Why some games suck, and what they can teach marketers

The latest issue of Fast Company contains an exciting piece by Adam Penenberg on how game mechanics – the scenarios, choices, rewards, and penalties that make gaming fun – are being adopted by the business world, for everything from loyalty programs to employee training. I care about this topic because I’ve staked my claim on what game theory can teach marketers, and game mechanics is sort of like game theory’s cool cousin – you know, the one with the Trans Am and the AC/DC posters? At least that used to be cool.

I’ve had occasion to think about what applied game mechanics could mean for marketers too, because I’m writing a new book on game theory that promises to be even more obscure than the last, examining how game theory’s rules of survival are at play in the films of Quentin Tarantino. As part of my, uh, “research” for that project, I decided to play the 2006 Xbox game adapted from Reservoir Dogs, to see how well Tarantino’s sophisticated rules of survival translated into actual game rules.

The answer is: not very well. Whereas the film Reservoir Dogs is a finely woven web of actions and deadly consequences, the game is a damn mess of unreliable outcomes. The player can ostensibly choose between paths of savagery or compromise, but the results are arbitrary: sometimes cops will give up and lay down their arms with little incentive, and at other times they’ll reverse course and come after you. Others become invincible for no apparent reason.

So what does the desecration of Reservoir Dogs via Xbox have to do with marketers’ use or misuse of game mechanics? I think thus far we marketers have done a lousy job of applying the notion ofconsequence, just as the game did. The Penenberg article, citing an influential speech by game designer Jesse Schell, envisions a game-based marketing world, in which consumers earn instant points for every little thing they do, from eating a certain cereal to wearing a logo as a temporary tattoo. The idea is to make consumer interactions with brands more fun by making them more rewarding.

The central problem with this slightly horrifying fantasy is that the mindless accumulation of points isnot what makes games fun. Consumers may opt in for more brand encounters if you give them points, but that won’t actually make them like the brands any better. There’s no thrill to it, because there’s little competition and no risk. The part that’s missing is the same part that’s missing from poorly designed games like Reservoir Dogs: a meaningful, reliable application of consequence.

It’s not easy to envision marketers applying consequences to marketing games. We are, despite our reputation as schemers, actually chronic pleasers who overreact to positive feedback. If consumers agree to play a game with us, we’re apt to behave like golden retrievers, inexhaustibly nudging the same slobbery ball at the consumer over and over, until they become annoyed and hide the ball on top of the fridge. I know this, because I’m a Starwood member.

So how can marketers apply consequences in a way that makes consumers want to play? I don’t know, exactly; I think we have a lot of work to do. But for starters, I think marketing games need to be competitive; they need to have winners and losers. I’d be a lot more jacked about my Starwood program if I had to be one of the first 20 members to check in to a hotel in order to grab up some bonus points, and I could follow the action live on my mobile app, with other players’ avatars racing against mine. A few of us would win, and many would lose, but we’d all have fun, and we’d all want to try again as soon as possible.

The remarkable thing about that simple scenario is that Starwood would end up giving up less and getting more back (fewer points, more loyalty), and I could end up giving up more and getting less back (more time, fewer points), but we’d both end up happier because of the game. Traditional marketing can’t perform that deft bit of alchemy; it can only give stuff away. Good games actually contain an inversion of marketing logic: the more that’s demanded of you, the more you’ll give, up to a certain point where rewards must follow.

As a jaded marketer with his bleary eyes affixed on a horizon of better and more interesting marketing experiences, I’m excited about what game mechanics can teach us. And I’m excited that technology is evolving to make this all possible. We recently recommended a mobile app platform to a client based on its ability to reward consumers for participation in charitable activities that the client sponsored; the logistics of tracking that kind of participation would have been impractical just two years ago.

Change can’t come soon enough, because the marketing world is still mostly stuck in the zero-sum rut, with marketers trying to maximize access to consumers at the lowest possible expense, and consumers trying to minimize their exposure to marketers while still getting free content. We can hobble along this way for the foreseeable future, but where’s the fun in that?

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Do you have a Facebook policy? You will.

I am not a lawyer, but I do know that if you encounter an article that begins with “I am not a lawyer, but…” you should stop reading immediately. If you’re still reading, then you’ve given implied consent to me sounding off about this recent Facebook/NLRB dust-up on the basis of no legal training, but no shortage of opinions.

In short, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that an ambulance company acted illegally in firing an employee after she criticized her boss to other employees on her Facebook page. The company’s social media policy was deemed too broad, as it prohibited employees from depicting the company “in any way” on any social network site. Yeah, that does sound a tad broad.

But the widespread reaction in the blogosphere, depicting the ruling as blanket protection for employees’ right to say what they want about their employers on social media, also misses the mark. The NRLB ruling is actually very narrow; it held that a negative discussion about the company on Facebook constituted concerted protected activity because employees have a right to organize to improve their workplace, and the conversation could be interpreted as an effort to do so—even if the content was pretty snarky (“snarky” being the legal term, of course). It’s not clear that the employee’s actions would even have been protected if no one had replied to the post, or if the post had been directed at non-employees.

In truth, the ruling makes social media policy a stickier wicket than ever before. As the New York Times piece on the Facebook postpoints out, a company could still fire an employee for disparaging an employer for reasons unrelated to work, or for disloyalty, which generally means defaming the company without supporting facts. I learned that lesson the hard way, when I was forced to retract my blog post “White Horse: Fourth Horse of the Apocalypse?” pending further end-time revelations. (This seems like a good time to point out that satire is considered protected speech.)

The bottom line is this: the notion that companies need to chuck out any restrictions on employee social media conduct is simply untrue. What is manifestly true is that all companies need social media guidelines; this may seem altogether obvious, but a recent Deloitte survey on social media ethics found that as many as one-third of companies don’t have guidelines. I suspect the percentage is much higher if small to medium businesses are taken into account.

If drafting social media guidelines sounds like as much fun as a sharp stick in the eye, you could, ahem, work with your digital agency to get the job done. You could also take up LinkedIn’s Mario Sundar’s fine suggestion that policies be formed collaboratively with employees. That’s a great way to get employees on board for being more careful about their use of social media without having to be all legal and ham-fisted about it.

Say, for instance, that you’re a childcare provider, and there’s a Facebook group specifically devoted to employees who like to get their drunk on after a hard day of caring for our nation’s future. Nothing illegal about that, but employees might be persuaded that such brand-linked bacchanalia is bad for business, which is bad for them. Social media collaboration prevails, and everybody wins.

At the root of this issue is the simple truth that in social media, transparency and open expression are flip sides of the same coin. Employers have more insight into what their employees do and think in their off-hours, and employees have a bigger sounding board for their gripes about their employers. This kind of power demands a measure of discretion on both sides.