Changing the Game: An Interview on Games and Business with David Edery and Ethan Mollick

Editor’s Note: The election has come at a particularly intense moment in my life. I plan to run a more extensive reflection on the role that media played in shaping and responding to the outcome but I have not been able to write it yet. I expect to post it early next week. For the moment, let me say that this early “Obama Boy” could not be more delighted with the outcome but fears that all of the “transformational” language got used up on tuesday night, leaving us with no new adjectives to throw out there.

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Around the Comparative Media Studies Program, there’s been considerable discussion over the past few weeks about the decision of the Obama campaign to advertise in an Xbox 360 game, Burnout Paradise. The topic is the perfect intersection between our researchers focused on games, branding, and civic media, and reflects an ongoing conversation we’ve been having on the blog and elsewhere about Obama as the candidate for all platforms. If convergence culture can be described as a world where every image and idea flows across the maximum number of media platforms, acquiring meanings and value and attracting new participants at each step along its trajectory, Obama’s people have embraced the full range of new media — from mobile phones to social networks, from virtual worlds to video games — in their effort to reach and mobilize young voters.

Hoping to get some further insights into this story, I reached out to David Edery and Ethan Mollick, the authors of a newly released book, Changing the Game: How Video Games Are Transforming the Future of Business. Both Edery and Mollick are alums of MIT’s Sloan School of Mangement; Edery was involved with us while still a graduate student, was briefly on our staff, and has continued to be an affiliated researcher on our Convergence Culture Consortium since he has graduated. As experts on current trends around games and advertising, I was curious to see what they would have to say about the Obama ads:

The Obama campaign’s decision to advertise within the Xbox 360 game Burnout Paradise is notable for being, to our knowledge, the first time a presidential candidate has ever taken advantage of advertising opportunities within a retail video game. The ads appear as billboards by the roadside, and contain the message “Early voting has begun” and “voteforchange.com” in addition to Senator Obama’s photograph.

The message on the billboards seems to indicate that the Obama campaign was hoping to achieve a very specific outcome: give young adults who support Obama, but who perhaps lack the drive to vote, a nudge in the direction of the ballot box. More interestingly, the Obama campaign may also have been hoping to send a subtle message to gamers and young adults in general: “this is a candidate who understands technology and new media, isn’t afraid of it, and doesn’t intend to demonize it.” If the latter was indeed a part of the campaign’s strategy, it worked out brilliantly, because the Burnout/Obama advertisements received a tremendous amount of mainstream and game industry press. Whether you played Burnout or not, if you’re a highly engaged gamer, odds are you heard about the Obama ads.

So in-game advertising and US presidential politics have converged. Is this a particularly important milestone for the in-game advertising industry? Perhaps, and perhaps not. After all, plenty of Fortune 500 companies have beaten the Obama campaign to this milestone, and are in fact experimenting with games and advertising in far more interesting ways. But there’s no doubt that this *is* an important milestone for the game industry in general. It suggests that a US presidential candidate has recognized, for the first time, that gamers are an important voting group.

As they note, businesses have been using games as platforms for branding, advertising, and corporate training ever since the first platform games were released. Changing the Game offers a cogent overview of the thinking shaping current corporate strategies for deploying games as well as offering some thoughtful and forward looking recommendations about how companies can be even more effective in deploying these new media platforms towards their interests. There are plenty of lessons here which will also be helpful to those developing serious games or otherwise using games for pro-social ends. And there’s much here that needs to be understood by the media literacy community if it wants to help young people understand how branding impacts the games that they play.

In this two part interview, the authors share their insights about games and advertising, the use of games as platforms for training, the value and limits of virtual worlds for corporate purposes, and the potential of games as tools for gathering collective intelligence and sparking user-based innovation.

The central premise of your book is that there are significant benefits for companies that recognize that games can be “more than just a diversion.” What do you see as the primary rewards of integrating work and play? How do we confront a tendency in our culture to see play as the opposite of meaningful employment?

The primary reward of integrating work and play is happier, more effective employees. The problem is that when most people hear that claim, they immediately assume you’re making the old, tired argument that games are good solely because taking a break from work is good for productivity. While many studies have purported to prove the latter, the latter is not what we are focused on.

In Changing the Game, one of our major arguments is that games can be used, not as breaks from work, but as enhancements to work. There’s ample evidence that games can be used to cost-effectively train employees and to motivate them. We found great examples in the health care industry, the high tech industry, and (not surprisingly) the military, to name a few. And as we note in the book, it’s rather remarkable how many managers struggle to maintain acceptable productivity levels when they control an employee’s paycheck, while many game developers have found ways to make *us* pay *them* for performing tasks that seem remarkably like work. (We really don’t want to know how many hours we personally spent crafting virtual armor and other items in World of Warcraft…)

Fortunately, great examples of the constructive power of games are starting to find their way into every corner of American life. Public schools are bringing Dance Dance Revolution machines into their gyms to combat the obesity epidemic, and millions of Americans are bringing Nintendo’s Wii Fit into their homes. Educators are hearing about the incredible sales of games like Brain Age and realizing that maybe play and education *can* go together. These things have little to do with work, so we don’t spend much time discussing them in the book, but they are helping to change the way people think about games, in general, so they certainly merit mention!

You open the book with some acknowledgment of some of the social policy debates surrounding games, including a consideration of video game violence and media effects. Many media reformers use the analogy to advertising to explain why they believe that games may have negative impacts on the people who play them. If advertisements may shape consumer behavior, they argue, games must have an influence on players. As someone who has reviewed the research on the impact of advertising on consumer decision making, how would you respond to this analogy?

What many media reformers don’t understand is that games are powerful advertising (and educational) tools in large part because they can be used to communicate a persuasive message or lesson to a *highly involved* audience. People playing video games are not passive, mindless zombies… on the contrary, they are quite consciously engaged. They have to be; otherwise, how can they win the game? Anyone who doubts this should pick up an Xbox 360 controller and try to play a stereotypical first person shooter (like Call of Duty 4). These games are incredibly complex — most first time players have trouble just figuring out which buttons to press, much less successfully navigating the entire game. Winning many video games is anything but easy.

At any rate, our point is that because gamers are quite consciously processing gameplay — because they are NOT mindless zombies — they are not being “brainwashed.” And this is apparently what the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) determined after performing their own extensive study of video games, in which they noted: “far from having a potentially negative impact on the reaction of the player, the very fact that they have to interact with the game seems to keep them more firmly rooted in reality. People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed. This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television.”

All that said, we prefer not to simply cite research in a situation like this, because critics of video games have their own body of (in our opinion, questionable) research to respond with. So why not stick with the cold, hard facts? The U. S. Secret Service recently examined each of the 37 non-gang and non-drug-related “targeted” U.S. school

shootings and stabbings that took place from 1974 through 2000, including infamous incidents such as the Columbine massacre. They found that there is no “profile” of a school shooter. In fact, only 1 in 8 of the perpetrators studied by the Secret Service showed any interest in violent video games. Given that in the same time frame, the vast majority of school-going males were playing video games, how can critics continue to claim any sort of correlation between games and school violence?

What factors are leading towards the increased interest in advergaming and product placements in games?

Put simply, it’s getting harder and harder for advertisers to reach their target audience with traditional advertising. Games are an increasingly popular medium that is well-suited to carry (and to be) advertising, so why wouldn’t advertisers by interested?

What does marketing research tell us about good and bad approaches to integrating brands into games?

We wrote two whole chapters on that, so it’s difficult to boil down into a couple paragraphs. Rather than tackle every point, let’s address the most important one. As we noted earlier, it all comes down to a question of involvement. When a person is highly involved in an aspect of gameplay, they are thinking very actively about it, and they aren’t likely to forget it later on. In such situations, an advertisement really needs to not only make sense within the context of the gameplay, but to fundamentally enhance the gameplay experience and communicate a useful message to the player. Otherwise, what you get is an annoyed player whose experience is disrupted, and who therefore forms negative associations with the brand.

Imagine that you’re watching a James Bond movie. Q tells Bond that he’s got a great new car for him. They walk into the secret lab, and a shiny Ford Pinto is waiting there. That’s an example of a product placement not fitting into the context of the entertainment media. But let’s take this further. Imagine instead that the car is a sporty BMW. That’s more like it! But what if the sporty BMW never broke 30 miles an hour during the entire movie? That would be an example of not communicating a useful message. The idea here is that you have a highly involved gamer on your hands. They are actively processing the information you are putting in front of them, and they probably aren’t going to forget it. So, not only should you be extremely careful not to put

something in front of them that simply doesn’t make sense (the Ford Pinto), but you should also make sure that what the player can do with your product placement actually communicates a message you’re interested in communicating as an advertiser.

Conversely, there are moments in gameplay that are not highly involving. When players run past a billboard in a virtual sports stadium, they are focusing on the action in the stadium (i.e., an offensive play in a football game) — they are not focusing on the billboard. The football game is highly involving; the billboard is not. Those low-involvement advertisements — which we call “peripheral” advertisements — are a good place to put simple ad messages like logos and short slogans. These advertisements don’t have the ability to convey a complex, persuasive message that

consumers will generally recall, but they do have the ability to simply increase our familiarity with a brand, and that has its own significant benefits.

DAVID EDERY is the Worldwide Games Portfolio Manager for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, and a research affiliate of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. He is a regular speaker at game industry events such as GDC, has published numerous articles on the topic of game development and the business of games, and maintains a personal blog called Game Tycoon.

ETHAN MOLLICK studies innovation and entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is also conducting a large research project on the game industry. He has consulted to companies ranging from General Mills to Eli Lilly on issues related to innovation and strategy, and has worked extensively on using games for teaching and training, including on the DARWARS project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.