Designing for Human Nature in a Digital Culture

10/06/2016 11:52 am ET

We’re a social species.

But look anywhere--at home, work or in public places--and you’ll see a wall that frequently blocks in-person interaction with others.

It’s not a brick-and-mortar wall. The barrier is made of glass, metal and plastic, and it fits in your pocket: the smartphone. And it can separate us from others in the real world if we let it.

We live in a culture where we are continually increasing the amount of time we spend using devices, interacting with apps, and expanding our digital social networks.

But we still crave face-to-face, human interaction. It’s human nature. Our in-person relationships and interactions are the foundation of how we behave, build social capital and navigate our day-to-day lives. Imagine living an entire day “heads down,” only interacting with others virtually. Sound a bit isolating? Definitely.

So as companies race to transform their brand and customer experiences digitally, how can we design and build more experiences that better balance technical sophistication with the need for human interaction? Is there a way to have the best of both worlds - physical and digital - and facilitate positive social experiences?

A tension piqued my curiosity. On one hand, the technology influx causes us to spend more and more time interacting with our smartphones in isolation. At the same time, through their actions, many people have proven that the right types of merged physical/digital experiences (like Pokémon Go or Ellen’s games Heads Up! and Psych!) can address an unmet need.

I set out to explore this issue in a single context, one in which most of us are singularly glued to our screens, but has social elements: gaming. By studying how people currently play digital games and how the games are--or aren’t--satisfying people’s desires, I wanted to understand if there are new opportunities to create social, in-person game experiences that blend face-to-face and digital interactions.

What I found is that there are likely new opportunities to use digital games as a catalyst for interaction between people.

It’s a common assumption that digital games isolate the gamer from others. By asking people how they play digital games and what they want, we found that people want games to foster social, in-person interaction. They want to play digital games in the same room with someone else, look at one another, talk, laugh and have fun.

We can trace this natural desire back to the root of games: they are one of the oldest forms of human social interaction. A new survey report by Sequence finds that today, two out of three consumers wish that more digital games were designed to bring friends and family together.

According to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2016 survey, the most frequent gamers value the social aspect of digital games highly, with 54 percent of them playing with others. Additionally, more than half (52 percent) feel that video games help them connect with friends, and 42 percent feel games help them spend time with family.

And despite the headlines about millennials’ preferences for interacting in virtual worlds, via social channels and dating apps, the Sequence survey found that 81 percent of millennials want to merge their enthusiasm for digital games with their natural desire to spend time with others in person.

Technology is now ubiquitous. There are more smartphones globally than people. So technology and screens are part of our landscape--not only are they not going away, they will increase in both capability and number with every passing day.

Digital games are part of that world--but they don’t have to increase isolation by driving only solo interaction with screens. Digital games can often be more enjoyable when played with others. Pokémon Go is a proverbial North Star for reimagining the role that games play in bringing people together. There’s widely untapped potential for creating more game experiences that foster social connections and even lead us out of our houses and offices into the fresh air. In other words, get out and play.

Gameplay can be a proxy for other social experiences that have moved online - fundamental interactions like learning, communicating or entertaining. The yearning for real-life social connection represents a significant opportunity for game developers, as well as for consumer brands that seek to extend their reach through second-screen experiences like games and other forms of digital entertainment.

The survey highlights an emerging trend. If people want to have more in-person interactions, companies should think differently about the way they design and deliver their digital experiences. The implications for designers and developers are profound. Consider the shift from a technology-centric focus on a single player or user to being more expansive: think about the player, in-person interaction with others, the place where they’re playing and the technology. It’s a more complex context, but the rewards could be meaningful.

We don’t need to be separated from others by screens we carry with us; rather, technology can guide our attention towards each other, even when we’re playing games and having fun.

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