’s what you’re here for, right? You have the same goals. And you’ve achieved some success. You can show what that feels like - to be a part of something larger than yourself working towards those deep-seated desires.

And here’s the trick… you can tell those stories. You can show a video or hand out pamphlets and even talk to people about what those successes were like. And that’s cool. Imagination is really strong, and when we really concentrate and visualize, it’s incredibly powerful.

But if you get someone playing, of doing something while acting out their part in the story, those emotions are felt immediately. It’s in the body. Think of how powerful it is (both positive and negative) to build a Jenga tower and watch it fall over.

Maybe you can invite people to plant a miniature paper tree. Or power a tiny electric house. Or re-unite a family of dolls.

Whatever it is you do, think of what your visitors want. Think of how you help them achieve that. Then let them do it.

Cheers,
Sam

Big-ass Jenga

At SXSWEdu this year, I saw a booth that a had a giant game of Jenga set out in front of their table. Not regular ol’ lawn Jenga, but a Jenga made of OTHER boxes of regular Jenga games.

It was a big ass Jenga game.

Then on the side of each box, they wrote a conversation-starting question to get visitors talking (to each other and to them- the hosts). Here's a pic I took:

My thumb for scale.

My thumb for scale.

And the org that put this on does something with reaching and teaching kids, so the questions were very much on brand.

As a way to get folks in the door, I love it. It's huge. It's orange. You can see it from across the hall. You know how it works immediately.

And yet… I have NO recollection as to who the booth was for! 🤷🏻‍♂️

And maybe that's fine for them! Step one is get folks talking to you, and they accomplished that 110%.

But to really leave them with a memory of who YOU are, you gotta tell your story somehow. And that's where giant Jenga (and spinny prize wheels, and putting green contests, etc. etc.) fall a little short.

Tomorrow, we'll talk a bit about customizing your experience to do just that.

Games at the farmers market

Check out this group of Boston-area game developers showing and selling their wares at a local street fair:

https://twitter.com/dinosaursssssss/status/1158175873310371841

https://twitter.com/dinosaursssssss/status/1158175873310371841

I love it. Note especially the line from Chris, “People are genuinely shocked.”

When you make a game for your conference booth, that’s the reaction you’re getting.

Honestly, we have no idea if the games those fine Boston folks are selling are any good. I’m guessing they are, but just seeing them presented in that context is a treat. Imagine walking down the row of stalls…

“Produce… check.

Bread… check.

Duck eggs… check.

Jam… check.

More jam… check.

More eggs… check.

Video games??? A-WHAA???”

Of course you’re going to stop in that booth! Who brings video games to a street market? I want to know who they are!

I’ve seen this happen at academic conferences, coffee expos, schools, and museums. The shock factor of bringing a game to somewhere unexpected is very very real. There’s value in zigging when everyone else is zagging.

Of course, you can’t zig too far. Those signs in the pic say “locally made.” They’re not showing the latest mega-blockbuster from California. They’re using a different mode (videogames vs food or handicrafts) but they’re still on theme.

But if you’re already going to a place where your audience is, then you’re probably not at risk of straying off course. If you’ve got a booth lined up, your people are gonna be walking by. Think about the dozens of similar things they’ve seen and are going to see in the next hour or day or weekend. Then think about giving them something different - whatever that may be.

From the ground up

Hi there,

Today I sent out a poll on Twitter asking folks what sort of heartfulness topic they’re most interested in. You can check it out (and vote!) right here:

(https://twitter.com/SamPotasz/status/1158825478968545280 if that doesn’t show up for you)

I’m not expecting to get a ton of responses. My B2C lines of communication and Twitter presence is pretty weak at the moment, but that’s OK. I’m embarking on this project, and I want to do it right. I’m gonna make this game, and I want to make sure I get community input from the get-go.

I want feedback built in from the ground-up. Sometimes feedback is just a matter of prioritizing your Trello board, and I’ve definitely worked on projects where “Implement feedback system” sits on the “TO DO” column for way too long.

So what are some ways to get feedback built in straight away? Social media is obviously one way, but there are tons of others.

This daily email list is one! You can do one, too. It really only takes maximum 25 minutes per day.

And even before you have a working technical prototype, it’s a commitment to showing your paper prototypes and mockups and wireframes to real, live, people and getting their opinions on what you’ve got. You can talk to people about their problems before you have a wireframe. You can talk to people about potential solutions before you have a sketch.

Then once you do have something worked up, there are ways to let people talk to you through your tech:

Here’s a handy Unity plugin that’s dead-simple to use with Trello: https://assetstore.unity.com/packages/tools/integration/easy-feedback-form-81608

For non-game projects, Instabug is pretty nice, IMO.

Whatever you use, the implementation is the easy part. The key thing is the philosophy of feedback as early as possible, as often as possible.

For me, for this project, it’s that one tweet :-)

-Sam

p.s. If you don’t have twitter & can’t vote there, reply to this email with the number of your choice and your vote will count DOUBLE (because email is twice as nice)!

Making games in wartime

I had a really hard time working today. I was thinking about El Paso and guns - racism and immigration - politics and power.

I was thinking about what it means to create play when the world is on fire and the country is at war.

I was asking, “What the fuck is the point of this work in the face of white nationalism?”

For me, it’s easy to escape into playing games. When I was stressed growing up, I would retreat to the basement and turn on the Genesis or N64 or PlayStation and tune out the world for a bit. I still do that with my phone or Switch, and this kind of play has its place.

But lately, I’m trying to escape less. I’m trying to stay, and work through, and work towards.

I believe games and other tech can play a supportive role in our work to stay. Standing up takes strength, and trees need soil to stay rooted.

If you’re dedicated to working towards ending violence (whether environmental, internal, racial or otherwise), you need support. And I know when I’m spending all my energy tending to my own fires with money or health or various daily mishegas, I don’t have much left to put towards the good of the world.

I think every app that saves folks just a little bit of energy, that gives them even a taste of freedom, allows them to further work towards the good of others if they’re so inclined. When you’re helping people resolve their money stress or negative self talk or just letting them laugh and recharge for 90 seconds, you give them that much more freedom for the rest of the world.

May we all taste that freedom. May we all take action in service of what we believe in.

-Sam

“But what if it's not SUPPOSED to be fun?”

“But what if it's not SUPPOSED to be fun?”

That's a good and totally valid question. If you're working for justice, or saying hi to some inner demons, there are times when it's not going to be fun. And the point of life isn't happiness, but these activities are meaningful. You don't necessarily need to make your political app fun to get people into it. You need to make it meaningful.

Broccoli isn't sweet, but it's flavorful.

Your job as a designer is to stay connected to the meaning of your activity and help your practitioners do the same. You don't need to make it “fun” if it's not inherently fun.

When you try and twist your thing into something it's not, it seems disingenuous. And it misaligns your audience’s motivation. They think, “oh! I want to do this fun thing! Ugh. I guess I have to do some social justice first.”

That's not good in the long run.

When you're connected to the why, your activists think, “Hell yeah, today I'm gonna take one small step towards freedom. Let's make a fucking phone call.”

***

Find the reason, find the meaning, find the why, whatever that may be - and stay on it.

May you have a meaningful, free, and peaceful weekend,

Sam