Journey to the Center of Their World

[February 14, 2011]

As truly widespread access to some form of digital interface reaches its second decade in the United States, it’s safe to assume most children’s first experience with a digital medium is either passive entertainment or active gaming. As people born in 1990 and later become adults, it won’t be long before, as a cultural artifact, a computer screen will be indelibly linked to vivid, engaging fun.

For now, an older generation is still more liable to associate a computer screen with traditional media. Hence the expression “e-book,” which reminds me of analogous expressions from the last century, including “horseless carriage” in reference to the automobile.

But just as the time came when we no longer framed cars in terms of older modes of transportation, before long we’re sure to drop either “e” or “book” from whatever we call our reading material. At that point, no one will remember a time when we framed our at-screen experience in terms of books or any other non-electronic medium. At-screen experience will be framed solely on its own terms.

Instead of marveling at a book they can read without flipping pages, people will balk at the idea of a Web presence that doesn’t fulfill expectations they formed as a child: That anything encountered in digital space should be an entertaining experience. An experience, moreover, that one navigates and controls with the intuitive logic of a digital game.

Now, I’m not talking about the Second Life scenarios currently adopted by a handful of corporate conference centers. While that too-literal approach will surely find a following, the solution I seek lies elsewhere.

It’s where your audience lives.
It lies in a deep dive into the inner world of the game-raised, entertainment-fed species that makes up an ever-larger share of your audience. You’ll recognize that world as the home of the third or perhaps the fourth generation brought up to believe learning is fun—without the qualifying message that the fun results from the hard work involved.

It’s also a world inhabited by people adapted to the associative logic of the game, the liberating feeling that anything is possible—including infinite do-overs and limitless power-ups. And cynicism aside, this mindset’s most recognizable trait is that it enters digital space to do stuff.

People with this mindset want a digital experience with a distinct goal, whether it’s destroying the domiciles of egg-sucking pigs or busting up an evil cartel in a galaxy-spanning, post-human corporatocracy. A gamer mindset wants “powers,” abilities hard-won or innate, that make simply navigating the inner world of a game an adventure in its own right. But above all, the inner world of gamers is all and only about themselves.

Now compare this dopamine-drenched state to the experience delivered by your garden variety Web page, whose only mode of engagement is the phrase “Click here,” and its mutant offspring “Learn More” “Get the Facts,” “Find out…”

Even if your client has decided to spend the big bucks and ordered-up an interactive BMI calculator (wait for it to load) or a downloadable recipe widget—you’ll have to forgive me if I question the aptness of such a Web page for this emerging audience.

For it’s an audience, you must realize, with an average of 2–3 IM windows, a Newgrounds game, a Skype transmission and PopUrls vying for attention. Did 35 of your customer’s Facebook friends comment on a retweet of a comment on a bit.ly from @aplusk? You might not get that PDF downloaded after all. Unless, of course, you have something more seductive to offer.

What’s real is virtual. What’s virtual, real.
It’s time, that is, to stop whining about attention spans and stop devising academic theories of how people read Web pages. What’s needed is a way to present digital content that’s actually in line with the way an ever-larger swath of your audience is conditioned to absorb it. That is, through narrative continuity, an immersive design environment and the ability to interact in real time to shape onscreen events.

Not that it’s easy. For one thing, this new digital order will mean the death of Design School’s most treasured object: The box. I know, it’s hard to let go of old friends. It’s the same tug of the heart I felt the day I gave up my blanky.

But the rewards are enormous—in this case, a fully mature design environment for digital space. Integrated with social space, combining real-world responsiveness with the freedom of the infinite do-over, liberated from the tyranny of the wireframe and incorporating seamless transition to video feeds, it’s an environment destined to put the “home” back into “home page” precisely because it feels like a welcoming space.

Welcoming, I hasten to point out, to the people you’ll need to reach in the next nine decades.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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