Postcard from GDC 2005: Serious Games Summit: Advergaming for Private and Public Interests

The first session after the keynote at the Serious Games track at GDC 2005 was Ian Bogost's look at advergaming, proposing that a "third way" between the two main types of advertising could give rise to useful applications in the serious games sphere.

Ian Bogost

The first session after the keynote on the Serious Games track at GDC 2005 was Ian Bogost's look at advergaming, a subject which he admitted, in his introduction, isn't the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to games that deal with serious issues. However, by drawing lines between the basic purpose of advergaming and the basic purposes of serious games, Bogost, a Professor in the Information Design & Technology program at Georgia Institute of Technology, and the founder of developer Persuasive Games, as well as co-creator of the popular Water Cooler Games website, proposed that a "third way" between the two main types of advertising could give rise to useful applications in the serious games sphere.

"We can understand advertising here to refer to media communications in general," Bogost said. "This doesn't need to just be product advertising. When you start to open up the term, you start to include things like social advocacy and public policy and politics."

Bogost outlined four categories of advergaming: standard games as a platform for advertising (The Sims, Tony Hawk Underground, Super Monkey Ball), games that are part of a larger cross-media strategy (Spider-Man 2, Playboy: The Mansion, CoCo Ichibanya), custom-built advergames (Jeep Mountain Madness, America's Army), and "edge cases, games that seem to participate in advertising, but don't really participate," such as the Pizza Hut macro in EverQuest II or the Pepsi-branded Nintendo DS available in Japan. "Then there's something like Virtual Magic Kingdom, where Disney is launching a virtual world representation of Disneyland . If you can unwrap the onion and get to the bottom of where advertising stops here," Bogost joked, "talk to me afterward."

After defining his terms, Bogost then introduced the possibilities of advergaming by defining the two main types: demonstrative, which provides direct information and reveals the use of a product or service; and associative, which provides indirect information and correlates the product with an activity or lifestyle. "It's in this distinction that we see where advertising games are in a glut, and we end up with another snowboard game. 'We want to get young kids, young kids like sports, extreme sports are cool, let's make a snowboard game.'"

The fallacy of relying on quantitative measurement in advergaming, according to Bogost, is that executives "see these statistics, like games are growing 25% a year, and online gamers play 13 hours a week on average -- that's all well and good, but what does that have to do with advertising? Does that automatically mean games are good for advertising? No. Despite the whole history of interactive advertising in general, we just don't make these impulsve decisions in general. The Jeep game ... I've given you a hook to go into the dealership, and then what? The world is more complicated than point of purchase displays."

Another useless approach, according to Bogost, is games that shoehorn some sort of branding or theme into an unrelated genre. Using the Rainforest Foundation-funded Raiders of the Lost Bark as an example, he noted that "It's basically a platform game where you move the monkey around and dodge flying chainsaws. The core message, which is about deforestation, is radically lost." As an alternative, Bogost cited one of his own games, created to highlight a political candidate's views on medical malpractice. "In this game, your goal is to increase health in society, and to do that you have to send citizens to doctors, but doctors may leave because of predispositions. You can change the policy, and you can't do well unless you change the policy to the sponsoring candidate's notions on medical malpractice. Do they have to agree with it? No, but they understand it in a way they might not otherwise."

Rainforest Foundation's Raiders of the Lost Bark

Another contrast came from different minigames advertising beverages: a Tony Hawk-style skateboarding game that requires players to grab bottles of Mountain Dew to continue playing got faint praise. "We know MD is highly caffeinated, so it starts to make sense. But it's meaningless -- what's the difference between MD and Dr. Pepper? You don't find out in this game." A game for J2O, a British club drink, however, which challenges the player looking down at a toilet not to miss the bowl with their stream of urine, was better-designed, since the point of the drink is help late-night clubbers pace their drinking better. "You don't actually know you're drunk until you get to the bathroom. So that's the context for the game. This is embodying the experience of this product in a way that the Mountain Dew game isn't."

After delineating the difference between effective and ineffective advergaming, Bogost gave aspiring developers some tips and horror stories about dealing with the layers of handlers surrounding properties. "If you compare all these intersecting people -- game developer, web agency, ad agency, sweepstakes agency, and brand managers -- with the standard developer/publisher relationship ... we see that it gets pretty squirrely. Worse, all of these groups of people have extremely big egos."

Bogost had a list of criticisms about all groups, including game developers, from which he hoped they could learn what not to do. Game developers "don't understand advertising. They don't think about distribution as a design strategy. When you're building something to be distributed on a CD, that's different than something given away free online. We think of the game as an end in itself, and we're impatient and easily frustrated when we're put at the position at the bottom of the hill." His most important advice for developers: "Avoid ad agencies if possible," in favor of dealing with the brand managers.

Before opening up to audience questions, he concluded, "We have serious games on the one hand, about education, training, healthcare, and public policy, while advergames tend to be about commerce, marketing, politicking, and profiteering. Maybe there's a way to understand them together in a productive way; advergames offer experiences of a product, service, message, or idea. They invite the player to experiment, judge, and question. The J2O game causes you to be aware of a certain social practice, there's a richness of communication there that's much broader than being a drunk running around a club picking up drinks to continue."

CoCo Ichibanya

The biggest question in the audience was how to effectively measure the success of an advergaming campaign, if not quantitatively. Bogost answered by citing his game for the Howard Dean campaign for president, launched shortly before the Iowa primaries. "We made this game in December 2003, about five weeks before Iowa , which was the end of the Dean campaign. We were lucky to have a forum to watch people's conversations, and I noticed people saying 'Well, okay, that's interesting, but it's concerning that Dean continues to spend his time talking about the politics of campaigning and something more about the politics. I'm someone who might vote for him, but all I know is that he's talking metadiscursively about a new campaign process, and not much about the issues'." Bogost suggested that those who use advergames look at user narratives and feedback if possible, rather than user numbers.

A last question about whether it was possible for developers with high-end game experience, such as console or PC games, to move into advergame development, was met with encouragement. "We see a lot of this product placement stuff, such as Massive Inc., who's been very aggressive about building a network for placing ads. But look at a game like [licensed Japanese curry restaurant simulator] CoCo Ichibanya -- I mean really look at it, buy a Japanese PS2 and play it -- it's not as sophisticated as some console games, but it's very interesting. There's a lot of opportunity to create games around experiences that haven't been recreated in games anyway. I think there are opportunities here."


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