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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