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Games with a Day Job: Putting the Power of Games to Work

The ability of games to focus attention in a safe and pleasurable context also makes them the perfect tool for communicating information -- including advertising. If games become more widely accepted as useful tools as well as great toys, this is a good thing for all of us.

June 1, 2001

13 Min Read

Author: by Patrick Gardner

These days most discussion about computer game development, whether in Gamasutra or elsewhere, is focused on large-scale entertainment projects for the PC and console markets—FPSs, RPGs, publishers, polygon counts, and big, big budgets.

This is understandable as these games in many ways represent the forefront of both the entertainment and software industries. However, by focusing on high-end entertainment and excluding all else, we miss out on some valuable things other types of computer games have to show us. Worse, we may be holding games back from interesting roles they could play, and to a limited extent already are playing, in other areas of human experience.

Unique Capability = Unique Tool

We are all aware of computer games' special power to harness our imagination. If you are reading this article, chances are you have first-hand experience with the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers sensation of playing a well-made game. Hours, days, and (for a few who shall remain nameless) even weeks drift away in a pixilated haze of daunting obstacles, hard-won victories and the ever-elusive next level.

This is what makes the game publishing industry go 'round. Consumers pay lots of money for games precisely because they captivate and transport. But since published games are almost always self-contained experiences with no exterior goals or motives, their power to enchant is expended purely on the user's pleasure.

There is nothing wrong with this. Entertainment is one of the things that make life worth living. But we are missing something if we relegate games exclusively to the province of play, and dismiss their unique capabilities as good only for the occasional thrill. Specifically, we are overlooking the fact that games' ability to focus attention in a safe and pleasurable context also makes them the perfect tool for communicating information.

It is not exactly a new idea. From the earliest times play has been an important vehicle for learning as well as fun-a chance to test the effectiveness of life strategies away from the looming threat of death, the ultimate 'Game Over'. The fact that games can help us to absorb information, of whatever purpose and value, is clear. But so far this notion has had little real application beyond educational productions, where games are frequently used to convey new concepts and to hammer those concepts home through repetition. What about other forms of communication?

At my company, Houdini Digital Creations in Stockholm, Sweden, we create online experiences that put games' special power to work toward marketing goals.

We capitalize on the fact that good games have the ability to make people stop and listen. And in doing so we demonstrate that games are capable of supporting other economic models than that defining the publishing industry. Instead of saying "you pay me, and I'll give you a captivating experience," we propose a trade. We say "we'll give you this fun experience, and in return, you'll agree to learn a little bit about our client."

If we do our job right, the player, while always consenting, should hardly notice fulfilling his end of the bargain.

Games: A New Secret Weapon for Marketing

Big corporations are (quite reasonably) very protective of their brands. So why would a hardened marketing manager be willing to risk her brand and budget on a game when instead she could stick with tried and true formats like TV commercials, print brochures, billboards or even plain old websites? Games are for kids, right?

The truth is that, in this age of media saturation, well-crafted games have an important part to play in accomplishing the most critical task before any major corporation: breaking into the consumer's head.

Picture that head as a fortress. A fortress to make the Trojans envious with deep, onion-skinned defenses able to withstand decade long attacks by Madison Avenue legions and marketing-department hordes. But the fortress has a weakness: curiosity! Put something with genuine entertainment value before the gates and there is a very real possibility the consumer will roll down their drawbridge, if ever so briefly, to have a peek. "Hey look," they'll say, "it's a giant wooden horse!"

Are All Marketing Games Created Equal?

The difference between our horse and that offered by the Greeks is ours has to have lasting value if we're not to leave the target audience disappointed and sour (the Greeks did not care much about this point, naturally). Our 'transaction' must have more the character of a fair trade than a hostile takeover.

If the game ceases to be fun then it ceases to be a game. On the other hand, if our type of game does not communicate on target and message, then it is a waste of time for our client - the one who pays the bills. Unfortunately, at the moment there are hardly any games that accomplish both objectives.

There are, of course, more than a few games out there intended to market something. Most can be divided into two categories: let's call them giveaways and integral games. Giveaways are the interactive equivalent of the old-fashioned yo-yo with a company logo on it. They are usually small, arcade-style games - sometimes spinoffs of well-known classics like Tetris and Snake, sometimes original ideas - that have little or nothing to do with the brand in question (what does Pepsi have to do with Killer Robots, a game currently featured on their site?). 99% of all so-called marketing games are giveaways in one guise or another.

The problem with giveaways is that, while they are often fun, they do not realize the vision outlined above of employing games as unique communications tools. Instead they simply act as a lure, a piece of candy, usually intended to draw users to a corporate website. The hope being that once the users are done playing they will take the time to read what the company really wants them to know about or, better yet, give their address. Most often this hope is misplaced. When the candy is consumed the player moves on, having picked up little information in the process.

Integral games are a completely different breed. One that fulfills the dual requirements of being both fun and delivering a targeted and effective message. In an integral game the game experience is built around the brand, product, or service. In short, the message is the game. Integral games are much more challenging to create than giveaways, because they require an understanding of the principles of communication as well as those of game development. There are, as yet, relatively few examples of integral games to be found.

Ericsson Ground Zero: An Integral Game

To demonstrate what I mean when I say "the message is the game," I will take one of Houdini's latest productions, Ericsson Ground Zero, as an example. In Ground Zero, the player uses an Ericsson mobile telephone loaded with mobile Internet tools to compete in a futuristic citywide scavenger hunt. With only their phone to help them they must follow three clues to learn the secret location of Ground Zero.

Ericsson's goals for the production were to show off their new Mobile Positioning technology (which allows the mobile telephone to know where it is at all times, enabling a number of cool applications) and profile the Ericsson brand as visionary and leading-edge. The gameplay was designed to be relatively quick and simple, partly because it was to be delivered via the Internet and therefore needed to be small and partly because the target experience time was 10-15 minutes. But Ground Zero is a fun game in its own right at the same time as it is tightly integrated with Ericsson's products and messages.

The game looks so utterly different from the type of communication people normally expect from a technology company like Ericsson, it cannot help but attract attention. And in this case it is not merely a piece of candy. By playing a round of Ground Zero the average user will learn more about how Mobile Positioning technologies work than they are likely to do by reading a dozen articles on the subject, because here they actually get to give them a try. Since the experience is so tightly interwoven with the company's products, the excitement of playing the game sticks to Ericsson's brand rather than disappearing into thin air.

The result is a highly effective marketing experience and a fulfillment of the vision that games can also make good communications tools.

Who Cares?

So what? Who cares if some company sells more or less stuff? Games should be pure experiences without crass commercial ambitions, you say? Well, for one thing, nearly all games are commercial in one way or another, so let's just put that fantasy to rest right there. Either you pay with hard-earned money, or you pay with attention, but one way or another you almost always pay to play.

Still, why should you care if games make effective communications tools? If you are a marketer the issue is clear. Since it is increasingly tough to get your message across through traditional channels, smartly crafted marketing games offer a distinct competitive advantage.

If you are a developer or are otherwise enamored of games, the matter is more philosophical. Integral marketing games demonstrate that games are more flexible, multifaceted, and powerful than many otherwise might give them credit for being. If games become more widely accepted as useful tools as well as great toys, this is a good thing for all of us. By taking the time to consider and discuss other game applications besides pure entertainment, we might even have a hand in promoting this trend.


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