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On experience

April 14, 2013 ・ Blog

The first time I heard ’experience’ used in earnest as a marketing term was during a trip to Microsoft’s Redmond HQ in 2008. Very much in earnest, in fact - I was there to see New Xbox Experience, which is what Microsoft was calling its new Xbox 360 dashboard design.

New Xbox Experience. This was no mere update. Microsoft was fashioning something that would touch every user and shape their entire conception of the Xbox 360. Which is kind of true, in the sense that Microsoft put out a redesign that’s between mildly and seriously annoyed everyone who’s ever used it since. That’s because NXE was not really focused on improving the experience of its users. It was actually mostly about pushing Xbox Live Marketplace content and advertising at them.

This is the modern interpretation of ’experience’: throwing stuff at people, whether they like it or not. And it’s a term that has now propagated throughout the game industry, used to describe entire games or parts of them.

There’s that time 2K Sports extended the “NBA® 2K13 Experience with NBA 2K Everywhere”. The Battlefield Premium Edition is “the ultimate Battlefield 3 experience”. WWE ‘12 was “the WWE experience you’ve been demanding”.

Experience is also readily applied to gaming paraphernalia. Origin for Mac offers “the same Origin experience and features that define our PC app”. Nvidia GeForce Experience is a program that applies optimal graphics settings in games to suit your PC’s specifications. That’s if by ‘optimal’ Nvidia means ‘a bit janky’. And there’s Sony’s Xperia PLAY Experience Pack, which is a charging dock, USB cable and three Android games. Experience that slight convenience, punters.

Sometimes, the word leaks unbidden into journalists’ lexicons. To pick a couple at random, “EA reveals ‘single identity’ cross-platform gaming experience”, trumpeted Mike Schramm of Origin’s triumphal completion. “Crytek CEO Says Graphics Are 60% of Crysis Experience” reasoned Jonathan “JohnnyBigBoss” Leack. In neither case did the story’s source reference the word.

Experience is also everywhere else in tech. Here’s Daring Fireball’s John Gruber on (what else?) Apple:

What is Apple at heart: a software company, or hardware company? This is a perennial question. The truth, of course, is that Apple is neither. Apple is an experience company. That they create both hardware and software is part of creating the entire product experience.

Back to Microsoft, Windows Vista’s transparency-based Aero theme introduced the Windows Experience, which gives a technical rating for your PC that showed whether it would run Vista nicely (probably not: this is ’experience’ in the sense of whether you’d feel constant rage or not).

And it’s in film, especially in the marketing flapping around 3D and hi-def formats. Get a load of Jake Hamilton of Fox TV’s critique of the Titanic 3D re-release: “Experience one of the greatest films of all time like you’ve never seen it before!” And you don’t watch IMAX films, you have The IMAX Experience.

Sometimes you get to smoosh Microsoft and film marketing together and experience the lurching chimera of the “The Dark Knight Rises experience on Xbox SmartGlass”. Which is mostly quotes and trivia you could Google.

Is all this really about our actual experience? Hang on, what on Earth is experience, anyway? Something formlessly personal? A sort of emotional engagement? I suspect marketing people would hungrily contend that it absolutely is. Can you package an experience up and boot it into someone’s life with a £10 price tag?

‘Experience’ is being cheapened through its association with stuff you don’t really want or need, but there’s another problem with the term. It’s really hard to think of an alternative way of describing what someone goes through while playing a game, using a device or watching a film. Just look at the number of times Gabe Newell says ’experience’ to the BBC here. Gabe’s no stranger to crappy buzzwords, but he’s not grasping at marketing half-truths.

I suspect something as fundamental as our emotional response to what we perceive around us is getting debased in all this. All apparently because companies can’t figure out how better to sell stuff that has no definitive value. Bit of a shame, that.