most consoles, the Wii keeps
track of your bowling scores,
tennis skill level, and even time
spent playing. It actually speaks
back to you, sending you emails
from characters in the games
and inviting you to connect your
Wii with your friends’ through
its built-in Wi-Fi.
The Wii’s friendly, interactive
approach has birthed a unique
user experience in the real life,
in-person “Wii party,” what one
blogger calls “Tupperware parties for dudes.” Did Nintendo
start this phenomenon for
promotion? Begun by users
and then latched onto by savvy
Nintendo marketers? Hard to
say. But the success of Wii parties as a grassroots, bottom-up
marketing tool is undeniable.
Evite.com even has a section
of specially designed Wii-party
invitations. After trying out
the system with their friends,
players become customers who
become brand champions.
A new genre of gaming,
alternate-reality games, or ARGs,
have attracted millions of players around the globe who work
collectively to solve puzzles,
find clues, and answer riddles.
ARGs have been used to promote
movies such as “Cloverfield”
and “Pirates of the Caribbean”
or a Nine Inch Nails’ release, but
ARGs don’t promote products
overtly. Key to the experience is
the denial from the top that the
games even exist, all the while
immersing players in a brand
experience that spills out from
their computer and into real life.
The 2001 ARG tied to the
Steven Spielberg movie “Artificial
Intelligence: AI” was one of the
first to inspire users to collaborate in online groups. Indeed,
the games are far too complex
to be solved alone, writes Jane
McGonigal, an ARG designer and
a Ph.D. scholar of play.
In the AI game, known as The
Beast, “players were also charged
with cracking complicated and
time-consuming puzzles that
variously required programming,
translating and hacking skills,
obscure knowledge of literature,
history and the arts, and brute
computing force,” McGonigal
writes. ARG players create their
own tribes around the game,
and by extension, the products
the game explores.
Play Means Serious Business
Recently, my partner and I met
with an intriguing young company. Though the principals
were in their 20s, they had just
secured their second round of
funding, had achieved a respectable level of sales, and were
growing according to plan—a
success story in the making.
In terms of the product strategy, marketing, and business
model, they hired only the foremost experts in their field to
mentor them. Down to the pixel,
their website had every usable
feature, gave them credibility
by quoting third-party “expert”
endorsements, and featured all
the other best practices that
have been proven to work.
They forgot one key ingredient: Their brand platform was
devoid of engagement, lacking a
level of play that resonates with
Companies that invite us to
play invite us to make their
offerings our own, and then we
buy and “tell a friend” about
it. Perhaps we even syndicate
it on Digg or back to Facebook.
Increasingly, such endorsements
drive the choices buyers make.
When you let your audience
play with your brand, they
become part of it. They volunteer
for your army. They recommend your product or service.
Play is now an imperative for
companies wanting to lead. The
interactive marketers at my firm
are working to help those twen-tysomething entrepreneurs and
other, older clients discover their
own inner sense of play and how
it relates to them, their brand,
and their customers.
Since we could first interact
with the world as babes, we’ve
known how to play to learn
and develop. Grownups need to
rediscover that sense and know
that it’s okay—no, necessary—to
play in business, if the business wants to keep learning and
developing. For a company to
become an icon, and thus reach
its market potential, our global
culture demands playfulness.
I just compared movie tastes
on Facebook with a senior vice
president from a major lending institution, a former client.
Another friend—a venture capitalist—turned me into a vampire, then sent me a private post.
He is ready to play, and that
could mean serious business.
ABOUT ThE AUThOr
Michael Graber is the
managing director of the
Southern Growth Studio, a
product-innovation firm. He
has worked with Fortune 500 companies
and startups in various roles: information
architecture, brand strategist, and innovation director. At the Studio, Graber leads clients through innovation implementations
and brand transformations, and validates
product concepts from both user-experience and business-model perspectives.
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July + August 2008