Fear and Longing in Game Marketing

I’m still digesting Game Zichermann and Joselin Linder’s book Game-Based Marketing. Not even twenty pages into the book, the unmentionable side of game marketing hits the fan:

According to Zichermann and Linder, frequent flyer programs “are particularly and extraordinarily powerful. They routinely cause players engaged in the game to make decisions that are counterintuitive to their well-being—and checkbook—in order to “level up.”

And the book then gives the ridiculously evil (but true) example of well-to-do people taking “mileage runs” (flights to destinations they do not want or need taken only to earn more points), despite the huge costs of air travel to the buyer and the environment.

Is the future of game marketing compelling people to do wasteful, absurdly unproductive things to gain points or a competitive edge in game marketing systems that basically pressgang customers into unwitting contract jobs, driving them to execute purchases, marketing, and PR tasks for relatively minor rewards?

It’s a joke that MMOG players are the only people who pay their employer (the game publisher) for the privilege of hour after hour of menial labor (referring to the grinds in most mainstream MMOs that happen once you are established and invested in the game). It seems that customers of products in many non-entertainment markets will join the grind soon enough, and maybe for far less entertainment value or personal benefit than MMOG players receive.

Games + Marketing = Persuasive Power Up

Anyone who knows the power of marketing already understands that persuasive marketing messages can change minds, spread ideas, and prompt actions.

The power of marketing can be used to promote things that are good for the audience or things that are bad for the audience but good for the person promoting the message (and every shade of mutual benefit in between those obvious extremes). Sometimes, the marketing message benefits the marketer more than the buyer or the seller of whatever is being promoted.

Although I love marketing and am deeply fascinated by it, there is a damn good reason consumers hate marketers and are suspicious of our intentions. We actively seek to manipulate their thoughts, feelings and actions by tapping their deepest desires and fears. What’s not to like, right?

So, here is the ethical dilemma with games in marketing: if television and print ads have the potential to be propaganda for war, racism, sexism, agism, sizeism, and [insert your most reviled ism here], imagine what an unscrupulous marketer can do with the power of game mechanics?

Recreational Games = Consensual Fun

Any gamer knows how a good game consumes you.

Often, this consumption is mutual: the gamer can’t get enough of the game, and the game can’t seem to get enough of the player’s time and attention (and money, in the case of games with ongoing subscription or micropayments). But because gaming is traditionally in the realm of entertainment and recreation, quitting the game is also often fairly trivial. Painful for certain people, but easily accomplished because there is no rational everyday situation that forces you to log back into World of Warcraft or start up a new D&D group. Either you want to do it, and knowingly participate in it, or you choose not to participate at this time.

The world of videogaming is optional, though powerful. You can avoid recreational gaming’s siren call, despite its impressive ability to manipulate our behavior and retain our interest at nearly irrational levels (it’s not uncommon for a gamer to grind achievements and game progress like it was their job).

Marketing Games = Pervasive, Hidden

The world of marketing is not optional; it’s pervasive and inescapable. I’m marketing to you right now. You don’t need to think about it, choose it, or even notice it. But I am marketing these ideas. We are all marketers when we communicate and present ourselves and our ideas. We all refer friends and family to products and services.

In the new world of always-on pervasive marketing games both conscious participants and oblivious participants are compelled to make “counterintuitive choices” (as Zichermann and Linder politely phrase it). Economists often talk about demand as if it is this natural force in the world, but everyone knows demand is crafted by marketers using the raw materials of people’s inner fear and longing. Human nature and survival does not demand fluff like ringtones or diamonds. Marketers ensure that people demand these things by creating markets, and so gaming too will be used to create demand for all sorts of products.

What effect do game mechanics have on the natural forces that keep market-based economies working well? Could a well-designed game encourage consumers to change markets in ways that are undesirable overall? How do we design games that contribute productively to a market, rather than distorting or detracting from natural market equilibriums?

Will the FTC respond to protect consumers from the intense draw of marketing games as gambling and affiliate marketing have both come under fire? Will there be a consumer backlash? And if so, will that backlash have a chilling effect on recreational gaming (optional games for entertainment)?

Conscious Consumer-Marketers

The conscious consumer-marketers have increasingly recognized their ability to get or retain something of perceived value for sharing stuff with others or simply doing what they’re told (for example: “login to Coke Rewards at least once every 90 days or you’ll lose your points” does nothing to provide real value to customers, it simply uses fear to coerce reward program participants to execute a desired behavior, increasing engagement with the brand (and inflating site metrics) at the expense of the customer’s time and energy).

Imagine what a drain on collective productivity it would create if even 20% of the brands we buy regularly demanded that level of participation and attention from us (on top of the energy and time to actually buy and use their product)? Would we consciously give that much of our time to rewards programs if there were many programs competing for our attention? It is possible that frequent flyer and credit card reward programs have enjoyed such great success, in part, because they are not competing with a reward program or game for every brand.

Remember the 1-to-1 marketing trend last decade and how, eventually, marketers had to admit they were maybe asking for too much from their customer relationships and coming off more like an annoying, desperate suitor who continually wants to be more-than-friends with customers? A 1-to-1 relationship between a customer and all the brands they buy is as untenable as participatory gaming between customers and all the brands they buy. Is the solution meta reward programs that simplify the customer relationship or would that divert the loyalty and business benefit to the meta reward program company rather than participating brands?

Marketers need to be careful not to start thinking of their customers (who pay the bills) as their employees who can be sent on quests to build website metrics or generate leads from friends and family for token rewards. It might work in the short-term, but once it catches on in a big way, it will become a major pain for consumers.

Oblivious Consumer-Marketers

I’ll visit the concept of the oblivious consumer-marketer in a later post, but it’s a really important, transformational trend in our culture right now. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and more conspire to make us all into PR independent contractors, marketing affiliates, and brand evangelists. And the scary part is that we might not even notice.

Ethics Checklist for Game Marketers

As I’ve spent the better part of the last 8 years researching, testing, and devising ways to apply game mechanics and interactive entertainment software to marketing (particularly in the adult entertainment industry), this ethical issue is always gnawing at the back of my mind. We know what games can make people do. We know what marketing can make people do. Both tap the fear and longing that lives deep inside of us, often in ways we do not fully appreciate while it is happening.

Here’s a short list of ethical issues to address when you’re leveraging the power of games for marketing:

  • Does this game collect too much personally identifiable information about individual players? Does your game really need to know your player’s full name, e-mail address, or phone number? If no, then don’t ask for it. Save the player time and save your company the responsibility of securing excess personal data.
  • Does this game give players privacy controls? This point is especially important if the game hooks into any part of a player’s online social graph.
  • Does this game always provide a reward when the player executes a desired action, or does it maintain participation based on fear and negative feedback alone? Is the player coming back to get something or to avoid losing something? Negative feedback might get results sometimes, but it wears on people and can build deep-seated resentment. Not exactly the kind of experience you want associated with your brand.
  • Does any part of this game offer a viable solution to a problem the player cares about? A marketing game can be a viable product in its own right, such as a charity contest that motivates fundraising while engaging the players in a competitive game that also solves a real-life problem the players care about.
  • Does this game encourage grinding or mistake sisyphean ordeals for gameplay? Are players pushed into repeatable busy-work or impossible challenges because your game mechanics are poorly designed or inadequately play-tested with no regard for balance or real player feedback?
  • Did you playtest this game and balance it from a player perspective (or hire someone who knows how to accomplish this)? Marketing games are not broadcast ad channels nor are they social media channels for conversations. They are game systems, which are notoriously easy to dream up (or copy) but very challenging to balance and execute well. It’s not enough to know what game mechanics to use; you need to know how to use them in a way that doesn’t leave your players upset that they wasted time actively playing.
  • Do you really understand the total cost of providing the rewards promoted in your game and can you deliver on the rewards promised to your players? I worked with one client who literally told me that it was fine to have a broken points-redemption system because at some point in the future, they could change the value of the points. Now this was a very simple program where xyz points = x cash rebate. Can you imagine the customer backlash if people played along, did what they were told, and saved up points to acquire x cash rebate… only to find the value of their points nerfed unceremoniously in the future? Please, please, please don’t do this. Design a rewards program that you can afford at any given volume of participants.
  • Does this game respect player’s limited time and energy? We all have families, significant others, jobs, errands, hobbies, and countless entertainment options. Time is more valuable than money (thought it’s very, very easy to convince people otherwise). We do our players and customers a grave disservice when we compell them to squander their time with us, whether it’s on a laborious, crappy shopping cart system or a laborious, crappy social networking game.

What ethical issues do you think game marketers should consider? Add a Comment

5 thoughts on “Fear and Longing in Game Marketing

  1. Interesting post. Linked in to this from the ReadWriteWeb posting on game mechanics. Currently investigating some sort of game mechanics for my startup and trying to figure out how I can work something in without force fitting it or having it look like an after thought, and without it simply being a pointless badge system, or point system with leaderboard while I still currently have no real rewards that could be linked to these systems.

    Any more insight you can offer / articles you can recommend to this point, or on this topic?


    1. There are a lot of good books and articles about effective game design, and others about effective marketing. But everything that’s out there for marketing games right now (that I’ve read) is more descriptive of what people are doing. There isn’t much that is prescriptive for a business owner trying to design their own marketing game systems. Generally, I think the game designers prefer you pay them to do the work rather than trying to distill the procedural and creative bits into something you can use to do it yourself. But it’s not because they’re protecting trade secrets, it’s because every business and product is unique. The market and player expectations are unique. It is very hard to lay out generalized guidelines that any business could use, and effective game design itself is a big enough topic (without adding in measurable performance marketing metrics and ARPU goals).

      Also we are in the infancy of and framing things like Loyalty Programs in the context of game design. That’s why we have so much awkward vocabulary in this part of the industry with people calling everything a “game mechanic” and trying to parse out the component systems and how to best apply them to get business results.

      I expect a lot of really valuable marketing game best practice and tutorial resources to come out in the next year. There’s already a lot of great stuff by people like Ian Bogost, but most of the really brilliant info that’s out there now is still very academic and a bit disorganized. You have to know what you’re looking for to really find all the pieces (honestly, it takes many years of studying game design, designing systems and testing/breaking/fixing them, before you realize how challenging game design is so there are not that many people outside of the games industry and game academics who can really break down and analyze how to use game mechanics effectively to create fun games, much less to apply those systems outside the realm of pure entertainment products). It’s one of those hybrid fields of study where you are always pulling in all this outside reference material because we’re ultimately dealing with human behavior and persuasion and there’s a lot of complexity there. Marketers and sales people deal in it too, but interactive marketing, particularly game systems, creates a whole new problem space.

      Right now I think Game Based Marketing is a great overview with a lot of good ideas to help business people picture the possibilities for games to strengthen their product or user experience design. But even that book is more of a survey of what’s out there and an argument in favor of using funware than it is a guidebook for how you can apply game mechanics to your business effectively. It does have good tips to set you off in the right direction though.

      Drop me a line if you’re interested in getting some specific ideas for your startup. I do free initial consults if people are just interested in getting some basic ideas and guidance. And if you’re serious about doing it yourself, I love doing design reviews. The most important thing you can do is test early (preferably before you spend time and money to build the system) and iterate. Getting design reviews from people in your target market is useful, as are reviews from game designers. A professional, experienced game designer is going to charge you a fair amount but you can get a good value by contacting serious game designers who are just starting out (students at the design programs, etc.). At that level, a lot of people are just trying to build their portfolio and would gladly take the experience and positive testimonial to review your game system plan.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Kelly

    I recently found your blog having just decided to focus my marketing business around the psychology of influence and persuasion and the “game-ification” layer it seems possible to add to that.

    I’d definitely like to build up a rapport with you as I develop my business here in New Zealand and Australia – with a view to seeking your professional help perhaps at some point. I particularly appreciate your balanced views and criticism of those folks who in effect trivialize the difficulty of using games for marketing effectively. It seems like an awesome opportunity – yet a lot more to it as you say than adding points and leaderboards everywhere.

    In the meantime, I have a question. Have you looked at http://www.bunchball.com. If you have, what’s your opinion about its usefulness as a toolkit for marketing “game-ification”. Also, do you know of any other similar tools – probably in stealth mode as I have looked around and not found any yet…



    1. Ian, I have only visited the Bunchball website and I follow them on twitter now. But I am fairly unfamiliar with their product (as it is a commercial offering that does a lot of what I would probably do in a very different way using the tools I like to develop with) but it would probably be good to contact them and get more information or see a demo. I like to see what other people are doing so I can refer people to the best products for their situation. Bunchball seems more appropriate for companies with projects of a certain size/scope that is typically larger than the types of projects I like to work on. If you browse their client list, it seems that they focus on larger clients but I can see their offering being helpful to a startup or small/med size business with a major marketing game initiative.

      There are a lot of game kit tools for creating indie and entertainment games but I am not familiar with a lot of game kits focused on marketing or business outcomes. Bunchball might be the only one I’ve seen that packages that service as a platform, but I’m sure there are other people coming to that conclusion now that gameification is the hot trend in marketing. A day doesn’t go by without me seeing some kind of “game mechanics in marketing or web design” article so I do expect to see more software solutions that sound very “turn-key” even though there obviously needs to be a lot of integration points for it to work with anyone’s website or app. I think there is a market for utilities to plug game mechanic features (with user config options) into popular CMS platforms like WordPress and Joomla too.

      Feel free to get in touch with me at my gmail/gtalk (firstname.lastname@gmail.com) or twitter. It’s great that you are focusing on this area since there seems to be a big boom in progress. 😉

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