The events industry was among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Organizations rapidly adopted remote working policies and platforms like Zoom for meetings, but these tools have struggled to fill the gap of missing trade shows and large-scale networking events.
And despite the promise of efficacy and rapid rollout of vaccines across the country, overall industry sentiment remains negative on physical events.
We don’t really know what the future holds for in-person events: how soon they will return or which destinations or activities will be deemed safe or appropriate.
What matters to event managers and the various stakeholders involved is maximizing the options currently at our disposal. It’s a design issue at heart, and video games can offer a few lessons in this regard.
Different event models
Attending an in-person event, which was the default not too long ago, was an experience we took for granted.
Participants got to mingle and enjoy informal, spontaneous, face-to-face interactions. Presenters and performers could connect with people from different fields or walks of life. Exhibitors and sponsors could easily engage audiences, creating a lasting brand impression with something as simple as a classy classy backdrop for photo-ops.
Many platforms have arisen to enable people to connect online, even before the pandemic. They’ve been developing for years and are mostly adequate for remote work. But they don’t replicate the spontaneity or scale of interactions at physical events.
Virtual events do offer advantages beyond addressing health and safety concerns during a pandemic. They greatly facilitate the registration and attendance process and tend to be cheaper, which opens up the possibility of free access or lower fees to draw in larger audiences.
For this reason, insiders predict that even though we’ll strive to return to physical events, virtual ones aren’t going away, and many will settle on a hybrid model combining both.
A design challenge
The real problem, though, is that few people are really tackling the events challenge on a design level.
Reflecting on the way we used to hold events should make that obvious. Organizers would choose specific destinations to lure you with the promise of travel and something different. There would be tie-ups with local suppliers and a chance for sponsors to connect with a new audience.
Moreover, some elements of the physical environment are inevitably lost when we transition to digital. Being in the same space at an in-person event gives you a mutual, shared reality with several possible anchors for small talk. You can also move seamlessly from one-on-ones to small group conversations to large-scale discussions and presenter talks.
If we neglect to design virtual experiences the same way, we’re falling prey to the common traps. ‘Zoom fatigue’ results from having multiple people effectively locked into the same space, forced to process each other’s audio-visual stimuli on a group scale.
Likewise, virtual event sponsors suffer from the lack of an on-site booth and personnel who can engage people. A virtual medium tends to be a less effective funnel, leading to lower ROI, marketing opportunities, and overall value on the sponsor’s side.
Using game design
When designing virtual experiences, event managers need to learn from those who do that stuff for a living: video game designers.
We’ve sought to replace physical events with virtual ones by replicating the obvious aspects: using video conferencing solutions, 3D ads, or even VR. Those are always going to be stopgap solutions unless we consider the unique needs and behaviors of attendees.
Game designers use the virtual environment to address those needs and influence those behaviors. They make the experience interactive, emotional, and empowering, not by equipping players with all the tools but only the ones that are necessary.
One example of how this can work in an actual event was offered at Roguelike Celebration 2020.
Instead of hosting their event on standard, ill-designed platforms, planners built their own based on game design principles. Due to logistics constraints, it was mostly text-based, but they successfully replicated the social aspect of events.
Borrowing from MMO design, attendees could navigate through rooms offering chat functionality and fun game activities while also narrowing down the number of people encountered. When it was time to watch the presentation, everybody could head to the theater just as they would in real life.
Such playful elements can only be offered by a bespoke platform. They encourage sociability by creating the potential for spontaneous interactions repeatedly over the course of the event.
There’s no tried-and-tested model yet for virtual events in the new normal. But if you truly want to do better than average, a custom-made platform using game design may be the way forward.