Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Dark Marketing & ARGs

Dark marketing n. Discreetly sponsored online and real-world entertainment intended to reach hipster audiences that would ordinarily shun corporate shilling. McDonald's is the latest mega-brand to adopt this paradoxical promotional tool, with an alternate-reality game called The Lost Ring, nearly devoid of golden arches.

Via Wired Magazine's Jargon Watch

The example of dark marketing cited by Wired is MacDonald'sThe Lost Ring.

A few month ago I had the pleasure of attending this year's New Yorker Conference and meeting Jane McGonigal (a pioneer in the area of ARGs and one of the creators of "The Lost Ring") after her talk on gaming and virtual worlds. Here's video of that presentation.


Nixta said...

You can take the girl out of the valley, but you can't take the valley out of the girl.

Very very interesting, but I can't help but be philosophically concerned about some of the points of the talk, in particular the four items that comprise the economy of engagement (whatever that actually means). I see how the end result is a happier people, but it's surely treating the symptom rather than the cause. A good game should:

1) Satisfying work to do.
2) The experience of being good at something.
3) Time spent with people we like.
4) The chance to be a part of something bigger.

When this becomes a significant proportion of your life, isn't that a concern? With these games becoming more and more consuming it strikes me as being a dangerous weapon.

Done maliciously/poorly, it's like putting tranquillisers in the water.

Nixta said...

I meant to say

"A good game should give:"

But be careful. Don't by default believe that "giving" is a good thing. Most of the time it is, but remember you can give someone the herp...

kathleen said...

Ok, she's a PhD, and she thinks that the oldest historical reference to gaming is 3000 years old? Senet is an Egyptian(I think) board game known to be at least 5600 years old (found in paintings and arch. digs), and backgammon boards have been discovered in Iran that are at least 5000 years old. Other than that, she's pretty [and] damn smart :-)

I completely agree about the impulse to game being based in our genetic survival skills. I disagree about the lack of a connection between real life and game life - just because we don't notice it doesn't mean it's not there. The assumption is always that misfits are the only real gamers. Yes, D&D and WoW have a large proportion of people who are unhappy with RL. However, children learn to play before they learn to speak or sit up, which indicates that it's an essential part of our development as humans.

All people, whether they realize it or not, play games, real games with rules, goals, etc. Whether it's crossword puzzles, debate team, football, quarters, poker, spin-the-bottle, or World of Warcraft, we all find what we need to keep learning and engaging.

If a game doesn't give a sense of accomplishment, a chance to succeed, enhance skills, and connect the player to other people or themselves, it usually doesn't survive. That doesn't mean they're all good or good for you - everything on this planet has two sides. Like alcohol, roughly 10% of the population is at risk for addiction. And occasionally some sort of game-crack comes along and grabs more than that.

Games are not for people who can't handle reality, they're a "safe" place to test/practice for reality.

Jane said...

Nixta -- agreed, as immersion is such a powerful force, done maliciously, game design could be a dark force; that's why I think it's important to teach game design to organizations working for positive change in the world. Also, you're making an assumption that the kind of games I'm talking about could potentially take over your life and disconnect your from reality in some sense. In fact, I'm talking about games specifically designed to immerse you in the real world, and amplify your ability to create meaningful engagement with other people and real life. You might have a hard time picturing such games because they are on the bleeding edge of game development; but trust me, I'm not talking about taking people AWAY from "real life" and toward virtual gaming. It's about designing the real world to work more like a game. Check out www.worldwithoutoil.org for a good example of this if you haven't seen it already.

Kathleen, the Herodotus reference is to the first written history of gaming, not the first historical evidence of gaming. I don't know of any earlier written HISTORIES, in the sense of the art of recording and interpreting the past, of games . I realize you can find evidence that games existed, but I don't believe, for example, that there are any Egyptian histories or Iranian histories of games that predate the Herodotus text. And more to the point -- considering that Herodotus' work is considered the first actual histories (as in "collect past materials systematically, testing their accuracy and arranging them in a well-constructed and vivid narrative"), on any subject, period, it would logically have to be the first written history of gaming.

Kathleen said...

Thank you for the clarification. I'm a bit mortified - I responded to Tom's post as a friend, not realizing a "real" person would read it. That'll teach me to make assumptions and stupid comments :-)

Nixta said...


I'll take a look at world without oil for sure, but I don't think I'm making assumptions, though I may have been guilty though of focusing on only one aspect of your talk.

I'll take an example from the talk that really stuck with me (though I'll watch it all again because there really is a lot there): The Prius-owning girls who play a game of who can get the highest fuel-economy. There are two things here that are interesting and potentially consternating:

Firstly: This is going to sound borderline moronically anxious and paranoid on the back of my first post, but we're lucky that this is a good game to play. As the frameworks are created, installed and develop to support these immersive games that will inevitably arrive, they could provide a platform or even a springboard for malicious intent. This is potentially much more hazardous than socially maladjusted teenagers hunkered down in the basement obsessing over WoW (it's arguable if they're by-and-large hazardous in the first place - MMOthingies get a bad name in the excitable media).

Even without frameworks, kids and adults already make such games without even realising it and without dedicated support frameworks/infrastructures. To many, they're forms of escape that happen to be regimented by rules. They fit in with your points 2 and 3. Street-fighting is an example of one that's clearly bad, with inventive use made of things such as MySpace and YouTube to extend it. In fact, I wonder if you could argue that gangs and gang warfare/conflict are an extension of this. Clearly you rapidly distance yourself from the name "game" in these cases but they do match the four core points.

To that end, I don't believe that it's sufficient to merely "teach game design to organizations working for positive change in the world" but that a way of monitoring and policing needs to be an integral part of the consciousness around these developing systems. That's my concern. In other words the fantastic advances that could clearly blossom and balloon need something in place to ensure they don't balloon out of control (like the development of computer viruses for example, perhaps one of the original online community games - and we only have that under control because computers don't write viruses yet, people do).

Secondly, winding back to the girls in their Priuses: of course fuel-economy is a good thing to achieve, and discussing ways to achieve it are brilliant (albeit should be taught in driving school but that's not my point). People immerse themselves to different degrees. It may be clear that I have an obsessive line in my thinking so I may be slightly biased, but the side-effects of this game run the gamut from great (your points 2 and 4) through psychologically unconstructive (obsession) to just plain dangerous (distraction). When I learnt to drive some million or two years ago, our car had a fledgeling on-board computer and I spent far too much time watching the fuel economy alter according to the way I drove it and probably as a result spent too little time with my eyes on the road. I know I had some close calls.

Two points then: The undesirable hijacking of these great new principles needs to be foreseen and acknowledged; Even well-meaning participants and games can achieve undesirable ends without due care.

I do not advocate a police state (much though I'd sometimes like to), but technology has facilitated the growth and dissemination of ideas and information to such a degree that at times it's barely under control. This is a great opportunity to accompany the growth with a guiding hand.


P.S. Incidentally I don't think all WoW players are socially maladjusted spotty teenagers, but I know that I would become a thirty-something maladjusted freak if I ever signed up.

Kathleen said...

Technology and ethics have always been out of sync. While I share some of Nixta's concerns, I also know that anyone can take a game and mutate it. That's what life is, and I don't think it's really a good idea to try to control it (plus it doesn't work). We have laws governing behavior, making cults and gangs that use violence illegal, while Girl Scouts are not. There's a lot of grey area between the two, admittedly, but for good reason, I think.

Grand Theft Auto - good game or bad? Is Halo better because we're killing aliens, rather than humans? Several Harvard studies have suggested that violent games don't increase violent behavior in children, and that first-person shooters can improve reaction times in the elderly (well, everyone, but it's particularly helpful for the elderly), as well as other cognitive skills. Skills we need versus fears of what might happen.

As for people being too immersed, it is a concern, but it's a concern with work, food, alcohol, relationships, pretty much anything we do in life. Jane McGonigal's created some very thought-provoking games that allow people to be engaged with each other and the world, rather than getting by a an observer. I second the request to check out http://www.worldwithoutoil.org/ .

It doesn't all have to be high-minded, but her games do teach and reveal:

and one of my personal favorites:

Nixta said...

I agree, Kathleen, but I think I was talking about something else. However, now that I've gone back and watched Jane's talk again, I'm not entirely sure where it came from.

What I had in mind was a future where games are all around us. I think Jane alluded to that vision very briefly in the talk but didn't go into it. Making going to the hospital some sort of immersive entertainment for example.

You already see some half-assed advertising campaigns (Thomas has written about his disappointment in their execution, I think) which offer the promise of things to come. Mysterious posters that together provide clues for a phone number to ring, but that number is then just a recorded message about a movie or something.

For some reason I had in mind things like that. A sidewalk that tells you to look up and then you see clues that guide you to the park for a sit down and a relax for example, where the trees and gates and bushes and tables etc. are arranged and decorated in a way to provide a puzzle to keep you entertained just long enough that you get a healthy break from the stresses of work. The clues adjust as you approach the park to guide you to free park benches as monitored by cameras around the place.

Hell, just make parking garages more fun as you drive around them trying to find a parking spot.

My concerns are framed in that context, where you are blurring games with viral marketing with reality and potentially an unknown source and driver for the game (what if that game in the park ended up making you buy 7-Up?).

Word without oil is of course great, but the web pages clearly guide you through it and you are aware you're in the game. Very aware. In fact you have to proactively enter it and return to it. The contributions are fantastic and the end result is very interesting indeed. Of course I wasn't able to participate in the same way and can just see the archives so I have to imagine somewhat just what it would have been like to participate.

In case there was any doubt at all, I think Jane's work is truly invauable and engrossing (I'm quite envious, to be honest). I'm looking forward to a future when I can see current subway train arrival times in PacMan form while other passengers play real-life frogger to get out of the way of people getting off the train. I just don't want someone to use that sort of stuff to encourage me to buy 7-Up.

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