Thursday, June 12, 2008

Games That Aren't Games: Borrowing Gameplay to Create Better Tools and Marketing

We humans are easily deceived into doing things. Just ask Ben Rogers, Mark Twain's fictional character. Ben happens upon Tom Sawyer, who is toiling at the task of painting a fence. Ben starts out to mock poor Tom for being stuck with the chore, but within a couple of paragraphs Ben is willfully and happily laboring applying paint to the fence.

Tom Sawyer, and Mark Twain, recognized the power of a challenge. All Tom had to say was, "I reckon there ain't one boy in a thousand, maybe two thousand that can do it the way it's got to be done." Poor Ben was no match for Tom's craftiness and his own ego.

Present us with a challenge and provide the means so that we might prove our speed, power, coordination, skill, or knowledge, and we'll do just about anything. So powerful is the draw of gameplay and competition that the gaming industry will soon eclipse the music business. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the gaming industry will reach $48.9 billion globally in 2011, surpassing spending on music and growing at a CAGR of 9.1% between 2007 and 2011.

This many consumers spending this much money must provide some powerful lessons for marketers, don't you think?

On this blog, I've frequently shared information about marketers' use of advergames--games created to increase a brand's awareness, preference, or purchase intent--but now I'd like to explore games that aren't games. Knowing the human desire to play games, how can the ingredients of gameplay be remixed to do cook up a dish that does more than simply provide a leisure activity?

There are some terrific examples of online applications that look like games and feel like games, but really aren't games. Like Tom Sawyer, these sites craftily capture visitors' time and attention with challenges that not only entertain but also create other value.

Google Image Labeler
One of the great challenges to Internet search providers is furnishing relevant search results for those seeking specific images. Search engines don't really know what is contained within the images they index; instead, they make assumptions based on the words that appear in proximity to those images.

This model frequently produces odd results. For example, search Google Images for "Jumping Girl Wearing Red," and just two of the top fifty results are what you and I might expect. The first image returned is of a girl who is neither jumping nor wearing red, but the page on which Google found it contains photos of a birthday party and text that notes one girl "loves to jump" and another is wearing red.

Since no computer can (yet) scan an image and determine the subject matter with any reliability, it would seem providing graphical search results is a problem that defies solution. Some companies are trying to pay people to view and tag images, but this approach does not offer a sustainable revenue model. Leave it to Google to find a workable (if small) solution with the Google Image Labeler.

You couldn't pay me for the dull task of tagging images, but I happily spent 30 minutes doing so for free because Google turned this task into a game. Users commit to two-minute intervals during which they are randomly matched with a partner. Both partners see the same image, enter descriptive labels, and earn points when a label matches; the more specific the label that you match with your partner, the more points you earn. After the match, each partner is presented with the images they saw and the labels input by the other. You also accumulate points and can see how you rank relative to others.

The Google Image Labeler succeeds by using the following elements associated with games:
  • Defined, brief time period
  • Simple rules
  • The mystery of cooperating with another
  • A points-earning challenge
  • A task that requires (and allows one to demonstrate) their knowledge, memory, speed, and spelling
  • The ability to compare your scores to others

Brand Tags attempts to decipher what consumers think of brands by asking them to enter a word or phrase that first comes to mind as a series of logos are presented. The results are fascinating to review.

Entering labels for each brand is interesting for only a short while. It doesn't take long to get tired of seeing one brand after another and entering a word into a field. Brand Tags could encourage more engagement by providing more game-like feedback to participants. For example, the site could inform people how the word they entered ranked among the list of words entered by previous participants. (To be fair, this might undermine Brand Tag's objectives by inspiring people to guess what others entered rather than entering their own labels.)

Where Brand Tags turns more game like is with its Backwards feature. The site presents you with a word cloud (where the size of the word is associated with the frequency it was entered) and asks you to guess the brand. On one page, I saw the giant words "camera," "film," "photo," and "picture". This could've been any photography brand, but the page also included the words "moment", "dead", and "old"--so I correctly guessed the brand was Kodak. If the site added a scoring function to the Backward feature, they might generate considerable more interest and traffic.

Free Rice
Charity, hunger, advertising, vocabulary and gameplay collide on this entertaining site. The simple challenge is to define a word by selecting another that it best matches. As you do, you accumulate grains of rice to be donated to the UN World Food Program to help feed the hungry. With each correct answer, you begin to increase your vocabulary level to ever more difficult words.

The free rice is paid for in simple fashion. On each page is served an ad from a sponsor. The site seems to be wholly sponsored by Unilever's Country Crock, Rama, and Blue Band, at this time.

The game is addictive. You quickly advance from words like "vaunt" and "wearisome" to words such as "larboard," "cuneate," and "proem." If you are familiar with those words, your vocabulary is better than mine and you should definitely visit the site to play for a while. See if you can best my highest Vocabulary Level of 43.

Of course, part of the fun is playing for a good cause. Each correct answer earns 20 grains of rice. In quick order I had accumulated over 2,000 grains of rice. That's nowhere near the 19,200 grains of rice that is required to feed a person each day, but it's a start toward helping people in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Cambodia--and all I had to do was play a game!

This site succeeds by generating value for everyone involved. The sponsors are associated with charitable and educational endeavors. The visitors enjoy the gameplay. And hungry people receive needed supplies. To date, people visiting the site have earned 36 million grains of rice and in its first five months, FreeRice generated enough rice to feed more than one million people. might consider a couple upgrades to foster even greater involvement. Learning from true gaming sites, FreeRice could spark a great deal more traffic by providing a means for consumers to challenge friends to beat their scores. Allowing consumers to register so they can save and compare their accumulated rice grains to others would create more competition and repeat visits. And a feature that allows groups of people, such as schools or employers, to aggregate their scores would generate a great deal of excitement.

As these three sites show, marketers and interactive developers can borrow from the desirable and engaging aspects of gameplay to create interactions that draw and hold consumer interest. We all can learn from Tom Sawyer: A little competition never hurt anyone!


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