So, last week I was lucky enough to snaffle up a second-hand ticket to This Is Playful, a conference about play, innovation and games. It has a healthy dose of tech splodged all over it, which is great. If you weren’t able to go, this post won’t help you. I’m not about to re-do what other, better thinkers than I have already done. This post from Wired will give you the flavour of the day.

What I have been doing is thinking about many of the talks I heard and wondering how they might be applied to my day-job: advertising creative. Why? Well, I took a day off work to go, so if I can’t justify why it’s a worthy experience, I may not get to go next year – and take along some other creatives. Also, it’ll mean I didn’t pay attention.

Because it was hard not to pay attention, which is a good thing.

On the day, I learned about making bombs from balloons – and what that tells us about the human psyche; I learned about how the future is generally a let down; I learned that the rules governing BDSM can also be applied to other forms of play that require consent; and I learned that fictional data is not being created as much as perhaps it should. I learned some other stuff, but these are the half-baked ideas and themes that stuck in my head.

But advertising – how do these things apply?

Ah, the million dollar question. Let’s take them one step at a time.

1. Matt Ward’s talk about bombs was fascinating. It showed us how, given some simple tools, people will – if engaged – take things into their own hands and create something new from it. Here’s the video that Matt showed at Playful. He then told us about how people wanted to augment the experience – either by making it harder for their partners to complete or adding additional complexity. This showed me that, give people something simple to do and they’ll come back at you with something that’s increasingly creative. And, with the right set-up it’s reasonably easy to suspend people’s sense of disbelief.

2. The talk that preceded Matt Ward’s was by Marcus Brown. Well known for his online characters, he proceeded to explain why he felt the future to be a bit of a damp squib. Many were divided by his opinion.

What I took from it was that the future is rarely how you anticipate it to be, but it could be better if instead of doing a half-arsed job of creating something that is a poor execution of your idea and do a good job of doing something that’s genuinely different. This is a hard thing for advertising to do – being that borrowing/stealing ideas and presenting them as new is what the industry does well (or, taking niche things and bringing them into the mainstream, if you’d prefer). But what we can do well is create a future that’s not based upon our failed youth, or a poor interpretation of our own childhood dreams. Because, let’s face it, the advertising world is ruled by middle-aged men. So, if you’re going to go to all that trouble to create something you want people to engage with, go all out and make it the best it can be. And if you make it sufficiently different people will love it. Marcus will no doubt disagree with me. And at some point I’ll probably disagree with me too.

3. Consent. The world of online engagement is riddled with the need to have it, just as real life is. But I’d never considered how the rules of the fetishists might be applied to it – or, as one of the people I met said, how it applied to banking. I can see a number of shaking heads, but it’s all about risk (for banking) and the perception of ‘what’s in it for me’ (for engagement). Which is why, what turned out to be one of the best talks of the day was given by Georgina Voss. Her slides from the day are here.

Georgina explained, rather brilliantly, how the rules of a BDSM (and therefore games) require informed consent. And how expectations can lead to consent being given – or not. Getting people to involve themselves in websites, campaigns, ambient stunts, etc requires that barriers to entry are low. But how can you create something that, increasingly, requires consent – be it a cookie being accepted through to giving a Facebook application the necessary rights to post on your behalf. Or, if you’re in banking innovation, how attitudes to risk can be removed or lowered, or manipulated.

What I took away from this talk, when applied to advertising, is that consent will be given for most things if the user can make an informed choice. They will then go to share their experience with others if the outcome satisfied them. They will then come back and bring others with them. I also took this to mean that we shouldn’t lie to users, that we should ensure we give all the information upfront so that the decision they make is an informed one and therefore satisfaction will be more likely. Standard stuff, you might say? If so, why do platforms like Facebook get it so wrong so often?

Finally, the talk by Paul Rissen (preserved here) got me thinking about something related to the subject matter of the talk. It got me thinking about how fictional characters are slowly being squeezed from the web. As people are increasingly asked to provide real names and prove they are whom they say they are, the web becomes less of a playground and more of a repository for our thoughts, status updates and photographs. A bit one-dimensional. How can we use linked data and create a richer semantic web for the future?

I don’t think advertising has a role to play here, but we can do our bit with decent storytelling that blurs the line between real people and characters. Or better still, to create better stories that can then be extended to include bit-part characters, elaborate back stories and alike. Or just get back some simple storytelling into advertising. Yes, some are doing this; most are not.

In conclusion…

So, these are the half-baked thoughts I’ve had since Friday evening. I’m probably going to explore these further. But for now, that’s my take on the day. You may find some of the analogies about advertising a little weak. Okay, I’ll hold my hands up to that. I’m box ticking to some extent. But I do think parallels exist – and not just on the talks I’ve mentioned. Play in general is something important to consider in the digital now – and the future.

Why? Well, it helps to add a level of emotion to inanimate objects or virtual worlds. And emotional pull is something the (technological) future seems to always lack – or at least in the future I was promised. And maybe that’s exactly the reason why, some people at least, are still striving to make the future they dreamt of. Including me.

As an aside: just because I didn’t mention the other talks here, that’s not to say they weren’t interesting or of significance to me or my job. They were. I just haven’t given them as much thought.

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