As a game designer, I’m often asked what designers of all stripes can learn from games. Games, after all, appear to be magical objects. Dark ones, even. From Tetris to World of Warcraft, games have an uncanny ability to lure players in. Once hooked on a game, people will spend nearly endless time pursuing bizarre and arbitrary goals—like navigating configurations of four squares in a grid to remove lines. Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to get those very same users to spend more than a few seconds with an app, an experience, or a gizmo before they abandon it in disgust or boredom, never to return again.
For better or worse, designers have borrowed lessons from games for product and service design. Unfortunately, the features they tend to choose are either the least interesting aspects of games (points, levels, rewards, and other incidental measures of progress) or else they’re the most insidious (partial reinforcement and other models of behavioral economics).
In truth, the most useful lesson to take away from games doesn’t have much to do with games at all. It’s just easier to see the lesson inside of games than outside them.
That lesson is that things are most compelling when they are allowed to be exactly what they are. And they’re even more compelling the more they are exactly what they are. That means that the designer’s job is to make things even more what they already are.