I’ve been working in the casual games industry for over five years now. I’ve played a lot of the games that my company, I-play, has made and distributed over these years. As a marketer, I sit in meetings theorizing and analyzing our customers’ motivations for playing the games we distribute so that we can adapt our marketing messages to their goals.
But it wasn’t until I visited my 7 year old earlier in the year and watched him play Plants vs Zombies that I truly understood the mindset of playing these games.
A week before Christmas I was on a Skype call with my in-laws when I noticed that my nephew, Noa, was playing PvZ. I told him that I’d played the game and we talked about which levels we liked and how far we’d advanced. I knew immediately that he was a far more advanced player of the game than I was.
I play casually on my PC at work and on my iPhone on the subway on my way to and from the office. If I lose and the zombies eat my brains, I get frustrated, but it’s not a big deal. I could get really sucked into it for a few hours, and then put it down for days. It’s a hobby, a casual escape (that’s why they’re called “casual games”, right?), not an obsession. But for Noa, he talked about the game with such passion that you would have thought he’d designed the game himself.
A few weeks later I got a call from my wife in the middle of the work day. “Noa just called me and asked for you. He said he has something he needs to talk to you about urgently.” I talk to Noa on Skype and on the phone when we have calls with my in-laws, but he’s never called and asked for me directly. This had to be important.
I called my mother-in-law’s number and Noa picked up. Before I could even finish saying “Hi Noa” he blurted out: “Auntie Dana, I finished Plants vs Zombies!” The happiness I felt at that moment cannot even be described. He went on to tell me about the final battle, his strategies, and instruct me on what I needed to do to finish the game. I spent a good ten minutes on the phone just listening to him talk about it before I finally had to get back to work and told him I’d call him back later that night.
A month later, my wife and I took a vacation to visit her family. As soon as I saw Noa, he was ready to play Plants vs Zombies with me. He couldn’t wait to tell me everything he’d learned since the last time we talked about it. I watched as he strategized which plants to use, where and when to place them to anticipate the incoming zombie attacks. Place the mushrooms in the middle of the yard because they only start shooting when the zombie is close. Put the pea shooter closer to the house to the house because it takes longer for those zombies to go down. I listened to him talking to the game as he played, telling me what was going to happen, muttering “no football zombies! kill the football zombies! oh no, football zombie!”, squealing with joy as certain moves ended in blowing up the zombies and finishing a level. He is so focused when he’s playing that nothing could pull him away.
Noa doesn’t just play the game. He showed me art he’d drawn of the plants in the game. He drew original concepts for plants and the powers they have to defeating the zombies, detailing how much damage they do, such as “slows zombies” or “5x more damage than peas”. I posted it on Facebook and asked a friend who works at PopCap if there are any jobs available there for a 7 year old. Seriously, I think this kid has a career in game design ahead of him.
As someone who works in the business of games, it’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of games as “the product,” drowning in the numbers of more content, more players, more time spent playing and more revenue, and almost forgetting what it’s all about — passion. Thanks for helping me remember, Noa.