Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gaming: The Next Level of Engagement

"Welcome to the next level." 

This phrase, originally coined way back in the early 90s by Goodby Silverstein & Partners, was meant to usher in the "next level" of video gaming in a famous ad campaign for Sega's 16-bit Genesis home console. The same catchy slogan can also be used to describe the massive shift in how consumers are interacting with both each other and brands. Inspired by what is called the "Gamification of Advertising" in a recent Globe and Mail article, this post will explore how the elements of consumer behaviour are beginning to resemble the elements of video games.

“It’s about getting a consumer to live the experience, rather than simply absorbing the message. Living that experience creates a memory that brands become an inherent and indelible part of.”
- Anthony Wolch, Executive Creative Director, Organic Toronto

Consumers are now game players.  

And like game players, they compete with each other for the highest scores. Only this time, their score isn't increased by eating more pellets in Pac-man or getting the fastest time in Cruisin' USA, it's increased by gaining more friends (Facebook), followers (Twitter), or connections (LinkedIn). In the same respect, it's increased by getting more "Likes", "Retweets", and "Recommendations". Think YouTube views, blog comments, and website hits. Social media currency is the new points-system. And they compete for it every day.

Like game players, they spend a lot of time and effort finding creative ways to contribute. But instead of building their own skate parks in the latest Tony Hawk or creating new levels in Little Big Planet, they're creating branded content. They're creating videos (Doritos Guru), products (Nike iD), and even entire social media campaigns (the Nissan HyperCube contest). They curate the content themselves. But most importantly, they're immensely passionate about it.

Like game players, they also know when to co-operate with each other for a common goal. Only instead of kicking foot soldier butt in the Ninja Turtles Arcade Game or capturing the flag in the latest Halo, they're building encyclopedias (Wikipedia), help lines (discussion forums), and the largest collection of funny cat videos known to man (aka YouTube).

“By appealing to the childlike desire of people to instill a sense of play in their lives, it enables brands to burrow into the hearts of consumers in unusual ways."
- Simon Houpt, The Globe and Mail (Jan. 6, 2011)

Deals and coupons are now cheat codes and power-ups. 

And the search for (and discovery of) those cheat codes and power-ups can be a major part of the game experience. Instead of hunting for elusive Game Genie codes to give them unlimited lives, they're hunting for coupon codes to give them unlimited discounts. Instead of flipping through the pages of the latest GamePro magazine looking for cheat codes, they're clicking through looking for the dirt on the latest deals.

Game players are also collaborating with each other to share the best secrets, tips, and codes. Only instead of writing up full game walk-through guides on, they're spreading the word on how to beat the system on They're forming "deal-hunting guilds" online and sharing in the riches. And they're also joining together to get the greatest limited time power-up of them all. No, not the invincibility star from Super Mario Bros., but Groupon's daily deal.

They also expect to be rewarded with special power-ups for the time they've invested. Only instead of secret characters in the latest Super Smash Bros., they expect free movies (SCENE), special discounts (Shoppers Optimum Program), and free flights (AirMiles). Instead of a weapon upgrade in Final Fantasy, they expect a room upgrade at the Hilton. More experience points means better service and access to areas of the level others can only aspire to reach.

"It’s about creating a long-term engagement with the consumer that moves them along what we call, ‘the player journey’ – the long-term emotional engagement of the user with the brand.”
- Gabe Zichermann, the author of Game-Based Marketing

The world is now the playing field.

And in the playing field, there are goals - areas and levels that players strive to get to. Only instead of uncovering a hidden dungeon in The Legend of Zelda or reaching a save point in Resident Evil, they're "checking in" to locations using FourSquare or Facebook Places. Reaching each level, of course, entitles the player to a reward - only this time they get special discounts, not extra lives.

The playing field must also be navigated, and to do that game players use special maps and HUDs. Only instead of keeping one eye on the castle map in the latest side-scrolling Castlevania, they've got one eye on their Google Map - layers and all. And speaking of layers, they've got a killer HUD (heads-up display) guiding the way: Layar Augmented Reality. And just like Samus' helmet in the Metroid Prime series, players can easily scan the objects that they encounter (Google Goggles) for more information.

Finally, every good playing field features fetch-quests - objects to collect that lead to a reward. This time, however, instead of searching for the chaos emeralds in Sonic the Hedgehog, they're searching for treasure buried throughout the city (geo-caching). Instead of scouring the jungle to collect bananas in Donkey Kong Country, they're scouring the Best Buy collecting product barcodes using the Shopkick app.

So, what does this all mean? Now, more than ever, life as we know it resembles the world of video games. What were once consumers are now game players. Incentives formerly known as deals and coupons are now cheat codes and power-ups. Environments like city streets and stores are now the playing field. Brands that recognize that and take advantage of it will undergo a significant shift in their approach to reaching their consumers. Welcome to the next level of engagement. Are you game?

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