The Games We Play: Day One Reflections on #MDMC18

There are many things that make us all human, regardless of where we come from or what we believe or what we prefer in the way of pizza. I, for example, do not fully agree with the cracker-thin crust of St. Louis style pizza. I prefer the sort of thin-crust that’s served in the Chicagoland region or, in a pinch, a big triangle New York slice. But my preferences are 100% up for debate, and I can share a lot with another person without sharing this sense of taste. There are similar observations to be made about language or religion or any other number of things we use to divide ourselves. I refuse to make them in a blog about a marketing conference.

So, when I get ready to make a sweeping statement about something I believe we all have in common—and I mean all of us—understand that I know it’s a big and potentially clumsy thing to do. But whenever I go into a setting like a conference, where I’m forced to observe and interact with and learn from just a ridiculous amount of strangers in a strange place, I can’t help but think on this level. What patterns can I find in watching others, some just like me on a superficial level and some not so much, come together? What makes people, y’know, people?

I’ve only been at the Midwest Digital Marketing Conference for an evening of pre-parties and pre-party-after-parties, and a quick morning of just a few presentations. Even so, I’m ready to tell you, my reader, something new I’ve learned about what it means to be human: humans love to play games.

Some key examples:

Humans love to play poker when it isn’t their money on the table.

The speaker and VIP session Monday night was one of the most brilliantly planned conference networking events I’ve ever attended. First you wait in the tiny bar downstairs for a volunteer to type in a secret code and lead you up to the party. Then a nice lady offers you a green chip and tells you it’s worth $5,000 of completely fake money. Behind her is a blackjack table and a roulette wheel and a Texas Hold-Em table. You walk around there, then you notice there’s an open bar with a pour-it-yourself-from-the-keg-into-a-solo-cup setup. You take a few drinks, you say hi to whoever you make eye contact with first, you snag a few toasted ravioli from the food table, then you pop a squat at the poker table.

I’ve got to be honest: almost every part of the human writing this blog post hates networking events. I can’t ever shake the feeling that it’s like some adult form of a playdate. We stand around with our lanyards, we make small talk with people while trying to find that one “right person” to talk to who will hire us or introduce us to someone important. We snag the free drinks, and we leave ready for the comfort of silence. Or I do, anyway.

But when you give me a fancy green poker chip and a table and invite me to not only talk with the other speakers at this event, but to also try and steal their fake money, things change very quickly. Over the course of an hour and a half or so, I had a downright pleasant evening with perfect strangers. I played with people who had no reservations about upping the ante damn near every hand for no reason other than it was fun for him (I’m looking at you, Chris Strub). I got to know a player who quietly but confidently ran the whole table for a total winnings of $70,000 in fake money and t-shirt in the chip raffle. In the context of a game, I became comfortable with people I’d only just met, and felt a little more comfortable about the whole conference situation from the get-go.

Humans love to bowl, but they probably love to watch other humans bowl even more.

After the party, I left with my Metonymy Media partner in crime at this conference, Darcy Lee, to Ross Woods’ unofficial MDMC bowling party. Ross and I both hail from Indianapolis, and though our respective agencies have actually done some collaborative work in the past, this was my first chance to put a face with a name. At the poker table, Ross broadcasted a total lack of experience, but at the bowling alley, it was another show entirely. Ross came armed with the arsenal of someone who tells stories using video, and it was super fun to watch him turn a friendly bowling game into this own documentary with go-pros and fancy stabilizers and ring lights and a clear eye for capturing the spirit of a place.

As people rolled over from the first party to bowl, I noticed that Ross wasn’t the only person who was more interested in watching the game happen than playing the game himself. We all had a great time playing, and some were better than others, but it was clear that the most fun was to be had in cheering each other on. Or busting each others’ chops and throwing up the bumpers on certain players without telling them.

I can’t stress this enough: I am not good at networking. But when you play games with someone, it’s the easiest thing in the world to see them and to know them. Huge thanks to Ross for giving all of us who went bowling that opportunity.

Humans love to obsess over the games they play until the fun is gone—but there’s a reason to keep playing, anyway.

On the other side of the night, the conference proper got started with a keynote address from Dre Baldwin, a nine-year pro basketball veteran, author, and entrepreneur. I’m not going to try and recap his entire presentation, but I was struck by Dre’s message about what he calls the “Third Day” principle. Here’s how it goes: when you show up to start working out, you’ll feel great on the first day. You’ll be motivated to go back the second day, the same way you want to go out and drive a new car as much as you can. But on the third day, that’s when you learn who you really are. On day three, when you’re tired and bored and in pain, you’ll either show up—or you won’t.

Dre likened this to doing the work of a professional, whether that means you play basketball for a living, or you play in the digital marketing game. It’s always fun for me to start a new project, or sign a new client, or add a new service line to my agency’s offerings. But it’s also super easy for me when things aren’t new to just lose the fun and the challenge of my job. I start to get anxious about far-off, future possibilities instead of doing everything I can to show up, to play my role, and to up my game every day.

Humans play games because humans love to grow.

My first session at the conference was with my new friend Mitch Canter, who I met at the poker table and continued getting to know at the bowling alley. Mitch, by the way, is the guy who won $70,000 and totally owned our poker game. So I guess it makes sense that he was speaking on the concept of gamification and its role in modern marketing. Mitch gave me a convenient thread to tie together all of my experiences at the start of #MDMC18 as he talked about how everybody is at their core a gamer of some kind. Some of us play games for the thrill of the challenge. Others do it for the sake of exploration and immersion. Others value games for the social connection they bring, and others still see games as an easy route to fame.

When Mitch connected his experiences in gaming to some success stories of modern marketers, it felt strangely natural to see the connections. When you want something from somebody—in this case, you’re a marketer who wants to move someone online towards an action—why not tap into one of the most basic compulsions we all share to play a game? I may be oversimplifying it, but I think the same part of us that loves to play games is the part of us that knows that challenges lead to growth. It’s the part of us that wants to learn, wants to grow, and wants to connect with other people who are doing the same thing.


Of course, at the end of the day, this all matters to the part of me that’s a marketing professional because it’s so, so easy to get caught up in the robotic when it comes to digital marketing. Automations and workflows and remarketing tend to break people down into commodities; real humans with real needs and desires and motivations are so easily turned into “leads” to funnel along towards a sale. Always I’m working to remember what it was like to sit in a creative fiction workshop in college, wrapped up and mesmerized by the power my words might someday have to help me build a real connection with a reader I may never meet in person.

I’m projecting a bit of my own desires onto the rest of us here at the conference, maybe, but may we all as marketing professionals always remember that the code we work with to deliver our messaging is nothing more than a bridge we build from humans to other humans. Marketing is at its most successful when it isn’t designed to trick or dupe or mislead. It’s at its best when it looks the humanity of its creators right back in the face and says, “Hey, you know what’s fun? Playing games.” This doesn’t have to be complicated. Marketing doesn’t need to be epic or clever or complex. It can be as simple as indulging the part of you, the marketer, who would rather play a game with someone than to force a new corporate slogan into your blog post.

I encourage you to make a connection with somebody today. And if that’s difficult—and it can be so difficult—teach someone a new game. Within the structure that game builds for you, you may find it easier than you’d imagine to break through the noise and make a human connection. That’s what this is all about, right?

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