Alternate-Reality Games: The Future of Advertising?

When the alternate-reality game, I Love Bees, first started, people were completely engrossed. Hours were wasted combing the website for clues and trying to piece together the mystery. Of course, we know that I Love Bees was a marketing campaign for the best-selling XBox game, Halo 2, but that didn’t stop anyone from enjoying the experience. That’s the real appeal of this type of marketing: engaging your audience to the point that they give up personal time just to think about your product. I remember, while the game was still going, thinking “how much time do you have to have to discover that there’s a hidden message inside of a corrupt image file? Whoever came up with this is a genius.” That genius is Jane McGonigal.

Jill McGonigal, Lead Designer with 42 Entertainment ( a Seattle-based alternate-reality game company), sat down and spoke with CNet about the future of alternate-reality gaming and the impact of the Nintendo Wii. McGonigal specializes in creating games that get large groups of people involved in either solving a problem or being part of a group. The real reward for anyone involved is a feeling of involvement and being part of something bigger, such as those who participated in the I Love Bees game, or any of the other events that have taken place.

During the interview, McGonigal is asked if the Nintendo Wii is good for Democracy, which is a fairly interesting question that receives a fairly interesting response. “Yes. What I like about the Wii is that it appeals to nongamers,” says McGonigal. “And so it’s increasing the pool of people who interact with game systems, giving them a pleasurable and positive experience of interacting with a video game machine. Why is this good for democracy? Well, such participation is really satisfying. You see your impact immediately in the games.”

For a video game system to have a significant draw for nongamers is the Holy Grail of this business. Whichever system has the highest appeal to the general public is going to have an easier time with market penetration. That, however, is not what McGonigal is referring to. She’s talking about the notion that the more nongamers you get involved with an actual game that they can see results from, the more acceptance gaming will earn in the future.

Of course, with acceptance, gaming can then become a part of everyday life for a larger group of people, which means more sales and business growth. “With Wii, other people are often there–an audience for your impact on the game state,” says McGonigal. This form of advertising is completely brilliant.

Going beyond viral marketing (the act of infiltrating communities or “accidentally” releasing a commercial on the Internet which wasn’t meant to be seen), which has been very popular for the last few years, any chance to get the public actually engaged in the promotion of your product will always save money and make a bigger psychological impact. This is the real grassroots. I think McGonigal sums it up best:

“Real world, you are going to have to let us game you.”