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Advergaming: Life’s a game and then you buy?

22nd Mar 2012
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How can a business derive benefit from a foray into gaming? Andy Dean explores.

As I peer over my partner’s shoulder to see why I still can’t use the iPad, I see that she’s utterly engrossed by a game: Coin Dozer. It’s a tablet version of the old seaside arcade game where you drop coins through a slot onto a series of moving shelves in the vain hope that they will shove their fruitless brothers and sisters onto the next shelf and, eventually, into your desperate hands.
I watch her, transfixed, as she urges her virtual coins over the digital edge, until she wakes me from my state with an excited yelp: “I’ve won a green bear,” she exclaims. She is very happy. Of course, she hasn’t won anything at all, just a bunch of pixels in the shape of a bear, but it seems to do the trick - she is bursting with triumphant energy.
She isn't just playing a game for the satisfaction of simply completing it; nor is she playing in order to last longer than an adversary, she is playing for gain. And it makes me wonder whether she really thinks she is winning something or is she, in fact, substituting a real experience with a make-believe feeling – she is certainly behaving as though it was a real win.
The name of the game
Gaming is everywhere, and computer games have been out-performing Hollywood for around three years now. Research firm Ovum records a 16% year-on-year revenue increase in digital gaming during 2011 to $24 billion and forecasts an increase to $53 billion in 2016, thanks, in no small part, to mobile and social gaming. The marketers and advertisers have never been shy of going where the money is; after all, that’s where the consumers are. And, in order to own it, have invented yet another inelegant compound verb: ‘advergaming’.
To understand this a little better, let’s look at the three main flavours of advergames. Firstly, there are sponsored games – these have nothing to do with the advertiser, aside from audience fit, and the brand simply pays to have its name on an existing game. The second is a game created specifically to promote a brand or product – Barclaycard’s Waterslide TV advert tie-in iPhone game, for example, which became the most popular free branded advertising game in the history of the iTunes app store within 13 days of its release back in 2009.

The third is the type of game created around a business or product function, an activity that is created to increase user engagement and purchase frequency by demonstrating brand attributes. Qantas has one of a slew of frequent flyer apps that encourage both frequent app engagement and frequent purchase. This is, arguably, more ‘gamification’ (yes, another newly minted term) than advergaming, but the boundaries are blurred.

Playing the game
Any old game will do, then? Of course not! A good game can be very effective at providing entertainment and engagement, but only in the game itself; it won’t necessarily change perceptions. If Tesco, for example, brought out the best flight simulator game ever, people would play it in their droves – because it’s a great game and it’s free. Not because it’s from Tesco… rather despite its provenance. Qantas, on the other hand, would be able to weave in some business alignment, a reason to drive people to purchase (or at least increase brand awareness and affinity), and derive real benefit.
So – how does a business derive benefit from a foray into gaming? Firstly, understanding the motivations behind gaming are key; in particular, the idea of reward. Rewarding achievement changes in attitude and, subsequently, behaviour. This is fairly basic psychology: we use it on dogs, children, sports people, employees… all sorts of people, dishing out treats, permissions, trophies and promotions as incentives and compensations. And the same applies when offering virtual rewards - Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert notes that real feelings of satisfaction are the same as simulated feelings of satisfaction, the brain cannot tell the difference. The brain rewards our achievements with a release of endorphins, regardless of the apparent tangibility of the reward.
Applying this kind of game thinking is having a profound effect across business, the sciences and government. The ‘Fold It’ project, for example, aims to find cures for diseases such as Aids, Cancer and Alzheimer’s through puzzle-solving - no small feat! In September 2011 the Foldit players used human intuition to solve an enzyme structure problem which had been befuddling researchers for ten years; and they did it just a few days. This has potential, as reported on the BBC, to pave the way for the development of anti-Aids drugs.
Siemens has created PlantVille as a fun way to engage customers, employees, prospects, and students and it has 20,000 users in 150 countries, each one learning about the advantage Siemens can bring, simply by playing a game. In November 2011, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), a United States Government Office, announced the Sirius Program which aims to create ‘serious games’ to help with training and assess its US intelligence officers. This is a serious business.
Game on
Our brains are hardwired to respond to games – it’s part of the way we adapt and learn. A 2010 publication, written by Chris Bateman and Lennart E. Nacke of the University of Saskatchewan, connects neurobiological perspectives with models of play, which construct superior player satisfaction models built upon biological foundations. In short, understanding game play is a science, which uncovers behaviour and reaction to stimulation that could prove invaluable to those brands developing new forms of consumer engagement.
The gamification of marketing – whether it’s an advergame or a marketing campaign - is gathering pace (VW’s ‘Fun Theory’ is a perfect example). It is also demonstrating deep levels of engagement, with Yahoo’s Bus Stop Derby seeing 100,000 people play over two months whilst waiting for their buses.
This presents a significant change in marketing thinking – but it’s not an easy win. As with many new forms of marketing, it will be starting to tire by the time it is mainstream, but it will take a long time to get there. Only the clever brands will implement it at first. But don’t just dive in – you may know your demographics and even your technographics, but do you know your target’s gamer type? You’ll need to: knowing your killers from your explorers makes all the difference.

Andy Dean is future trends and innovation consultant at Amaze.

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