Why Playing Games With Consumers Won’t Work

We all love good, provocative speeches that makes you feel like you’re looking at things in a new way, which is why Jesse Schell’s ambitious speech at the Dice 2010 Summit – about the future of gaming, networked sensors and marketing embedded in our daily lives – is still reverberating around the web several weeks on. I discovered it after Om called it the most mind-blowing thing he’d seen in a long time. Mathew later expounded on its themes in a thoughtful way. Others raved about it, calling it “astounding” and “Gibsonian” (as in William Gibson).

My reaction was different. I watched it not as a designer or advertiser but as a consumer, and when it was over I was overcome with a wave of depression. Somehow I’d hoped the future would be less dystopian than what Schell laid out — in particular the notion of games as a marketing tool to corral consumers into desired behaviors. Apparently, I’m not alone. A clip of the last 10 minutes of his speech was recently posted on YouTube under the banner “Most Disturbing Presentation Ever: Our Tech Nightmare.” From there it spread to Hacker News via a blog hosted by IEEE Spectrum, which said:

Schell’s apparent goal is not to scare his audience. He’s way beyond that. His attitude is that, given how close we already are in theory to experiencing life as a game, it’s clearly something that’s going to happen and we better make sure it gets done right. But, sorry Schell. While you may not have wanted to, you scared me and a whole bunch of other people.

But if the early enthusiasm that greeted Schell’s vision was over-enthusiastic, this new wave of alarm is also overdone. There may be a future for Foursquare-like startups that can create compelling game-like features in apps. But marketing is an entirely different matter. Marketers and advertisers are the eternal gate-crashers in the world of content. The best ads have always been the rare ones that engage consumers intelligently. The worst ads have taken a cynical approach, viewing consumers as so many behavioral buttons to be pushed.

Schell is probably right that there’s a home for video game designers in marketing and that behavior-detecting sensors will grow ubiquitous in time (just as behavior tracking on the web is nearly ubiquitous today). But the old-fashioned distinction between good ads and bad ads remains the same, and will be played out again on a larger scale as new technology takes marketing to a broader, and potentially more intimate, platform.

So if marketing companies are excited about using emerging technologies to play new games with consumers, they should think twice. The rewards may be greater, but the task will be much trickier. Consumers, after all, have only so much time and attention for games. It is already difficult enough to make any game engaging. Keeping up with frequent-flier programs, credit card reward programs, and so on can be tiring after a while.

Now imaging that the new rewards-based game your company developed has to compete not just with those, but hundreds of other new marketing games targeted at an overtaxed audience. Just this week, New York City tried to induce citizens into good behavior with the most basic of rewards — cold hard cash — but it failed.

Eventually, the consumer appetite for games will reach a saturation point, and these campaigns will be seen as just another cynical ploy to manipulate us into spending money. We like games because they offer a needed respite, even an escape, from the grind of everyday life. But if life becomes a game, where’s the respite? The escape becomes the very thing we wanted to escape in the first place.

Image courtesy of Mike_fleming from Flickr.