Category Archives: E-Business

The Gamish Inquinnsition

In all the recent debate about conflicts of interest between the gaming press and indie game developers, I would guess that no more than 25% of the participating debaters are genuinely interested in journalism ethics. My reasoning? Linguistic subtleties:

Word choice is the body language of the interwebs.
Word choice is the body language of the interwebs.

Another 60% of people in this conversation can easily be sorted into 2-4 teams, each vehemently defending their own in this year’s Butthurt Biathalon, a lesser-known social justice event held in the Oppression Olympics off-season. Another 10% are just there with popcorn and the occasional snarky comment.

An unacceptably large 2% are hell-bent on harassing, threatening, and abusing people because they hate women, hate people who hate women, hate women who hate women, hate people who pretend to be women (hating women), or hated Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (and are VERY confused right now).

And 3% are game developers, publishers, writers, reviewers, and other folks trying to balance the awkwardness of wanting to participate in this conversation (because we are also mad, sad, and opinionated) with the reality that we are damned if we convey support to any person, group, hashtag, or idea in this particularly ugly gaming family feud.

Sure, Jane Doe and John Cougars-should-rape-you-feminist-scum can safely participate in the discussion behind their cute internet pseudo-anonymity, but some of us work here.

How can I participate in a conversation this gnarly when the entire career of an indie game developer today is made or broken by social capital or lack thereof? Well, I guess it helps that I don’t give 2 fucks. Or wait… I DO…

Fuck Abusive Internet Harassers And Fuck Social Justice Profiteers

I am pissed about the disgusting harassment and threats against Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and others. Campaigns of abuse and harassment against any human being is deplorable and totally inexcusable.

I’m also annoyed that social justice warriors are tripping over themselves to condemn as “abuse and harassment” almost any criticism of the personal or professional conduct of public figures like Quinn and Sarkeesian. An inability to separately evaluate various facets of a subject demonstrates poor critical thinking no matter how you try to spin it. For instance, I can agree with the vast majority of Sarkeesian’s feminist analysis of sexist tropes in games while also criticizing particular fallacies in her arguments WHILE ALSO defending her from inhumane, savage threats and harassment. Nuanced opinions: they’re a real thing. Google it.

I do not agree with what you have to say, and believe you to be a supreme shitlord, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. – Voltaire

However, I also hate how people are taking condemnations of harassment and abuse against Quinn as blanket statements of support for her as a person and a creator.

When self-appointed moral crusaders are not walking their own talk, I want it exposed. I appreciate whistle-blowers. Transparency allows the public to review the claims and evidence and come to their own, sometimes hilariously batshit, conclusions, but only if allegations and evidence come to light. Also, much of the judgment people pass is not based on the mistakes public figures make but HOW THEY RESPOND when the shit hits the fan (which never happens if nobody goes public). It’s not ethical to take the moral high road when the low road is closed because you flooded it with a raging river of your unethical shit.

Quinn routinely promotes herself as social justice ally, yet she violated the explicit terms of sexual consent she herself established with her sex partner, then discouraged her partner from telling people because she feels she is personally too important to gaming. In fact she described herself as one of the “only strong voices for equality” in games, then she iced that self-important shitcake with manipulative emotional abuse like threatening self harm to elicit guilt and support from a person she abused… classic domestic abuse tactics that survivors should recognize and condemn regardless of the perp’s gender, sex, or SJW messianic complex. It is totally possible to be both financially poor and a profiteer. Quinn is profiting in terms of social capital, status and reputation—which probably mean more to her than money since she works on so many projects with non-commercial goals.

I have no sympathy for people who prominently promote themselves as brave social justice fighters, and climb up on a pedestal KNOWING they are now a public figure representing important causes, then claim that whatever they do in their private life is nobody’s business. If you are a public person basing your reputation on ethical claims, then yes, your personal conduct will most certainly be subject to ethical inquiries. These social justice profiteers know ideological opponents are watching them, looking for ammunition to argue against them, not just as individuals, but as proxies for entire movements. DO NOT take up a mantle like that if you CAN NOT walk your own talk. And if you do mess up, please do effective damage control to save not only your face, but the reputation of the causes on which you have built your professional, public reputation.

And no, for a feminist, playing the helpless victim card and letting obnoxious white knights fight for your honor like you’re the proverbial princess in the castle, is not an acceptable alternative to spinning your personal shortcomings into a productive dialog about important issues, like, for example, how to negotiate and re-negotiate sexual consent in a relationship so everyone can meet their needs. Whether someone requires monogamy to accept the risk of unprotected sex or whether they require an unconditional free pass to sleep with other people whenever they like, it’s all good, but only if everyone involved is aware and consenting.

Depressingly Few People Talked About the Consent Issue

The first I heard of Zoe Quinn was when she was promoting Depression Quest with a tacky tie-in to Robin Williams’ suicide. As a marketer, that’s gross (yes, I am aware she was conflicted over it, and I suspect the overzealous press coverage made her decision look worse than it would have if she had truly released the game quietly by refusing to do promotional media interviews).

Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys thinking "That's Greasy"
Me watching Depression Quest promotional articles ride the coattails of a beloved celebrity’s tragic suicide.

As someone who has been eligible (though not always collecting) social security disability most of my life for dysthymia with bonus major depression and post-partum depression at various points, who fights the good fight every day, I would much rather see one particular experience of depression represented as a specific character in a broader, better developed narrative. Presenting a game as “about depression” rather than about an interesting and capable human being who happens to have depression implies that 1) depression defines people who live with it, and 2) there is a universal experience of depression that is sufficiently common to teach the reality of the condition to people who don’t have it.

Game developers and press need to be careful when they promote games about exploring (and teaching) specific experiences of marginalized groups without clearly binding the game experience to a well-rounded character with other traits and identifiable context (clearer socio-economic markers, hobbies, etc.) to understand that this is one person experiencing depression, not this is what depression feels like, full stop. At least it didn’t teach people that having a period was as crazy gross and unmanageable as this story implies.

For example, medication is not a common part of living with depression, especially outside countries with aggressive psycho-pharmaceutical industries, but it feels like an essential aspect of managing depression in Depression Quest.

Depression Quest felt like it would make a great propaganda game to encourage people to accept expensive therapy and medication as the best treatments for depression.

People could play it while on involuntary 72-hour hold at the psych ward until they comply with the recommendations of a random psychiatrist they didn’t choose and just met.

Maybe I just couldn’t immerse myself in the melodramatic piano (the intro to the game insisted I turn on my speakers so I was expecting… something else). Maybe my first play through just ended with too much of a cliff-hanger (someone offered me the number of their mom’s therapist and then… nothing else). Who knows, it just struck me as over-reaching and quickly executed (endless exposition, the lazy designer’s polaroid print photo motif (though I guess that does establish the time period you are in), and jumbly writing (“You’d like to be doing more with your life, as would your parents”)) . I’ve played much more entertaining games that better modeled the sisyphean ordeal I experience living with depression (most recently pubs in Dota 2: feeling like I don’t even want to leave the base again, it’s futile, we’re fucked, 1 person is always disconnected, 2 people never speak English, what’s the point, gg *leave game*, when it gets really bad have ideation of deleting Dota, talk it out, self-medicate, pick again).

There was one thing I really liked though. I appreciated that Depression Quest managed to become another critically-acclaimed interactive fiction dealing with serious issues WITHOUT the player finding even one super-convenient journal entry or uncannily relevant bit of graffiti (like, I get that it’s easier to tell than show, so you can take a tricky bit of backstory or foreshadowing and have one of the characters write it on a leaf of paper or wall but you gotta admit that’s really fucking lazy).

So, yeah, I was not a Quinn fan based on my extremely limited exposure to her work before the Quinnspiracy media circus erupted. But I also was not prejudiced against her. I liked her bio and personal site. I thought she was a kindred progressive, and we both seemed exceptionally interested in Gary Busey’s face.

I can only guess that if I had liked Quinn’s games more, I would be able to understand why pretty much everyone in gaming has been defending her unconditionally.

Even in the face of some extremely gross accusations (replete with corroborating screenshots, that could be doctored, but I have no reason to believe that they were).

Speaking of defenders, this was the most chivalrous white knighting I have ever seen:

White Knight badass, yes, even for Anna Anthropy (wtf with singling her out in the list)
White Knight badass, yes, even for Anna Anthropy (wtf with singling her out in the list)

I Believe You, It’s Not Your Fault

Cut to the sordid posts by Quinn’s ex Eron Gjoni. It’s a train wreck, yeah. But I came of internet age when LiveJournal was in full swing. Some people like to spill their guts online, and other people like to read it. The system works.

My main reaction was that I was glad men like Gjoni are willing to speak publicly about abusive relationships (not in a whiny MRA way that hijacks and derails feminist conversations, but as a legitimate other conversation that people who care about domestic abuse also need to be having). There is much more public discussion of male-on-female abuse because our criminal justice system (rightly) only prosecutes violent abusers (emotional abusers and people who only violate a relationship’s terms of consent in non-violent ways are not subject to legal inquiries, nor do I believe they should be).

That means the majority of partner abuse (between any genders) is happening well outside the criminal justice system we rely on to punish people who violate us in traumatic, personal ways that impact our physical and mental safety.

The only justice anyone can seek after an abusive but non-criminal violation of sexual consent is social validation (unless you’re violated by a controversial person in Sweden). We can only tell our friends and family, and hope people believe us, validate our feelings, and help us heal. Wanting the world to know your ex treated you like shit, and is in fact a shitty person sometimes, is a very normal way to feel. For most of us though, we are private people that the general public neither knows nor cares about so the stakes are a lot lower if we overshare online.

That Gjoni chose to make his story very public reflects the fact that Quinn lives her life more publicly than most. She is a publicity-friendly developer who once participated in the failed pilot for a television series about indie game jams and part of her income comes from crowd-sourced funding via Patreon. For Gjoni to just tell his family and friends probably did not seem sufficient when so many people all over the world know his ex and believe her to be not only a very ethical person, but someone who specifically stated that what she did to Gjoni constitutes a violation of sexual consent. I totally understand why the guy thought he would feel better if everyone knew, not just people close to them. I also bet he will regret this someday because Quinn suffered a truly inordinate amount of abuse for a transgression that is extremely common in our sex-negative culture where people routinely use dishonesty as a risk-management strategy to fulfill all of their social and sexual needs without severing primary relationships.

And, although I understand how Quinn might feel unfairly targeted as a talking point for this subject, I think it is especially important for victims like Gjoni to tell these stories when the violator of sexual consent is someone who is generally believed to be a very ethical person, someone who profits personally and professionally from the goodwill of social justice allies. I am always grateful to know when someone is not walking their talk because talk is cheap but living your values can be very, very costly. I respect people who pay that price, whether it means informing your primary partner before you fuck a few other dudes or letting your monogamous partner know you already fucked a few other dudes before he has unprotected sex with you.

Honesty is the only way we will collectively liberate our sex lives from an icky, shameful, sex-negative past. We need to bring short and long-term polyamory out of the closet and into a safer world of sexual honesty and maturity. This is the conversation I wanted to see after the scandal broke, not a bunch of asshats flaming Quinn about game press conspiracy theories.

Aren’t Ethics in Fucking As Important As Ethics In Journalism?

I care a LOT about the consent issue, and next to NOTHING about the unfounded allegations that Quinn got favorable game press from people she dated (there is no such favorable press from the dudes in question, so I’ve no idea how that allegation passed anybody’s sniff test). If you can find a glowing or even moderately good review of Quinn’s work by any guy Gjoni called out, please link me directly because I have seen no such smoking gun.

Look, Quinn was not the only person to ever fuck a coworker, business associate, or boss in the games industry. She was not the only person to ever cheat on someone and then fool around with them like nothing happened.

But as a voice for social justice in the games industry, she was in a unique position to lead a conversation about the important issue of sexual consent.

We know these harmful but legal violations of consent can be deeply traumatic (and scary, incurable STIs are no joke) but we don’t engage in enough public brainstorming and education about how we can prevent them.

Most of us have known or dated someone who was emotionally scarred from a sexual betrayal, and it negatively impacted other areas of their life (especially future attempts to trust other people). It’s not the sex that is immoral in cheating, it’s the emotional trauma inflicted on the partner(s) whose intimate trust (and often the terms of their sexual consent) was broken. People in all sorts of relationship configurations (poly, open, swingers, etc.) have proven that having sex with more than one person while maintaining one or more committed relationship does not itself cause harm. It’s the betrayal and sexual exploitation that causes harm, particularly withholding information to avoid losing romantic/sexual access that your partner would otherwise revoke.

This stuff happens every day. Often among generally nice people who know it’s hurtful, know it’s harmful, but they do it anyway. People who sincerely love their partners cheat anyways. We need to ask why this happens. Why can’t we just tell our partners we want to fuck around? Why can’t we negotiate sex and relationships better? Why do so many people say they are in a monogamous relationship when they really, really, emotionally and/or sexually, are not?

There was even an important feminist conversation to be had about the unfounded allegations that Quinn fucked journalists for favorable press. Even if it were true, why is it so controversial to mix sex and business relationships when so many people mix friendship and emotional support with business relationships without nearly as much criticism? The main benefit of sex with other people is typically social validation (I am attractive/likable, I am worthy, she/he chose me, etc.) which is the exact same currency friends trade in. Whether you’re blowing bubbles or dicks together doesn’t really matter as much as the fact that you are bonding over social experiences. In my mind, Quinn was no more or less likely to get favorable reviews being friends with game journalists than she was if that friendship involved sex. But many gamers sounded particularly mad that there might have been sex involved. I found that weird, and way more interesting than the stupid sex-for-press allegations.

We could talk about these things without vilifying Quinn for being an imperfect human and without judging Gjoni for not handling the situation in some magically perfect way that allowed him to seek justice, heal, and cope without also throwing Quinn under a bus full of opportunist internet assholes.

We could, but we didn’t. And I remain disappointed and annoyed. But also suspicious that coming out with any kind of opinion on this, will reduce my social capital as an indie game developer.

Choose Your Battle Class: Social Justice Warrior or Gamergatekeeper

If I post this, I worried that people who love Quinn will question

  • my right to speak on this issue (there is an elitist vibe around the indie game dev clique close to Quinn and I have seen many gamers dismissed because they are nobodies, they aren’t even “gamers” any more)
  • my ethics
  • my feminism
  • my credibility because I’d rather help marginalized people build a professional quality game to jump start a sustainable career in game development than promote game jams where people can make a (usually) buggy unfinished game with (usually) no hope of earning a reasonable return on their time invested (plus TFYC sounded accessible to an introverted mom like me, whereas participating in a 3-day game jam isn’t something I could do)
  • my commitment to sparkle motion
  • my social justice warriorism (I prefer ‘social justice shitlord’ or SJS, thanks)

And people who hate Quinn will mistake

  • me for a SJW because I have a nuanced critical opinion rather than an unconditional throbbing hate-on for anyone
  • my personal views as a feminist for their favorite faux-feminist straw man arguments (though I guess I will get that no matter what because reasons, ovaries, and all that bitching about sexual consent)
  • me for a person who diametrically opposes them or their allies (because I’m not #notyourshield or #gamergate or #commitedtosparklemotion)

Luckily, few people know or care about my blog so the consequences of this post may be postponed indefinitely. I just needed to vent my frustrations after 3 weeks of not seeing anyone care at all about the consent thing (and seeing tons of people call Gjoni an abuser for… reporting abuse the “wrong way” or whatever rationalization they came up with).

I also realized I was actually *scared* to publish this (having drafted the gist of it over a week ago) because I had seen so much effort to suppress ANY critical discussion of Quinn’s conduct (including whatever prompted the deletion of this other female game developer’s Tumblr and Disqus account). That fear was a red flag that convinced me these are important things that ought to be discussed in public.

What do you think? Or did you not have to think much at all because you went into this race with a horse already picked? Either way, this is just one social justice shitlord’s opinion.

Gamer Humor for the Minor Illusion of Win

Effectively using humor in marketing is tricky. If you know your target market well, humor is great linkbait. The most viral web phenomena to date have all been funny… to some people. The problem is knowing if the market for your website or app has a generally homogeneous sense of humor.

Sometimes we are so immersed in our personal subcultures that we fail to see how anyone can NOT get the jokes that we take for granted.

Nowhere is this becoming more of a problem in my media diet than in the realm of gamer humor. Something happened this past week that made me wonder if gamer humor has crossover potential or if the misapplication of gamer humor is going to become a problem now that gameification is the new the black.

Gameification may be encouraging game designers to apply the stock tools* of game design to applications that might be much better without even a whiff of Leeroy Jenkins’ chicken.

*If chainmail binkini and “<blank> of <blank>ing” jokes are any less of a stock game tool than “badges” I’ll eat my lush dwarven beard.

But Everyone I Know Thinks It’s Funny!

Obviously, the more edgy or weird your jokes are, the higher the risk/reward potential is for creating a spectacularly offensive dud or the next big viral joke. Geek culture may be cool now, but gamer culture is still a niche experience, regardless of our powerful self-referential presence on teh Interweb. Continue reading Gamer Humor for the Minor Illusion of Win

Could Gameplay Combat TV Ad Zapping and Zipping?

Gameplay during commercials may be an effective way to get more people to pay attention to sponsored ads on broadcast television. Interestingly, it is very rare to see any type of contest or game-like promotion to reward people for watching commercials, even though that behavior is highly desirable to broadcast advertisers.

  • Can gameplay be used as incentives for attentive t.v. commercial viewing? Could games help television advertisers cultivate the interactive engagement and motivation that lead to direct response after ads are viewed?
  • Are commercial games rare because games were not effective in this role in the past? Or is it because so many marketers assume any type of game has to involve an expensive prize or legal consultation to make sure the promotion is on the right side of gambling and lottery laws?
  • What types of games would be compelling during live broadcast commercial breaks? What issues would need to be addressed to prevent people who did not watch the commercial from simply scraping the commercial contents from a web resource after the actual broadcast?

Zapping and Zipping Commercials into Extinction

Since the development of the home VCR, advertisers have been concerned with zipping—fast forwarding through commercials during recordings of sponsored television programs. Newer technologies have only increased advertiser paranoia that television viewers are prerecording shows and then skipping the commercial breaks. A similar concern was raised with the advent of remote controls which let users change the channel during commercial breaks with very little physical effort (zapping). Continue reading Could Gameplay Combat TV Ad Zapping and Zipping?

Entrepreneurship: Motivation

There’s a video being billed as the worst motivational speech ever, but I found it funny and inspiring. Guy Trying to Break a Board may be unconventional in his methods, but his message is relevant for entrepreneurs.

Motivational Lessons from Guy Trying to Break a Board

  • Don’t give up trying to do something that you want to do and know you can accomplish. He’s not trying to break a granite slab, he’s breaking a thin board. He knows he can do it, and he doesn’t let a few false starts dissuade him. Your first business, product, or client might not be what you wanted or expected—but with enough motivation and a realistic goal, your 20th or 30th try might work out.
  • Redefine success so it is attainable for you. Smart people don’t expect to become millionaires from their entrepreneurial efforts. Odds are pretty good that your startup will, at best, pay your bills for a while before you have to adapt, grow, or move on. Very few small businesses skyrocket their founders to fortune and early retirement, though it’s fun to aim high. This guy was hoping to snap that board in one epic headbutt, and he switches to a fresh board after bending but not breaking the first. He clearly still wanted that epic win. But then he realizes the second board is half bent and that’s good enough. In fact, he still breaks it as planned, just not in the ideal way that matched his initial vision. There are probably few entrepreneurial concepts more important than this one: define your success to be achievable.
  • Be proud of attempts made and lessons learned. This guy could have deleted this video. It didn’t go how he planned it would. It feels a little embarrassing at times. But he had the guts and integrity to post the video anyway. I think he recognized how well the video communicates his main motivational message, not because it went perfectly, but because it went wrong so many times. The real reason more people don’t try to start their own business is probably fear of failing in public (or worse, of only getting by when too many people think owning a business means getting filthy rich). Guy Trying to Break a Board finally did break that board, and he’s not afraid to show you how many times he failed along the way.

Do you have the guts to post a video showing how many times you’ve tried and failed in your projects? Add a Comment

Three Tips for Special Event Games

Yesterday, I was thinking about the power of special event games versus ongoing games that are available everyday. One of the downsides to today’s pervasive gaming trend is that anything can become mundane and a bit less magical or thrilling if you see it everyday.

It could be argued that special events, like holidays and splashy promotional games, need to happen infrequently to retain their value.To understand the strengths of special event games, I think it’s appropriate to consider why we don’t have holidays every day. I’ll also discuss the risks in looking at a successful special event game like the annual McDonalds Monopoly game and thinking that it could be so much better if it were extended to an ongoing promotion, like a loyalty program. I can see where people would make this leap because if something is good in small doses, it must be great in bigger doses, right?

But when it comes to making a game event special, less is more (in so many ways).

Who Wants Christmas Every Day?

I think Christmas (both the secular gift-giving holiday and the religious Christian holiday) is more special, engaging, and inspirational because it only happens once a year (and in the dead of winter where the colors of twinkling decorations outside livens up the monochrome landscape to great effect). The bright punctuation of Christmas in the middle of winter is so powerful that Christian author C.S. Lewis was able to relay a very adult concept (spiritual awakening, or a thawing of faith) to children by setting the action of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in a “Narnian winter” where it was “always winter and never Christmas”—a state of dreary suspense. Many a kids’ show or book has centered on the literal or figurative quest to save Christmas because there is something inherently tragic about an eagerly anticipated once-a-year chance for a holiday that never comes.

I think it’s also true that there’s something tragically underwhelming about a Christmas that comes everyday. I don’t think people, even kids, would really enjoy a never-ending Christmas. Unless you’re Ron Wood or that badass Wizzard drummer with the afro:

UnBirthdays Just Aren’t That Awesome

Aside from the lack of novelty and anticipation, there is something untenable and impractical about constant, ongoing special events. We celebrate our birthday, rather than our un-birthday, because frankly nobody wants to give presents and make a big to-do over everyone we know 24/7/365. It would spoil the fun by becoming a repetitive chore, like doing the laundry.

That’s why it is a little strange to me when marketing game designers want to encourage more year-round pervasive games instead of infrequent, simple, and targeted special game events.

Think of a special game event like a limited-time marketing campaign. If you ran the same marketing campaign, the same copy, and the same creative year-round, your message would definitely lose its impact over time. I’m not saying the same is true for a well-designed ongoing marketing game program, I’m just saying that there are effects that are stronger, easier and cheaper to obtain using a special event game for a limited time rather than a long-term, ongoing game design.

You can combine special event games and long-term games (think of the limited-time sweepstakes mini-game or scratch-off game inside of a larger ongoing loyalty program), but in most cases, participating in the long-term game then becomes a barrier to entry for the smaller special event games (unless you specifically design to avoid this). The bigger, long-term game can also intimidate and turn-off non-gamers who think it all looks too involved to be fun.

Ongoing Combination McDonalds Monopoly Would Suck

I’m no critic of combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bells because they make sense. They could add a bong store or triple bipass clinic and I wouldn’t blink. But if there was a Pizza Hut and Battleship location or a Scrabble Taco Bell, it would be a little weird. Now, it should be obvious by now that I was very positively impressed by the Game Based Marketing book by Zichermann and Linder, but their suggestions for improving the successful, annual McDonalds Monopoly game didn’t click with me. Any suggestion that the Monopoly game promotion should be a continual year-round attraction is as weird and counter-intuitive for me as walking past a KFC Jenga in the food court (though if it involved using your teeth to remove pieces from a tower of extra-crispy chicken, I probably would try it… for science).

I’m not sure you even need the power of pervasive gaming when you have junk food that hooks people like crack. I’m not sure that Americans need another reason to pick up a burger, but let’s say I’m tasked with designing a game for a fast food joint. I don’t think pervasive is the way to go for a branded game. I think special event games are way more powerful for a fast food joint because ongoing loyalty programs don’t attract attention, viral marketing, or press the way a splashy limited-time contest does. The decision of which place to eat at is largely an impulse decision people make right before they go get some food. That’s when the publicity and viral effect of a high-profile limited-time special event game can be more valuable for driving food sales (my assumed ultimate game goal for this market) than a loyalty program that will still be there for another meal in the future .

Limited-Time Offers > Everyday Savings

I have a fond childhood memory of driving from the drive-thru at one McDonalds (with ice cream cones) to the next McDonalds (which, in a big city, is like 4 blocks away) to get more boxes of cookies just for the Monopoly pieces (because we were embarrassed to do all the transactions at one McDonalds). Being irrational like that, buying more food than you need, and making a point to go out of your way to a McDonalds is not something people will do indefinitely. Eventually, you’ll get sick of eating McDonalds. Or Wendy’s will run a splashy, limited-time contest and you’ll have to go there instead because, you know, that Wendy’s contest isn’t going to last and you can play the pervasive McDonalds game any time.

A few retail-oriented examples to support my take on this would be March Madness sales, double coupon days, and Black Friday. If you’re Wal-Mart, then you’ve got the everyday savings locked in for most basic consumer goods. But for every other retailer, where brand, quality, and other factors are more attractive to shoppers, the special event sale is truly a good marketing play. Instead of cheapening their offering year-round, they offer splashy limited-time sales. This has a viral effect because people want to let their friends know about the special deal before the opportunity passes. Limited-time sales can also bring new customers in the door, whereas I’m not sure how well loyalty programs function to acquire new customers.

Ongoing low prices are eventually taken for granted (and unless you have the massively efficient processes to make decent profits while still being a low-price leader, it’s not a good pricing or promotion strategy for most businesses). The viral effect and newsworthiness of everyday low prices are also limited because nobody feels pressure to share the deals right away. Everyday low prices may come up in conversation but they don’t motivate people to word of mouth marketing the way a limited-time promotion does.

A marketing game sometimes functions as a product or attraction in its own right (the McDonalds Monopoly game certainly does), and much like the everyday low prices, an everyday game offer can quickly be taken for granted.

How many of us have wallets full of half-finished punch cards for various lunch locations? If we only had one lunch option with a punch card, then yeah, it would encourage us to get lunch at that same place more often than not. But when we get loyalty cards from almost every lunch vendor within a mile radius of our workplace, then we might as well just eat wherever we feel like eating. We can always get our card punched next week.

But when you hit the food court and notice a special game event, like the Monopoly game, you know it might not be there next week. So you might be more motivated to get in that line at the food court before the opportunity has passed. That’s the experiential difference between a special game event and an ongoing loyalty program or pervasive game.

Special Game Events != Loyalty Programs

So while McDonalds might benefit from a loyalty program in addition to their annual Monopoly game, I don’t think that alone is a good argument for extending or altering the Monopoly game program to become a pervasive program. It would lost a little of its magic, and a lot of its viral potential.

Also, building out the Monopoly game to be a full-blown loyalty program would be a good example of what’s known as feature creep in software development. You can always add more features. What stops the insanity is the reality that you want to see this project launch before you die or you have a sensible functional spec that focuses on doing a limited number of things exceptionally well. Designing marketing game systems is similar in that you can always add cool stuff and try to target more and more KPIs (key performance indicators). Though over-extending increases the risk that you won’t be most effective at hitting your most important goals (and hopefully you know what those are, otherwise you probably shouldn’t be wasting resources to make a marketing game yet).

It’s easy to look at your marketing game design and think “wow, we could use this feature to drive engagement on our website… ooh-ooh, and we could add this other feature to increase opt-ins for our newsletter… and it wouldn’t be hard to add points and rewards here to drive conversions in our online store… and OMG, wouldn’t it be cool if people could visit our shops and geotag a tweet to get a coupon to unlock a lolcat with a special QRcode on its belly that you can snap with your mobile to download our app that lets you login for a badge you can show on your Facebook if you allow our FB app to access your complete medical history and contact information for two hot friends…” before you realize you’ve gotten somewhat off track from the original marketing goal of your game.

Focusing our marketing game designs on the most important KPIs is crucial. It’s also important that we judge the success of marketing game campaigns on whether they attain the specific results they were intended to achieve, not whether they accomplished every possible marketing goal with just one game.

The McDonalds Monopoly game event has stayed pretty focused in its goals over the years, though I recently learned their focus faltered a bit in 2009, and there was some negative response from consumers.

The Risks of Overgameification

Since everyone’s talking about gameification, and I enjoy playing devil’s advocate (or mirthful wet blanket), I’d like to also add the cautionary aside that extending the Monopoly game might suck the fun out of it.

Overgamification happens when game designers forget that most people are not gamers.

Most people like easy-ass games like scratch-off cards and solitaire. And sometimes there is really no significant business return (or diminishing returns) when you add a bunch of long-term strategic achievements to a game that is meant for the mass market. Yes, the power gamers will appreciate it and you will be able to hold your head high at GDC when people ask what you work on (saying “instant win games” probably won’t get you invited to any roundtable discussions). But easy, dumb features are more accessible.

More people own a DVD player than a game console, even though they both play DVDs. Deep down in your heart you know that all your non-gaming friends aren’t ignorant plebes who can’t appreciate the intrinsic beauty of a well-crafted game system. Gaming is simply a niche hobby, like knitting or pressing flowers. Ok, it’s a lot more popular than knitting, but it’s still not something most people want to do all the time. The idea of keeping score and ongoing strategic, nuanced decision-making can annoy non-gamers. And sometimes it only takes like 1 or 2 extra steps for a non-gamer to perceive a game system as hard or too much work, even though a gamer might think of the system as a mindless cakewalk.

New Online Features for McDonalds Monopoly

Turns out McDonalds already DID expand their Monopoly promotion in 2009 to try to drive traffic to their Facebook page, website, and sponsor programming (the Jay Leno show, apparently). By adding these additional targets to their game design, they probably got some results from the die-hard Monopoly piece collector but what was the net result? How did it affect the majority of their players (most of whom are not hardcore gamers)?

There is evidence that adding more online interactive features may have devalued the promotion by creating too much extra busy-work for the players. Going to the game’s Facebook site and website didn’t give all players enough value, leaving some players feeling like they were the ones getting played.

Maybe a better design, reward, or content payload could have helped, but I generally think the less you ask of your players in a mass market game, the more participation and goodwill you can build. The more you ask of people, the more they think “what am I getting out of this?” and it can be hard to cost-effectively provide enough personalized value for everyone in a mass market segment. If your game targets a narrow, well-defined market segment, then it will be a lot easier to make sure your game delivers value for actions that could otherwise be perceived as busy-work.

Three Tips for Special Event Games

  • Keep special events simple and focus on easy, short-term achievements. Long-term goals and overgameification can actually reduce the brand value of a beloved annual special event promotion by making the game too complicated and focused on the business goals rather than the goals and experience of the player.
  • Avoid overgamification and time sinks. Gamers have insatiable appetites for challenges and they appreciate an elegant, clever design. Mass market consumers are turned off by games that involve extra work, complicated rules, resources they don’t have (lots of money for purchases or lots of friends willing to do group challenges), or long-term rewards (saving isn’t as fun as spending or gambling for a reward today). Just remember how many people think Blackjack is too hard to play, so they go play a slot machine (which is not so much a good game as it is an amazingly addictive interactive entertainment experience).
  • Limit the time horizon for a special game event. The value of a special event game is a lot like the value of a holiday like Christmas or a birthday. If you extend it to an everyday, commonplace program, you lose some of the fun and a lot of the viral potential (and free media exposure, though that really only applies if you’re big enough to get noticed by major media outlets). Even if you want the promotion to run all the time, consider limiting it to certain days of the week or set other limiting conditions to make it feel special and to promote impulsive participation.

Got tips to make the most of a special event game promotion? Add a Comment

Curious Curation: Apple and Facebook

A recent Wired article about something dubbed Curated Computing, made me wonder why people insist on trying to craft new buzzwords for things that already have perfectly good names.

Curators of What Now?

If this keeps up, we’ll be getting our Subway eats curated by Sandwich Fixin Curators.

Talking about “curating functionality” has to be the most pretentious way possible to describe product design. Designers, developers, and engineers are not curating when they develop a solution to a problem. When features and functionality gets cut, it’s not even remotely close to a curator at the Smithsonian deciding which pieces to acquire or study for a collection.

The article tried to frame everything and the kitchen sink as a curator of some sort.

No, Facebook is not a curator of the web. Facebook is primarily an ad channel that collects and leverages user data to sell targeted advertising; Facebook does not even review web submissions from the majority of their content creators, much less curate the web content published on its domain (unless we count removal of TOS violations as “curation” now). It certainly doesn’t curate content on the other billions of domains across the web (though if someone thinks their cousin “liking” a link counts as curation of the web, then this explains why genuine attempts to curate the web have not been very successful).

I recently told my 13-year old not to cuss on Facebook, so I’m probably a Linguistic Curator of the Web now.

Apple and Facebook Curate Proprietary Revenue Streams

Both Apple and Facebook claim they are only censoring, er, curating content and apps to protect users from malicious applications, enforce Terms of Service, and to provide a good experience for their users. Both companies make assumptions about what a good user experience entails (to Apple, this excludes porn apps and to Facebook, this excludes even pictures of mothers breastfeeding babies). Both are making their product design decisions to increase the value of their company. Pleasing users is just one constraint on their designs, not the reason they exist. Both companies are willing to shoulder a little public backlash in order to keep profitable policies in place.

Apple and Facebook build value for their shareholders by delivering just enough user value to lure people in to their closed systems. If you want to envision them as curators, then the best fit would be that Apple and Facebook are curators of proprietary revenue streams.

Apple will even go so far as to claim technology like Adobe Flash is too “buggy” to be on its iPhone OS, but the Apple’s real objection is that Flash would open up content channels that divert sales from proprietary channels like the App Store. So I suppose one could say Apple is curating the most profitable content delivery channels from the ones that only add value for users and companies-that-aren’t-Apple. Facebook has the social graph of over 400 million users locked up tight; it’s probably one of the more valuable collections of personally identifiable data on the web.

But again, those collections are a pitiful stretch of the whole curation concept.

Do you like the term Curated Computing? Curate a Comment

FTC Advergame Pimps Aducation to Kids

Apparently, the FTC thinks our kids need a little help understanding the persuasive intent of advertising in the media.

Whether that’s based on the assumption that our kids are kind of dense or that parents are failing to explain how media advertising works is irrelevant here. The bottom line is that the FTC used a chunk of its limited resources to pay a major advertising company (Fleishman-Hillard) to create Admongo: a persuasive game that “aducates” kids about the world of overt advertising (the examples don’t really touch on some of the most popular forms of internet marketing, such as how search engine results or affiliate ads work).

Scholastic (the education mega-corp) helped too, creating curriculum so that this advergame can worm its way into middle-school classrooms (you know, because the public school system has unlimited time to teach our kids all sorts of trivia and is in no way struggling to instill basic literacy, much less media literacy).

There is no indication that parents were involved in the creation of the game and parental figures do not appear to perform their key media literacy roles (telling kids “no, we’re not buying that junk”, monitoring kids’ media usage, and discussing media issues directly with kids).

Admongo = a lot of money and effort spent to teach kids ad awareness.

Since we are pretty ad-aware here, let’s look at this a bit closer. Beyond the unforgivable puns, there are a number of things we should be questioning about this advergame product.

What is the desired outcome of Admongo?

The FTC seems to think that ads work because people don’t recognize the advertiser or the persuasive intent, as if awareness of the advertisement will somehow render it powerless.

What exactly is the expected outcome from Admongo? Kids will be able to neutralize ad effectiveness? Kids will respond to ads they see with a moment of thought and self-reflection? Kids will challenge our consumerist society and begin a bold new world by virtue of identifying product placement messages in a video game? Suuuuure…

Au Contraire, Apple! I am not a Mac!   It is I that shall mark my brand upon you. Ha-ha!

If this were the case, then it would be impossible to advertise effectively to professional marketers and educated adults. I think it’s apparent that this is not how the world works, and ad awareness campaigns are interesting, but unlikely to protect kids from the influence of advertisers, even if kids learn to think like marketers.

Everybody Persuades Kids, Not Just Businesses

What’s ironic here is that the education industry, now including the FTC advergame Admongo, is constantly trying to use the tools of marketing and ads to influence kids. Teachers and parents relentlessly try to influence kids; tell them what to think, what values to have, what to believe in, how to spend their resources, and how to think and feel about themselves and their world.

Kids are bombarded with persuasive messages, some of them very troubling and deeply scarring, from many more powerful and authoritative sources than commercial advertising. I don’t know about you, but I have a lot more psychological baggage from family and grade school than I have from the breakfast cereal commercials I watched as a kid.

If people want to help kids develop into happy, healthy adults, I am not convinced that aducation is going to do much to change lives. Commercial advertising influences us, but we also gravitate toward certain media, brands, and ads because these things reflect some part of us or appeal to us as we already are. I don’t think the advertisers create our internal fear and desires (though they certainly profit from them).

Ads Don’t Make Us Who We Are

Just taking one example that I know a bit about from personal struggle and research: teen girls with eating disorders are typically acting out against a perceived lack of control in their life (typically due to family or interpersonal issues) combined with peer pressures and internal self-image problems. Though you often hear media and thin models being scapegoated for our children’s anorexia, the problem, more often than not, started with interpersonal relationships, not media exposure. Additionally, we gravitate toward media that resonates with us, so in many ways, the messages our kids receive is a function of our kids’ expressed preferences (especially with online advertising initiated by the clickstream of the kids themselves).

Media literacy is a good tool, but I doubt it is going to reach the heart of the matter for many of the serious problems kids face. Furthermore, effective ads play on emotion: fear and desire. No amount of awareness can really overcome a visceral, emotional response. The lack of rational control over emotional response is why people often act against their best interest, and it’s a matter that goes much deeper than media literacy.

If the government spent these funds to create a persuasive game to help kids sort out the negative influence of family, schools, peers, and poor self-image in their lives, I think there would be a greater net positive outcome than spending money teaching kids how to think like marketers.

Advertising Derives Authority from Society

Just because someone runs an ad, it does not guarantee the ad will resonate and convert persuasive intent to consumer action. Advertising is only effective when it gels well with how people are already perceiving the world and themselves. Society and all its collective fears and desires—that is the real source of marketing power and authority. To change which advertisements resonate well with us (and which products or ideas sell), we need to change the way people think and feel. 

In modern times, educators and advocates are using the tools of marketing and ads, such as marketing games, to promote helpful messages. The fact that the FTC has resorted to advergaming to push its ad awareness agenda here is telling.

Let’s use the ad awareness lessons taught by Admongo to analyze the advergame Admongo.

Who Paid for the Ads in Admongo?

The FTC paid to say this to youth:

One government agency works to protect consumers from being hurt by advertising. This agency is called the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC.

If anything, Admongo does a great job promoting the FTC as the good guy trying to help protect kids from advertising. I wonder if that’s the real message of this game, and whether the target of the message is actually the parents and public opinion in regards to FTC’s performance on the ad regulation front. If parents think ads are relentlessly invading our privacy and targeting our kids, they might start to wonder why the government hasn’t done more to protect kids (such as Sweden’s ban on advertising targeting kids younger than 12).

What Is the Ad Actually Saying?

Admongo is telling kids that advertising is everywhere, that (among other things) ads give us information to help us decide what products to buy. The messages in Admongo are really that weak. There is no attempt to vilify advertisers (probably a good thing) but it also leaves the player feeling like it was a lot of work for very little revelation. Ads aren’t made out to be very evil, influential, or worthy of this level of scrutiny.

Higher-impact, specific messages with consequences kids care about might have made the experience stronger (fatty food ads linked with obesity and getting teased for weight at school, or athletic shoe ads that promise better sports performance but don’t deliver any changes).

What Is the Ad Telling Me to Do?

Here’s the rub: the advergame Admongo tells you to collect ads. Seriously. You advance in the game by identifying advertisements. The rewarded behavior is PAYING ATTENTION TO ADS. I’m not sure how else to emphasize my confusion and sense of fail with this game design.

If there was more involved, like analyzing or predicting the effect of ads on certain NPCs or designing effective “counter-ads” with helpful messaging that defeats the negative harmful ads (like kids finding a cigarette billboard and creating a new anti-smoking ad to put up in its place) then I might comprehend the messaging in this game. As it stands, the gameplay simply motivates kids to pay closer attention to ads and literally “collect them all” to win. Read into that what you may.

Admongo Summary

  • Admongo teaches kids to recognize ads and some advertiser techniques
  • Admongo’s desired outcome seems to be ad awareness, not encouraging critical thinking or value judgments about ads
  • Admongo raises awareness of the FTC brand and suggests that the government, via the one agency that “works to protect consumers”, is helping so kids don’t get “hurt” by advertising
  • Admongo does not address helpful ads and harmful ads, or how kids might tell the difference

Admongo is trying to influence kids through the medium of an advergame, but failing to explain to kids that some persuasive games and ads might be promoting helpful messages and that others might be promoting harmful messages. This mixed message reduces the overall effectiveness of Admongo.

By asking kids to be media savvy, but not encouraging them to question the value of the media delivering the media literacy campaign, it promotes the idea that kids can trust some messaging (from the FTC, from schools, from Scholastic, etc.) but it doesn’t give them any insight into how they know they can trust certain messages. Evaluating the source of a message is key to understanding its value, so I am surprised that isn’t a central part of the gameplay.

I’m going to have my kids, ages 11 and 13, play Admongo and discuss it with me before I give a final verdict, but so far, the project looks like a slick, glossy advergame that provided a lot more tangible value to the creators of the game than it will provide the players, our kids.

What do you think of Admongo? Does it provide value for kids? Add a Comment