Shall We Play a Game? Interactive Adventures in Social Marketing

My latest area of interest lays in the intersection between games and storytelling. Each approach by itself has great potential for engaging people in a way that more common forms of marketing do not. Whether it’s an alternate reality game like Urgent:EVOKE that challenges players to solve problems in hypothetical, but real-world, scenarios, or the NANOSWARM novel and video game targeting childhood obesity prevention, when people are drawn into the action themselves, they are more likely to be moved to action in real life. See Jane McGonigal’s recent TED talk on how gaming can make a better world for an eloquent introduction to how that might work.

Stories give us the opportunity to see the consequences of actions – both positive and negative. When we “get to know” fictional characters and care about what happens to them, the emotions that are evoked heighten the memorability and learning that can happen at the same time. On a related note, I’m happy to see that, in addition to the efforts of entertainment education professionals who work with television writers and producers to weave health and social issues into series plotlines, NBC Universal network execs are now directing the network’s shows to do “behavior placement” of eco-friendly and health-related issues. Seeing people–whether they are fictional or real–engaging in healthy or pro-social behaviors increases perceptions of social norms and can affect viewers’ attitudes toward the behavior (for better or worse, of course — it depends on how and by whom the action is portrayed).

Throw in game elements in which someone can direct the story and try out what works and what doesn’t, and you have the makings of a vicarious experience that can lead to bigger changes in knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. The Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth were always fun because they were more than a passive reading experience; what kid wouldn’t want to control the story? I’m enjoying an adult collaborative version of this, ongoing right now, in The Great Game, a serialized story by Tim Dedopulos in which readers get to vote on what happens next.

From a social marketing perspective, this “choose what happens next” approach in an interactive format gives us the opportunity to customize messages and content for each user. The UK’s Drop the Weapons campaign created a YouTube-based interactive series called “Choose a Different Ending.” At the end of each video vignette, the viewer has a decision point where they can choose whether to take a knife, which set of friends to follow, whether to fight, and is taken to the next video based on their choice.

Wahi Media is doing some exciting things with this idea, in a more sophisticated way. “Wahi” stands for “web automated human interaction.” This approach involves a simulated conversation, in which a person or people in a video talk and ask questions of the viewer. Depending on the viewer’s responses, the subsequent videos are tailored to provide messages that directly address their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors, as well as collecting the data for later analysis. The newly launched site from the Florida Department of Health uses a Wahi to talk to teens, parents and other audiences about the reality of the lives of teenagers. In addition to a direct “conversation,” the site also includes dramatic vignettes in which characters then turn to the camera to ask what you would do or what you think. The branching is seamless, so it feels like a coherent whole.

With these ideas in the back of my mind, I was inspired by a short Choose Your Own Adventure story on Twitter by Jonah Peretti, and Fabio Gratton’s subsequent comment on how the format could be used for health education. I set out to create a demo on Twitter to show how a Choose Your Own Adventure story for social marketing might play out. I focused primarily on traffic safety-related issues, as this genre of spy adventure usually involves people trying to get from one point to another without being caught. But I can think of many different issues that would lend themselves to this type of format: earthquake safety, sexual decision-making, flu prevention, and more. For nonprofits who are more interested in fundraising than behavior change, this format could still provide a way to engage potential donors or members and show why their involvement is needed.

A few caveats…

  • Twitter is not the ideal platform to use for this. The 140 character limitation makes it hard to advance the story and make it engaging. Plus, each time you click on a link, it automatically opens a new tab in your browser. I suggest you open the first link in a new window, so you can just close the whole window when you are done.
  • This demo was not created for a particular organization. If it were, the “learning pieces” would likely provide more information or links to the organization’s resources for follow-up if desired.
  • This is just a quick and dirty demo. When designing a story to meet a project’s behavior change objectives for a specific audience, much more time and strategic thought will go into it, so don’t let the cheesy storyline obscure the format’s potential. Ideally, the story would involve several different media elements, such as videos, mobile phones and puzzle-solving.

All that said, shall we play a game? Start here…

Marketing Games for Health

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invited me to write a guest post on its Pioneering Ideas blog, along with several other people who are investigating how games can be used to promote health. This guest blogger series is tied into the 2009 Games for Health Conference, which happened a couple of weeks ago, as well as a recent report from the Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which looks at how video games can be a positive force for children’s health.

The question they posed for us to answer was:

“There is a growing consensus that digital games can be deployed to support learning and behavior change for positive health outcomes among children. What do you think needs to be done to increase the use of digital games for this purpose?”

In my guest post, I look at the question from a marketing perspective to think about how to increase the acceptability of health games and to encourage their development and use. My post will be up on Monday at the Pioneering Ideas Blog. (I’m on my way out of the country for a week, but will update with the specific link to my post as soon as I can.) I hope you’ll take a look at it and leave a comment with your feedback and perspective.

Wii Love Healthy Video Games

I’ve written in the past about marketing health and social issues via video games, but it’s usually been in the context of content within the games. But on the heels of the success of Dance Dance Revolution in getting kids moving is the even hotter Nintendo Wii, according to this report from MarketingVOX:

With gaming console Nintendo Wii’s initial release came reports of people hurting muscles and experiencing soreness due to the physical exertion caused by playing virtual games such as bowling, tennis and baseball. Apparently, that was just one side of the coin.

At first, Nintendo dodged the reports of injuries, saying the Wii was not meant to be an exercise tool. However, that hasn’t stopped people like Michael DeLorenzo from losing nine pounds in six weeks thanks to the Wii, according to Time magazine. DeLorenzo has a book deal in the works about his Wii Workout and he’s teamed up with, a social fitness networking site to feature his new regime.

Even more amazing is that the Wii is now being used by medical researchers to treat children who suffer from hemiplegic cerebral palsy, a condition that can paralyze one side of the body. The Wii is also helping others bounce back from illness.

Breast cancer sufferer Mary Jane Zamora was too tired to get off the couch, but her daughters brought over a Wii and together they played Wii Sports daily. Zamora has since become the most-improved player in her bowling league.

With studies showing that active videogames, such as the Wii and Sony’s EyeToy, can burn three times more calories than traditional games, Nintendo has since embraced the phenomenon. “This huge fitness craze was more than we anticipated,” said Wii spokeswoman Perrin Kaplan.

Perhaps now is the time for health and fitness experts to partner with Nintendo to develop more games geared toward getting players moving aerobically without realizing they are exercising.

Photo Credit: wii-family by dcodez

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

Online Entertainment Bits and Bytes

Here are a few semi-related interesting tidbits related to online entertainment and games:

  • Today I met Fabio Gratton and Jeff Rohwer of Incendia Health Studios. They are doing a lot of interesting work at the intersection of health, entertainment and the internet. Their Live With It animated series of webisodes on living with HIV is excellent, they are building an advocacy community around breast cancer to let women share their stories, they’ve created an online interactive television network around Hepatitis B and are working on several other similar projects. They have an interesting business model of building the content and then finding sponsors (usually pharma companies).
  • The CDC is not just in Second Life, but also in Whyville, a virtual world for children and teens ages 8-15. In support of National Influenza Vaccination Week, the CDC joined forces with Whyville in a campaign to immunize its citizens against the virtual “Why-Flu.” This simulated version of influenza is transmitted by contact with other infected avatars and results in uncontrolled sneezing that interrupts the ability to chat as well as ugly red boils on the avatar’s face. By purchasing a virtual vaccination, Whyville citizens are protected from this problem and learn about the importance of early vaccinations in the process. (via Ypulse)
  • Second Life and other online role-playing games like World of Warcraft and the Sims can be used to create mini-movies called machinima. Over at the GamePolitics blog, there is a post on using machinima for social change. While he focuses on issues like politics and historical events, machinima can also be used to create short videos on health issues or medical simulations (for example, this Alcoholics Anonymous meets the Matrix video or this heart murmur simulation).
  • Finally, the Games for Health website has just made 12 presentations from their September conference available on their website, with more to come including a video from the conference.

That’s it for now. I’ll just leave you with the little teaser that I’m planning the next Social Marketing University training, which will take place in Washington, DC on March 28-30, 2007 (with the last half-day focusing on Next Generation Social Marketing — those who are already seasoned social marketers will be able to register just for that day). More details will be available soon, and if you would like to receive an announcement of this and future trainings, just send an e-mail to

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Third (world) Life

Village is a “multiplayer online real-time strategy game for the PC that
immerses the player into the role of an entrepreneur building companies
to bring prosperity to the villages of the third world.” Though they don’t have a demo of the game available yet, they are planning on getting an alpha version out in January. The goal of the game is to promote awareness of social enterprise (eradicating poverty through profits) and to get more people involved in third world development.

It seems to be a mash-up of SimCity, Second Life and the Peace Corps:

Fly over a remote village watching people walking about, farmers tending to their crops, people buying and selling goods in the town markets. Browse anybody in the village and see what income, jobs, education they have. View the stores in the town center to find out what is selling well, and what’s missing entirely. Set up your own store fronts to offer microcredit, kickstart pumps, solar cell rentals, all the self-sustaining businesses that will have the greatest impact on the villagers. Watch as farms flourish, villagers build new homes, and schools grow larger with more healthy children.

Ultimately, there may be tie-ins to reality, with companies that sell products used by nonprofit aid organizations sponsoring the game, nonprofits soliciting donations, and the possibility of applying what is learned to real villages. I don’t know if the business model will take off, given that there’s not a lot of extra money floating around in this sector, but it could be a place for Second Lifers to escape the first-world commercialism that’s invading their virtual space.

via CharityBlog

Technorati Tags: , , ,