Changing the Game: An Interview on Games and Business with David Edery and Ethan Mollick (Part Two)

The use of Second Life as a platform for consumer advertising and corporate promotion has generated a great deal of buzz in recent years. Now that the dust has started to settle, what do you see as the strengths and limitations of virtual worlds as a platform for brand messages?

The answer depends on the virtual world. But, since you mention Second Life, we’ll focus on that. Second Life is, as innumerable news stories have pointed out, simply not a good place for traditional advertising. The world is too large and too sparsely populated for billboards, in general. And unmanned virtual exhibits and structures, no matter how glorious, are simply not interesting to most consumers who visit Second Life to experience the thrill of creating and the joy of interacting with others. Why would anyone choose to walk through an uninhabited virtual

hotel when they can visit remarkably creative and/or otherworldly territories, populated and/or created by individuals like themselves? Why walk past a virtual billboard when you can teleport anywhere in an instant? Low-cost, targeted advertising campaigns that are designed toengage consumers on a personal level, and enlist them as brand agents, are far more effective.

All that said, the virtual hotel news article we referenced previously contains a hint as to the real potential of Second Life for businesses: not advertising, but harnessing user creativity to generate useful business innovations. Several large corporations have started working with the users of Second Life to model new products and test new services. Philips, for example, has been working with users to design new appliances in Second Life. Pontiac gave out virtual versions of its cars and encouraged Second Life users to hack and modify them.

At the end of the day, Second Life is a world created by its users for its users. There’s something poetic — not to mention very sensible — about enabling those users to create and modify virtual goods that could someday be sold in the real world for millions, if not billions of dollars.

As you note, there is now a rush towards corporate sponsorship of Alternate Reality Games. What factors should a company consider before entering this space?

To date, most ARGs have required a significant financial commitment and tremendous effort to successfully execute, so businesses that are interested in creating an ARG should be sure to work with an expert in the field. That said, an ARG can prove an effective marketing tool, as demonstrated by Audi’s Art of the Heist. Visitors who were attracted to audiusa.com by online advertisements promoting Art of the Heist devoted 34% of their page views to “buying indicator” pages – i.e. car configurator, dealer locator, payment, estimator, and request a quote — which represented a 79% increase in qualification over previous launch efforts. And Art of the Heist resulted in over 45 million PR impressions for Audi, while generating over 10,000 unique leads for Audi dealerships.

Jordan Weisman, one of the inventors of the form, shared with us his well-informed views on the commitment necessary to pull off an ARG marketing project. In his words: “There’s a misconception that this form of marketing entertainment has to be cheaper. Well, it’s not cheaper. A heck of a lot more effort goes into an ARG than a 30-second TV spot. You have to create a lot more content, and there’s a much larger editorial process involved. But the benefits, as opposed to the 30-second spot, are the level of immersion you create, and the level of affection that a person has for the brand and the experience, not to mention the community that grows around the brand and the experience. Those things provide real lasting benefit to brands. And one of the great things about an ARG is that, unlike with a TV spot, you know how engaged people are. You know how many people visited your websites, you know how many people are participating on the message boards – you can quantify things.”

All that said, ARGs are poised to become much more than just marketing tools. In Changing the Game, we discuss how ARGs can be used for training purposes, and even for harnessing collective innovation. At this point, there are some

exciting experiments in these areas that are worth examining, but more work is

needed to develop ARGs to their full potential.

Corporate training games have been a huge growth area, even as other kinds of serious games have struggled to get traction. What should the developers of educational games learn from the space of corporate training and conversely, what do educational game designers get right that should be considered more closely in corporate training games?

Educational game designers seem to think more about engagement and the role of fun in games than most corporate trainers. By focusing on how to reach kids, educational game designers seem to become more aware of the “holy grail” of training — education so entertaining that it proves self-motivating. Ironically, this is also the greatest weakness of many educational game designers. In an attempt to make learning as much like a game as possible, they end up creating the proverbial “chocolate-covered broccoli” — shoehorning educational content into traditional games. The result is neither fun nor particularly educational.

The corporate training market has typically proven less concerned about stereotypical “fun,” and instead has invested more in simulations in which learning happens naturally. Simulations like Virtual Leader, the leadership training simulator, end up being fun because the player gets to experiment with the role of leadership. Similarly, the Beer Game (a system dynamics simulation) is engaging because it is played as part of a team, in a competitive environment. Both Virtual Leader and the Beer Game teach valuable lessons in interesting ways because they allow exploration and experimentation, and encourage team interaction — not because they ape traditional video games. Educators should think more about how to encourage interesting exploration and interaction, rather than combining time tables with first person shooters, or hiding multiple choice examinations beneath the thin veneer of a “trivia game.”

Some of the most interesting sections of the book deal with the use of games as a means of collecting user innovation and tapping collective intelligence. To what degree is this section speculative? What work is already being done in this space?

We wouldn’t call it speculative, but we would say that this is the very cutting edge of the serious games movement. While there are only a few examples to speak of, they have proven very successful. In particular, Luis von Ahn’s work on “games with a purpose” has been published in a number of important journals, and von Ahn won a MacArthur Genius Grant for his work. One game of his, the ESP Game, encourages players to voluntarily identify random images on the Web in a way that computers simply aren’t capable of doing on their own. Many people play the ESP Game for over 20 hours a week, and over 20 million image labels have been harvested in just a few years; the equivalent of several million dollars of free labor. Professor von Ahn estimates that just 5,000 people playing The ESP Game for a month – a tiny number, compared to the active populations of many gaming websites – could label every image on the Web.

Other efforts include Fold.it, a game designed to help its creators identify the optimal shape of proteins. Fold.it players are already proving to be of great help, and interestingly, many of the top players are not biologists, or even people with a strong academic background in biology.

You may also have heard about the X2 Project (which has evolved into Superstruct, the forecasting game.) Efforts like these show how ripe this area is for future work!

For more on Changing the Game.

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.

Comments

  1. idontblog10 says:

    Dr. Jenkins,

    Please check your MIT e-mail for something sent by cox@susqu.edu. I would really love your input.