Games And Gift Culture

Games And Gift Culture

You may remember that Scottishgames recently introduced Steve Hammond into the fray as a guest columnist, giving you insightful and surprising tidbits into the Scottish game industry’s origins. We’ve also had the wonderful Phil Harris reporting from this year’s Edinburgh Interactive, reporting the gig like you were actually there!

Now we add a new guest writer into the mix. Introducing the gifted, forward thinking and ridiculously young Kraig Walker; formally of IGDA Scotland, who’s now packed in his time as a games student to carve is own path in the games industry.

We hope Kraig will become a regular contributor to the SG Network with his thoughts and musings on the business as a whole, hopefully sharing some useful ideas and techniques you could deploy on your next hit to propel yourself ahead of the curve.

When was the last time you gave away something as a gift? 

Maybe it was someone’s birthday, or they were leaving for a new job, or you bought someone a drink at a bar on a work night. Maybe it’s a little hard to come up with an example instantly, but I’m sure at some point, you’ve expressed generosity purely for the sake of expressing it.

Gift culture is hardwired into us as a people. From our early tribal days, the most powerful tribe leaders were not the ones who hoarded the most resources, but the ones who gave them away.

In return, the members of the tribe gave them power, their trust, their energy. None of these things are quantifiable – you can’t convert people’s trust into money – but they’re there, and harder to earn than any other form of currency.

Gifts, like any other transaction, involve giving and receiving. I should note that this point is lifted from Godin. If you already knew that, we should totally hook up together.

I’m pretty sure I’ve owed Lyall Bruce a drink for over a year now. I’m pretty sure I’m in debt to my friend Ian as well. I didn’t strike a bargain with them, there are no wordy contracts held with our solicitors. It’s just an unwritten sticky note I keep in my head. It was very nice of them to make the gesture, and at some point I’ll do the same.

No doubt you will have bee in a similar situation. Maybe not with bar tabs at conferences and parties, but maybe birthday presents, when your neighbor or relative feeds your dog when you go to GDC for a week  – that sort of stuff. Maybe when you get back, you’ll swing round with a bottle of something, or a card, or help out with their garden the next weekend.


Welcome to the Gift Economy.

True gifts are something that cannot be quantifiably repaid. Maybe your gift has a cash value somewhere, or it took so long to produce. Maybe someone stingy would be able to total things up then, but the true value is in the meaning and emotional impact it has on the recipient. Say you take your kid out to a race car track to see some amateur karting. Sure that can have cash value on it – petrol, ticket admissions, food – but what if that inspires them to pursue a career as a pit crew mechanic, or auto part development, or as the next young driving star? Can anyone put a cash value on inspiration?

The marketing world, and advertisers have long known the power of the gift economy.

If you give someone a free sample of your latest product with no commitment or strings attached to it, people will be grateful. If a shop owner throws in a free lollypop for your kid, you’re more likely to remember them and come again – not necessarily because of the free lollypop, but because of the gift of service.

But our very understanding of gifts has become warped over the recent decades. Gifts have been used to incentivize customers, to attract more users, and retain them for longer periods of time. The games industry has hooked on to this for a long time now. It started with demo discs, then trials, and DLC packs, then Free-to-Play took hold.

Through all of this, we know that there has never been such a thing as a “free meal.”

“Play this free demo to pass the time, if you like it, you can buy the full thing at the store, or subscribe to our magazine to get the next disc free as well.”

“Here’s this free game, if you like it, you can upgrade it to get rid of the ads we pasted over it.”

“This game is completely free. If you want to get better at it, there are in-game items you can buy to make it happen.”

Gamers have it drilled into them what free means. Free means limited. Free means temporary. Free means poor quality. Free means expensive.

Free-to-Play is Not a Gift

A true gift is something that can’t be repaid, and a true gift is something that cannot have it’s emotional value quantified into literal value.

What gifts has your company given to it’s customers recently? What do gifts even look like for game companies? And what’s the value to US anyway? What if there really were such a thing as a “free meal?”


  1. Its interesting too, to look a how our perceptions of things like gifts and ‘specials’ affect the value we place on our possessions. Stuart Wilde has some inspiring ideas about how the things we receive affect the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us.

    He says that if we buy things at a reduced prices, we are likely to value them less and thus value ourselves less too for owning them. While this sounds shallow at first, if you think of money as a purely energetic form of value being transmitted from one point of influence to another, it starts making a lot of sense.

    However, if we receive a gift, (depending on who gave us the gift and of course, provided it has at least some inherent value to us) we are probably likely to value it more.
    An example of this would be the nigh on 200 games I have on steam, most of which were bought on special and remain unplayed..This compared to a game I was first recommended and then recently gifted (once again over steam) which I have actually spent more time playing and enjoyed more than many games that I spent money on!

    Is this out of guilt that someone has spent money on me? Is this because I feel special that someone has expended their energy to make my life in some way better? Or is it maybe just that the person who gave it to me simply knew my tastes better than I do…

    Maybe I just like free meals 🙂

    I wander too how this all applies to the work done by open source and modding communities… Can their work be construed as a gift of sorts?

    Anyways, Great Article!

    Looking forward to part 2!!

  2. Pingback: Are Indie Devs Paralized By The Fear of Charging Money? | Kraig Walker

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