A month or so ago I attended a really interesting session in the hallowed halls of Westminster. Hosted by Tom Watson MP, Taking Games Seriously sought to prompt a discussion “on the place of video games and virtual worlds in modern society – the lessons we might learn from them, their dangers, and why the public debate needs to move beyond breathless accusations about violent, screen-addicted young people.”

There was an element of preaching to the choir about the event. The panel and audience were wholeheartedly pro-gaming. It was more Middle Earth than Middle England. No one was there to condemn games as a modern curse that will blind the youth of today. So it wasn’t exactly a balanced debate around the perceptions of an industry that now outsells Hollywood. However, it did get me thinking…

Both Tom Chatfield and Sam Leith raised interesting points around the language of video games. Tom spoke about the need for a new vocabulary. Games, as he put it, have had existing terms re-appropriated to them; games are routinely referred to and reviewed with the same standards as a movie – but this does the unique dynamic of a game a severe injustice. We simply can’t talk about the plot of the latest Cohen Brothers film with the same words that we’d describe the fragmented, multi-layered, individual experience of three hours spent in WoW (World of Warcraft for the less-geeky of you). Sam then touched on the need to have a formal conversation about genre, in his view WoW is more akin to the architecture of a medieval cathedral, than any other cultural artefact. But Little Big Planet, again, couldn’t be described using the same words.

So. Interesting stuff. It struck me that when talking about games, we also need to address what ‘playing’ can mean. You play a boardgame, but no one expects Sunday Times Culture to write about Scrabble. Alex Fleetwood and Hide and Seek have created some incredible real-world experiences that are literally play-full. So if playing is so much fun, then why is there a need for games to be taken so seriously? Well, being a paid up member of the pro-games choir, I’d say it’s because not only is there real artistry involved in the development of a game, but that games are changing how we interact online and in the real world. They are having a societal effect. They’re also changing our perceptions of narrative – influencing the wider arts world in terms of multi-faceted story telling. For those reasons alone we should be talking about games seriously.

As PRs we can learn something from games – how to build multi-layered campaigns that talk to many people on many levels, for example. But as PRs talking about Digital Entertainment and the promotion of games, perhaps we also need to build stories that directly challenge perceptions rather than rely on old, traditional tactics. This is easier said than done of course. Many years ago I tried to pitch a feature looking at how World in Conflict, a game that sees Russia invade America and kick start a Nuclear War, resonated with contemporary Anglo-Russian relations (it was just after Litvinenko). Obviously this pitch fell on deaf ears. But as the media becomes more accustomed to games in the mainstream, so must we embrace new, serious, conversations around them.

As I was sat in Westminster, talking about games, my mind wandered up the river to the National Theatre. Drama is another form of play, of course. So what distinguishes King Lear from Lemmings? Again genre can play a role in terms of perception. For every Oedipus there is a pantomime dame (though arguably if Oedipus was attracted to a man in drag it could have ended very differently). Some plays are taken more seriously than others and the same can be said of video games. However, unlike video games – whether we’re talking about Widow Twanky or Mistress Quickly – all forms of theatre have the power to hold a mirror up to society. In Panto it is pop culture, in Shakespeare it is politics. It’s this fundamental difference that I think prevents video games being embraced by the cultural elite.

Not enough games (if any – though I’d happily be proved wrong) directly comment or offer a new perspective on society. Though the recent Chime – the first game from OneBigGame (a Live Aid for Video Games) – does show that gaming can engage in real world issues, even if only indirectly. [DISCLAIMER: Xbox is a JCPR Edelman client]. So perhaps at the end of the day games won’t be taken seriously, until they start saying something serious. Tom Watson joked that the Houses of Parliament would be an appropriate setting for an MMO – coteries of players, machinations and deceit framed within a Gothic landscape. With a disenfranchised electorate and an election looming it’s not such a bad idea.

Who knew the future of the farming industry existed online?

Love it or hate it, when you log on to Facebook you probably can’t help but notice that some of your ‘friends’ are keen for you to build a farm with them or herd some cattle. But rather than this being a semi-idyllic request to escape the rat race and do something outdoorsy, it is of course part of the latest breed of online games – Farmville. Dismissed by many as an annoyance on an increasingly cluttered social networking site, it cannot go unnoticed that this has now become a pretty big deal in terms of highlighting the serious business of casual gaming.

It soon becomes evident quite how big a deal this really is when you take a look at the statistics: 118m installs, 75m monthly players and 27m daily players (Farmville, 2009). Farmville was created by Zynga, a company created less than three years ago but which is now the number one gaming company on the web. The company has a catalogue of games with an average of 65 million people a day playing one of their games – when you consider that this is more than the population of France, the true scale of the business opportunity becomes apparent, even more so when you consider the amount of money people are spending on such games. In the UK last year there were more than 13 million ‘casual gamers’ with 2.4 million of these going on to spend money on these games, equating to £280m or £117 per person.

With this level of interest, the market has quite rightly been heralded as an area of growth, capitalizing on the fact that most people now want to include some level of socialization into everything they do online. The fact that users can share, recommend, help and compete with their friends when playing is perhaps what has led to the impressive levels of interest. It also heralds a new attitude to gaming – the peak time of use for Farmville is between 8am and 9am, highlighting how users are dipping in and out of gaming, perhaps much like checking their emails in the morning. So with huge demand and money to be made, where is casual gaming set to go?

The founders of Flickr are due to launch ‘Glitch’, a 2D platform game which they hope will take online gaming to the masses, although that is perhaps what Farmville has already done. Similarly, EA recently bought Playfish in attempt to catch up on the casual gaming market – a move which has been a success for them but one which shows how smaller developers can be on an equal playing field with the big boys, something which is less easy in the rest of the gaming world. In terms of building on current successes, Zynga has suggested that the next wave of growth will be centered around personalization of content, a common answer to most question in the digital space but one which makes perfect sense. With over 5 million members in the anti-Farmville Facebook group, there is clearly space to improve in terms of avoiding being seen as spam. Personalizing the content is something which will help sustain interest and increase loyalty which in turn should see the money being spent continue to rise. This is already being done by Zynga to some extent in terms of advertising, but the interesting space to watch will be to see how this transfers to the actual content. Watch this space.

@AJGriffiths

Last week a friend of mine suggested that I get involved with a social media experiment  being run by a gallery in Brighton.  @Fabrica had tweeted that they were looking for people to take part in a social media ‘game’ of sorts.  Jumping at the chance to ‘play’ whilst passing it off as ‘work’ – I got in touch…

You can read the official write up, but I figured I’d replay the tweets and let you know what I thought as well.

The games was called “Broken Whispers”.  Basically I was told that I would receive a message from a stranger, via tweet.  I then had to change two words and then send the altered message onto another stranger.  The ‘game’ happened three times.  Basically like Chinese Whispers2.0 the game was looking to explore themes of how stories evolve, to tie into an exhibition at the gallery.  As far as I can tell the game players enjoyed it a lot – gaining a cheap thrill out of knowing what these odd messages in their tweet stream were about, tapping into new communities and crucially having fun.

The old lit student within me found it interesting from a narrative point of view.  With my tweets I was trying to somehow continue a sense of story – only for an irregular word to be added further down the chain to really trip things up. I quickly realised though as with all crowd sourced content – the merit isn’t in how the message and story finishes, but in watching and participating in how it evolves.  Like Bowie’s best lyrics the chain was fragmented nonsense, but  by taking part in the process – listening to the whole band play, to continue the analogy – was where the fun could be had.

This obviously had some sort of artistic purpose, but when thinking about it within our brand focussed work it had a couple of learning’s for our own campaigns.  The first was a way of looking beyond the obvious “engage a community tactics”.  This game uses an existing community (the Fabrica Gallery’s followers – but equally of any brand) to build and create touch-points in other pools of influence in micro-communities – associated groups of people who are ultimately not related (my micro community of followers, and the followers of those I was messaging).

Recently we have been talking about the future of the press release and how companies can’t expect to fully own messages, only steer audiences in the right direction.  The game acted as an example of this – albeit with a heavily involved catalyst and moderator to steer the way.  It showed that if you give the community the right tools  they can play with the sentiment without totally destroying the message.  In today’s world, where brands are concerned, it should be about getting people involved, getting people to think, getting people to play.  It doesn’t have to be about repurposing the party line.

So who’s up for a game of “Broken Key Messages”?

@LukeMackay

221B Game

Alternate Reality my dear Watson

Transmedia is a bit of a buzz word at the moment. True it’s not exactly new, but then there’s no such thing as an original idea…

Henry Jenkins is the father of the movement. The Dumbledore to the wizardry of multiple narratives, if you will.

You may have seen the LA Times piece. It gives a good overview of where Jenkins thinking comes from.

There are countless examples new and old of Transmedia campaigns. Alternate Reality Games are more traditionally associated with this approach. Often used to market films or video games, but also as stand alone experiences, they really did pave the way for multi-channel narratives. They harnessed the hive mind – using the crowd to solve fiendish clues and
rewarded the community with content.

Many ARGs were too niche, you had to be too commited to the whole experience to get anything out of it – and to few people were actually playing to get a good return on the marketing spend. You couldn’t snack on them. However, alongside these various experiments in ARGs also came the rise of casual gaming, which inturn has grown the appetite for consumers to experience and explore new ways of enjoying entertainment content. So now we get some simpler – yet equally compelling – games that can be enjoyed by individuals but also as part of a hive. This new game for the Sherlock Holmes game is brilliant. (I mean simple by not taking up your whole life.  The puzzles are still fiendish, but I’m told you’ll complete the game in 8 hours, rather than 2 years).

This AdAge article talks about a Transmedia narrative that is both horizontal and deep. i.e. there is enough in the content to make it enjoyable on a basic top level, but deep enough that  the hardcore fans have plenty to explore. I’m not sure everyone can be entertained all the time – but this approach rests on giving the hardcore fans content that allows them to become amplifiers.

Transmedia in this traditional movie marketing guise is expensive. But PR is essentially story telling, so I think a lot of the values outlined here apply to us in our day to day lives.

1. Make stories drillable.
2. Each piece of a story must be enriching, but not essential, to its overall experience.
3. Recognize the power of your fans.
4. Build a world, not just a story.

A lot of this is stuff we’re already doing, but in the future it’s going to be essential that every story we create has multiple touch-points. Some media will want the topline info, some consumers will want to be able to drill down and explore the details, it will be necessary for each individual announcement to be a part of a constantly evolving bigger ‘world’ and – as we know – if we give the audience compelling content then they will also spread the word.

Madisson Avenue types have a heritage in creating this sort of content. But just as they have experience in telling a story in 30 seconds, so we have a professional vocabularly that allows us to reach out to multiple stakeholders and audiences through the channels we know are most appropriate for each conversation. What’s more trans-media than that?

@LukeMackay

"So don't become some background noise"

Spotify: a PR success, a service the world has grown to love and a potential game-changer for the music industry – but also a service which most of us have decided not to pay for. Instead, the majority of revenue remains reliant on advertising, users largely accepting an advert being played every half an hour as a small price to pay for having legal access to a myriad of music.

Yet over the weekend it emerged quite how insignifigant a money spinner this currently is for even the most popular artists. Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’ is one of the most popular tracks on Spotify, being played over a million times, yet a report claims that she has earned only $167 (about £100) from this. In view of the fact that many of the big music labels are given equity in Spotify in return for their artist’s material, this could understandbly lead to some anger – Swedish artist Magnus Uggla being a case in point.

Whether it is really relevant to measure the success of Spotify in this way remains to be seen as it is still a service in it’s infancy. Much like Twitter, it is phenomenally successful in terms of usability but is still finding its feet in terms of making money. As it continues to attract users it’s appeal to advertisers will grow and so to will the financial returns. How this filters down to the individual artist is then probably more of an issue with the labels than with Spotify.

If at this stage you instead view Spotify as a brand building tool to drive fans to the places which do make an artist money, it all becomes a bit more acceptable. After listening to a track on Spotify, many will pay to download the album, go to a gig or watch the video on YouTube – the latter being highlighted by Lady Gaga herself as one of the most lucrative touchpoints. The video for her latest single ‘Bad Romance‘ is a case study in product placement. The incredibly slick electro pop production includes products from Phillipe Stark, Nemiroff, HP, Nintendo and Burberry among others. Whilst there is always a danger that product placement in a video will translate to it becoming a glorified advert, each product has a logical role and is subtle enough to ensure credibility remains. For Lady Gaga (or her management) this means a big wad of a cash. By inviting the brands into her video It also means she can capitalise on her value as a brand endorsement whilst still playing by her rules. For the brands in question it means an instant association with a cool, headline grabbing personality. It also brings (at the time of writing) almost 17 million views and the knowledge that this video and brand exposure will stay online indefinitely. A win win situation.

@AJGriffiths

DISCLAIMER: HP is an Edelman Tech client.  @LukeMackay also has a Burberry coat, though no one pays him to wear it.   More’s the pity.

Since time immemorial we have trusted our televisions implicitly.  We’ve given the magical little box pride of place in the heart of our family homes, letting it pump out little bits of information/ celebratory dirge/ David Attenborough masterpieces (delete where appropriate) on a daily basis.   The American’s trusted the calming tones of Edward R Murrow so much that he was able to land a punch at McCarthyism.  We Brits – so trusting are we – that when welcoming the Beeb into the living room, we decided to call it ‘Aunty’.

But it has occurred to me that you cannot trust the talking wallpaper as far as you can throw an LCD flat screen.  Look at the evidence:  We can’t trust the commercial business model for starters. Some factions of the press wouldn’t have us trust the BBC Trust (clue is in the name).  But two things happened recently that have caused me to look differently at my television set:

  • Simon Cowell, DEADLOCK! and the Twins: Storm in a tea-cup perhaps, but bottom line is the country can’t trust the judges anymore (perhaps they never did but the facade is shattered, at least).
  • Last night’s Spooks: I won’t spoil it for you, but once again the people at Kudos showcased their mastery in pulling the rug from under the audience,  setting it alight, then dumping it in the Thames.

Square Eyes will be the least of our problems if we can’t even trust the televisual box anymore.  Or will it?

We talk about trust.  A lot.  For companies and brands it is a necessity.  For PRs – helping companies to build trust is in our blood.  But after the bombshell of last night’s Spooks followed by watching Good Night and Good Luck on iPlayer – I started thinking that for consumer campaigns maybe dis-Trust can play an equally important role.

Bear with me.  Spooks succeeds because it goes against convention.  You don’t trust the script writers to play safe and on some level there is an expectation that they’ll boil your favourite character alive.  It’s this tension that gets you to sit on the edge of the sofa.  Arguably the same can be said of the X-Factor.  Cowell is an old school PR genius – he knows how to play the audience.  By creating a bit of drama he guaranteed column inches galore.

So when coming up with campaigns to excite consumers I think we could learn a lot from these tactics: push boundaries, explore the unexpected, embrace the chaos.  As far as I can tell a bit of dis-Trust – in safe hands – could go a long way.

@LukeMackay

What Fisticuffs?

Having gone to an all boys school this story is starting to have the ring of a playground fight. If you ever remember the inane chant ‘Fight, fight, fight!’ and rush of morbid onlookers as the contenders lined up against each other. In the Internet content wars it looks as though we’ve got to the “hold my coat” stage.

Ok, so Google hasn’t been doing a lot in the recent past to make friends. For example, the well publicised spat with the Association of American Publishers (http://bit.ly/3dQIdx). Now it appears that Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch are both entering the fray (http://bit.ly/mCPqi)

Entertaining for us bystanders, but what does it actually mean? And should we be worried?

As with everything in technology Microsoft’s involvement appears to boil down to a seemingly inconsequential acronym – ACAP…which as everyone knows means Automated Content Access Protocol (a little light reading can be found here: http://bit.ly/2NLbJm). The protocol is being backed by a powerful alliance of some “1,600 traditional publishers” and is proposing a more sophisticated approach to giving access to content. Rather than the all or nothing model of Google, ACAP would be designed to give the publisher greater control over things such as premium content. Something that Murdoch wants to do, but the Financial Times gave up on.

Why this innoxious protocol shot to fame was revealed by Techcrunch on Friday (should we read anything into it that it was Friday 13th?). It was leaked to the site that a senior figure from MSN had a closed door meeting with the heads of some of the world’s major print publishing organisations including the Financial Times, News International and Axel Springer. Apparently Microsoft’s revamped search capability, Bing, is going to put £100,000 of financial investment into the development of the protocol.

So what!? In his article Mike Butcher asks some extremely valid questions:

“…will ACAP – the development of which is so far being controlled by newspapers – be used by Microsoft Bing simply as an indicator of how to treat a publisher’s site? Or would Microsoft help the publishers engineer ACAP into a kind of a rights management engine – with Bing becoming the central clearing house for content from traditional publishers?…And who gets to decide who is a favoured traditional publisher and who isn’t? Bing, or a newspaper-heavy body like the European Publishers Council?”

And this comes as Jonathan Miller, News Corp’s chief digital officer, announced at the Monaco Media Forum (http://bit.ly/468wqg) that it would be “months and quarters – not weeks” before Murdoch’s empire took the step to block Google. Miller’s comments rightly underline the panic spreading in the traditional media about the ‘free vs. paid-for’ content argument and the mere fact that News International is considering this move underlines the depth of concern at the one of the biggest media companies in the world.

And yet is this just the death throes of a industry that has been caught completely on the hop by the Internet? Is it merely lashing out aggressively, because it has run out of ideas on how to monetise the Internet?

However it plays out it will be fascinating watching…much better than the X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing combined!

@CairbreSugrue