The audience is made up of individual readers, listeners, viewers, players, etc., depending on the medium in question. Note that even when specific terms such as player or viewer are used, it should always be thought of in the context of a member of the audience, regardless of the exact medium.

Every member of the audience has characteristics that will affect how they engage with the elements of an experience:

  • Capabilities: A person's knowledge and skills. These will greatly affect what an experience can assume is already known, or what someone is already capable of, but can be changed during an experience.
  • Dispositions: A person's conscious and subconscious inclinations, preferences, biases, and prejudices. These are usually somewhat difficult to change during the course of an experience.
  • Motivations: All people are driven by five fundamental human motivations: autonomy, mastery, connection, novelty, and safety. Each can be more or less important to a given individual.

Gaining Capabilities

As an experience unfolds, even a non-interactive one, the audience will gain knowledge about the elements of the experience (which builds on top of the knowledge they already have). Characters are introduced, plot points occur, background is revealed, musical patterns are recognized, etc. The creator of the experience just has to make sure that the knowledge the audience needs is not revealed too quickly, is not too confusing, and that they do not introduce elements that can only be understood if the audience has knowledge that has not yet been revealed.

Interactive experiences have the unique feature of being able to teach the audience skills (or build on skills they already have) that they actually use during the experience. Skills must also be introduced gradually and the audience must be given a chance to master those skills before they are required to progress through the experience. To make sure this is done correctly, a progression chain can be created to map out the capabilities needed for the experience.

Changing Dispositions

The audience's dispositions are normally thought of as static. However, a well-crafted experience can actually change dispositions over time. For example, a simple preference could be changed by using elements that the audience does have a preference for (a cool visual style, good music, well-crafted challenges) to get them to experience something they don't have a preference for (a cathartic narrative, for example), but will actually find engaging once they get deeper in to it.

Deeply rooted dispositions are very hard to change, so the usual strategy is to cater to the audience, not to change them. This is generally necessary to reach the broadest possible audience. Being highly aware of the strong dispositions of the audience (that are applicable to the experience being made) will help ensure that parts of the experience do not fall flat in ways that could have been avoided. However, this does not mean an experience should always just cater to the audience. Some of the most powerful experiences are ones that deliberately set out to change the deeply ingrained dispositions of the audience, either overtly or covertly. This is difficult to do, and will usually limit the audience for the experience, but this is the way that "entertainment" experiences can have the most impact on an individual or even a society as a whole. Even if an individual is not actually changed during the experience, they can often be changed (even if only a little bit), after the experience has been finished. Just an individual gaining awareness of their own subconscious biases and prejudices (even if they do not change) can be a useful outcome.

Types of Motivations

When an individual interacts with the elements of an experience, the degree to which the individual's motivations are satisfied will determine how engaging that experience is. Each engagement type is driven by combinations of different motivations. Challenge and accomplishment are obviously driven a lot by mastery, fellowship and competition are driven a lot by connection, discovery is driven a lot by novelty, expression is driven a lot by autonomy, etc. However, any given sub-type of engagement could easily be related more or less to a particular motivation and have a different mix of motivations than another sub-type. When analyzing a particular experience (or part of an experience) it can be helpful to try looking through the lenses of both engagement and motivation, as either one could reveal insights the other could not.

  • Autonomy: the desire for agency, volition, spontaneity, and taking action
  • Mastery: the desire for improvement, efficacy, and competence
  • Connection: the desire for a meaningful relationship with others, even when antagonistic
  • Novelty: the desire for something new or different
  • Safety: the desire for physical, emotional, social, and psychological stability/security

It may seem a bit counter-intuitive that "safety" is a fundamental motivation, and yet games, movies, books, etc. are often about danger, death, horror, etc. However, these forms of entertainment are actually very safe, they just give the illusion of danger. This "safe" way to confront dangerous things is often very exciting, leading to directly to the engagement type of sensation (specifically excitation). In addition, the relief that occurs when overcoming or escaping danger (either directly in an interactive experience or vicariously in a non-interactive experience) can feel fantastic and motivate individuals to experience it again and again, which falls under the "safety" motivation.

The more an experience taps into these motivations, the higher the level of engagement can be, regardless of the exact type of engagement. If part of an experience is not engaging enough, figure out which motivations you could use to fix the problem. If one or more of these motivations is being used little or not at all, consider how you could add it (even a little bit can make a huge difference). Always ask which and how many of these motivations a given element of the experience satisfies. Satisfying multiple motivations at the same time is the difference between a great experience and good experience. Long-term engagement in particular needs to be driven by these motivations, and will not occur unless at least one, and usually two or three, of these motivations are being satisfied in a fairly deep way.

While the audience's motivations tend not to change rapidly, they can certainly fluctuate over the course of a long experience or need to be satisfied at different points during the experience. An experience that has particular segments or episodes that are targeted at particular motivations can keep a broader range of people engaged for longer periods of time. Alternating between satisfying different motivations can work well, just as alternating between engagement types can. In a long experience, the primary motivation often switches from novelty to mastery or connection as the newness of the experience wears off and mastering a game or connecting with characters becomes dominant. The core motivation can even drift from micro and macro scale motivation to meta scale motivation if the audience becomes part of the culture of the experience.

Multiple Audiences

Some experiences are engaged with in extremely different ways by different members of the audience. The strongest example of this is in a televised sport. The actual players are one audience (while simultaneously acting as components), while the fans watching the game are a completely different audience. The types of engagement experienced and the elements of the experience can be very different in each of these audiences. If an experience has multiple audiences, it will generally be much harder for it to be engaging for more than one audience.

Elements + Audience = Dynamics

Once the elements of an experience are engaged with by an audience, the actual dynamics of the experience can unfold.