With industry analysts heralding advergaming as the revenue model of the future, and success stories like last fall's Burger King Xbox promotion capturing headlines left and right (and selling two million units in four weeks), the hype around advergaming is becoming all but unavoidable ... whether you buy it or not. As this industry segment matures, the questions it raises about commercialization and the future of regulation in digital gaming could fuel debate for years to come. And yet, despite all the fuss, the hubbub, the unresolved tension between players and advertisers, I'm already feeling done with all this advergame talk.
The root of my ennui has a lot to do with the way the term has been used by both the press and academics in discussing what should be seen as the slow-but-steady integration of marketing tactics into videogames. But instead, we seem to be stuck scratching at the surface, focusing on how advertising will affect gaming instead of questioning how gaming might transform the twin fields of advertising and marketing. While it's important the "adver" part of advergaming is getting attention, we now need to expand our thinking to include its less obvious implications, as well. Namely, once marketing is merged with the interactivity inherent to gaming, we're suddenly dealing with something much more complex than what we're used to.
Just as adware often incorporates spyware, games can also be used to gather various types of user information. Through data-mining, chat analysis and other forms of automated surveillance, player input can be turned into valuable market research data. This can range from statistics on player demographics and in-game activities to more nuanced findings about the ideas and opinions players communicate while gaming or participating in related forums. With advergames, this transformation can also lead to direct and detailed feedback on the effectiveness of particular ads and techniques. The feedback loop between advertiser and player is thereby brought full circle, from market research to reception analysis and back again.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff as a result of a professional interest in kids' online game culture, which seems to have become somewhat of a safe haven for marketers to experiment with new techniques. Here, the analysts' predictions have, in many ways, already come true. For the past five years, advergames (and websites featuring advergames) like Neopets, CartoonNetwork.com and Barbie.com, have dominated both Hitwise and Nielsen//Netratings' listings of sites most frequently visited by kids. They also feature prominently among children's own top-rated online destinations. Kids are spending a lot of their time online playing advergames, and the children's industries have certainly taken notice.
The most overt example of data-mining in advergames can be found in one of the most popular sites on the internet, Neopets.com. Neopets constructs and sells extensive youth trend reports based on information gathered through the games, polls and forums featured on its site. By "immersing" clients' advertisements and product placements into the very fabric of Neopets' gameplay, the site is also able to track players' exposure to specific ads and then solicit their opinions about them. With over 30 million members, 39 percent of which are under the age of 13, Neopets offers its clients unprecedented access to the minds (and possibly wallets) of an otherwise hard-to-reach demographic. While most sites are likely to keep the results of their data-mining activities in-house, the information gathered can nonetheless be tremendously valuable for future advertising design and product development.