The Amazing Flexible Audience

Here is an idea. Recently I have been thinking about what makes things popular. There is this wide-spread belief that for a piece of work to be popular, it needs to be somehow streamlined. It needs to appeal to a wide audience. It needs to be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Usually this is mentioned together with concepts like sex, violence, explosions and bubble wrap. On the other hand subjects like art, science or philosophy are supposedly only for a very small, specific audience. And fair enough, you always imagine the football jock who watches something like Transformers 2 and the literature professor who watches something like The Fountain.

Transformers Fans

“Hey Megan, sign my PhD diploma!” “No, sign mine first!”

I would like to question this belief. My colleague Yu-Chung once mentioned an idea he got from a book (which one, Yu?). People tend to imagine the psyche of other people much more simplified than their own. People are comfortable to maintain very contradictory beliefs because they understand them as the subtle nuances of their complex personality. “Sure, I like Alanis Morissette and Rammstein” they would say. “It may seem weird at first but here is the thing…” On the other hand, when they construct a model of the psyche of a different person, they paint them in the broadest strokes, ignoring nuances and not expecting hidden depths. Like that one relative everybody had that somehow got the idea that you are fond of a particular thing – chocolate for example. They would continue to give you chocolate as presents over and over again. Not that you don’t like chocolate but you like other things too. In TV Tropes, this effect is called never living it down.

It’s the same thing with an audience. Just because the football jock watches Transformers, it doesn’t mean that he won’t enjoy American Beauty. Just because the literature professor watches The Fountain doesn’t mean he won’t enjoy Zoolander. People can have more than one interest. But even more importantly, people are flexible. They can see what kind of mindset is necessary to enjoy a piece of work and they can quickly acquire that mindset.

So when an audience watches a comedy it will be able to appreciate the humor. The same audience might watch a thriller and ignore humor completely, focusing on the suspense instead. It’s seems obvious. We aren’t robots after all. It’s a strategy to get the most from our entertainment. The result is that a piece of work will magically always have the audience it implies. So when a director makes a streamlined, shallow movie it’s no wonder that people that do show up seem to enjoy it BECAUSE it is shallow. That’s not the movie catering to their tastes. That’s the director superimposing a mindset on the audience.

I think that the flexibility of the audience is constantly underestimated. As I mentioned in my Kill Screen interview, I have the impression that especially game designers often make that mistake. In this case, the unrecognized flexibility of the audience reinforces that fallacy among game designers and obscures untapped potential. Let’s have more faith in our audience and explore how flexible they can be.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

8 responses to “The Amazing Flexible Audience”

  1. axcho

    Thank you for this reminder. Newly working for a casual game studio that dreams of hitting the mass market with a new Bejeweled or Diner Dash, this is something I’ve been thinking about lately.

    Watch where you’re swinging those links to TV Tropes, though! Those things are dangerous… ;)

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Seriously! You can spend ages in there. It’s like the Libo of the Internet.

      1. GhostLyrics

        damn TVTropes… everytime I get to that site I usually spend three or more hours reading there instead of working :(

  2. chuan_l

    I think its a huge shame that we don’t currently have the means or designs to involve [ or reflect ] more of people’s own life experiences in games. Perhaps its a problem with interaction, perhaps not. Either way mazes are getting us nowhere ..!

    – Chuan

  3. Yu-Chung Chen

    It was Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.

    In any case, this post reminds me of your Everybody is a Hardcore article. Good point!

  4. Yu-Chung Chen

    Hmm, I just tried to find the part in the book and couldn’t, so it might be totally wrong. Not that important but we want get the facts straight, don’t we?

  5. Yu-Chung Chen

    Ahh, third time is a charm. It was in The Design of Everyday Things. It’s about attribution of success and misfortunes. Norman claims that we tend to attribute other people’s success to the environment, and the own success to oneself. On the other hand, misfortunes were attributed the other way around. The logic would go like this: Other people fail or err because that’s their personality, but I fail because of all the complications I encountered during an action. Except when you fail to program a VCR. Yeah the book is so 1989.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      Sweet! Thats for looking it up! I could have sword it was Freakonomics. Also, not quite the way I remembered. :/


The Game Design Scrapbook is a second blog of group of three game designers from Germany. On our first blog, Game Design Reviews we describe some games we played and point out various interesting details. Unfortunately, we found out that we also need some place to collect quick and dirty ideas that pop into our minds. Hence, welcome to Game Design Scrapbook. You will encounter wild, random rantings. Many of then incoherent. Some of them maybe even in German. If you don't like it, you might enjoy Game Design Reviews more.


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