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What advertising can learn from video games

by Nathanael Peacock

Pokemon-go
Telling a story in advertising is a constantly evolving challenge. It feels like one day you’re talking to a captive audience in front of a TV, the next you’re retargeting customers on social media based on what soup they bought at the shopping centre.

The addition of programmatic advertising, retargeting frameworks, social networking, ad blockers and subscription TV has changed the game in recent years. Suddenly as advertisers we can talk to any customer on any device and build a message just for them.

But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent and assume the medium will do the work for us. Messages still need to be important or they just become part of the background noise.

It’s a matter of engagement: you skip an ad when you aren’t interested, you put down a book when you get bored, and you check your phone when the Man Of Steel says something posturing and bland. (I’m still waiting for the new Superman movies to get good.)

So for the sake of argument I want to make a bit of a comparison between my life working in advertising and my history working in game development. It may seem like a bit of a stretch, but stick with me and we might pull the threads together.

All work and no play

I’m an avid gamer. That means I spend all day writing at a computer and then all night in front of a slightly different one. For me, games are a release, an escape and a form of aspiration. If I have a crappy day and feel disempowered, I go home and play a grand strategy game that lets me be a king, a general, or an oil tycoon. It’s a great cathartic release, and much better than an apple a day.

To give you some background: I studied game design at university, worked with a number of high profile development teams around Melbourne and I am an ongoing staff writer with Grab It Magazine. That’s alongside my current role as assistant editor with CHE Proximity, where I look for new ways for big brands to tell real stories.

These experiences all come together to find me somewhere between developer and commentator, and somewhere outside of the usual games press.

From that I can tell you the Australian games industry is in a good shape, I recently wrote an article for Grab it Magazine breaking down the $2.8 billion value of local developments. We looked at how the strength of the industry has changed in recent years, and how this industry is now larger than the music industry.

It’s an interesting time in the industry, with hot-heads on one side proclaiming games as art, and the other side shooting them down as toys and hobbies. But the numbers speak for themselves, it’s a powerful industry that is making headlines daily.

Need versus want

The need to engage with an audience is all about stories – it’s the difference between a novel you can’t put down and a book club nightmare. And what strikes me most about game development versus advertising development is that ads start with a need – whereas games start with a story.

Working in advertising, when a client comes to you with a brief or you go to them with a pitch it’s almost always about a need. They might have a new product they need to sell, or you have a team that needs a new brief. When game developers start a project it usually starts with one or two developers who share an idea.

That might be a story about using puzzles to escape a dystopian research facility as we’ve seen in Portal and Portal 2. These kinds of experiences make you think, plan and strategise. They keep you on your toes with mind games and mental stress.

But in recent years we’ve seen a massive shift to truly story-driven experiences that talk about true human suffering and change in titles like That Dragon, Cancer – a harrowing autobiographical tale about raising a child diagnosed with terminal cancer at 12 months old.

As an experience, it forces you to engage with a subject matter that most people (hopefully) will never need to deal with. It forces you to take a thoughtful journey and make decisions on an emotional level, rather than making you jump through hoops or solve puzzles. As a mechanical product it has some flaws, but as a piece of art it gives a view into the very soul of its creator.

A time and place for Pokémon Go

But storytelling doesn’t have to be all about our darker emotions. Just recently a city councillor in Sydney Linda Scott tried to make the city into a Pokémon Go friendly zone. That would mean printing fliers for local businesses who engage with the app’s Pokéstops, and encouraging businesses to make their stores more enticing to the now common flocks of Poké-tourists.

Pokémon Go is a perfect example of a viral success; it has quite clearly taken the world by storm and is outperforming Twitter, Facebook and Tinder. In this instance the success comes down to another set of needs. Rather than leading with the needs of Nintendo, the Pokémon Company or the brand, it meets the needs of the consumer.

Everyone who played Pokémon as a kid wanted them in the real world, and it hits the nail on the head when it comes to our modern obsession with fitness tech. News outlets around the world are reporting how Pokémon Go is helping people exercise and deal with mental illness. It encourages what could be a traditionally introverted audience to get out, go outside and meet new people.

What these two experiences have in common is that they have the capacity to draw out the humanity in their players. Although That Dragon, Cancer tells a very specific story, it helps the player understand the pain, struggle and honesty of the creators. And though Pokémon Go is a pretty superficial game, the fact that it is overlaid over our everyday life means it has the capacity to change us in profound ways.

The real advertising story

So if we take all of this back to the start, what can the advertising industry learn from game design? I’d say that the key is all in telling a story, something that the viewer can relate to and meets them on an emotional level, meet them with a want rather than a need.

This means that experience, data and research departments are more valuable than ever. They give you invaluable insights into the emotions of your customers and help your storytellers talk to them at the right time and the right place.

As an advertiser you might tell your brand story through social media, through content, through television ads or over radio; reaching your audience through so many touch points is only the start of the battle.

But just because the playing field has changed, doesn’t mean the rules have changed too. Speaking to your audience doesn’t mean being the loudest person in the room – just being the one that is interesting enough to be heard.

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