What Can Game Developers Learn From The 2016 Presidential Election?
Like many other people, I was shocked when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. I considered him to be too inexperienced and divisive for the position for him to have any real chance of winning the election. Even when the polls showed the race to be tightening up in the days before the election, I thought that Hillary Clinton had enough electoral votes locked up for a landslide victory. I was so sure that Hillary’s win was a foregone conclusion, that rather than spending Tuesday night watching the election results, I decided to go see Doctor Strange instead. However, when I exited the movie theater, it seemed I had been transported to an alternate universe, because it was Trump who had won by a landslide of electoral votes.
Pundits and Democratic leaders from Michael Moore to Bernie Sanders blamed Hillary’s loss on the fact that Trump did a far better job of appealing to the concerns of the angry and embittered middle-class workers of the Rust Belt states who felt abandoned by the Democrats. Worse, everyone who supported Donald Trump was painted by the Hillary campaign as being stupid, bigoted and mysogynistic. Such name-calling did not attract any Trump supporters to Hillary’s side, but what it did do was make Trump supporters hesitant to admit in polls that they were supporting Trump, and so the polling data was off. Finally, Trump supporters were more enthusiastic about their candidate than were Hillary supporters, who didn’t work as hard at bringing other people to the voting booth with them.
A couple of days after the election, game journalist Dean Takashashi asked in a Facebook post, “What does/should the game industry do in a post-election Trump world?” and I answered with some lessons from the election that might apply to game development. Here is an expanded version of my reply:
- Try to meet to the needs of all your players — not just the vocal ones, not just the hard core ones, and not just what you designed your metrics to measure. Your audience is might be made up of players who spend a lot of time each day playing your game, and more casual ones who only have a few minutes here and there to play; those who play for high scores and achievements, and those who just play for the story or social experience; those who try to dissect every rule and metagame new strategies, and those who are just looking for an enjoyable pastime. If you only pay attention to the ones who post on your forums or social media networks, you may be ignoring problems the vast majority of your audience are experiencing.
- Never dismiss any of your players as being stupid of wrong-headed. If they find your game confusing, they’re right — it is confusing for them. If they find your game boring, they’re right — it is not fun for them. Rather than telling them that they’re wrong, try to see things from their point of view and find ways to satisfy their needs.
- Players will often give you solutions to their problems rather than telling you what their problems actually are, but since they aren’t expert game designers, often their solutions aren’t the best ones. For example, they may complain that your first-person shooter needs more powerful guns when really the reason the game is too difficult is that there isn’t enough ammunition to pick up in the level. So, when your players start giving you solution, try to figure out why they are giving that solution, and maybe you can come up with a better one.
- Your metrics will only measure what you’ve designed them to measure, especially when dealing with quantitative data. Try to get some qualitative data from your players too, because people on the fence could suddenly change their playing habits.
- When answering playtest feedback surveys, players will often tell you what they think you want to hear to avoid hurting your feelings about finding problems with your work or to avoid sounding stupid or unskilled themselves. Where possible, have playtest feedback done by a neutral party, and write your questions so that they are unbiased as possible. You goal should be to learn what your player’s experiences are, not get validation for your existing opinions.
- As screenwriter William Goldman famously observed, “Nobody knows anything.” You can get all the expert opinion and follow conventional wisdom all you want, but nobody knows with certainty what’s going to work. Success depends as much on luck as anything else.
None of this will make you feel better about the election if you were unhappy with the results, but as the dust settles and we get back to our lives, maybe we can take away a few things that will make our work, at least, a little more sane than this crazy election cycle.