Alternate Reality Gaming and You

I’ve covered games and advertising a lot lately. And for good reason. Though much of the ad industry is still trying to figure out how to deal with the online world, a few trailblazers have been working diligently (and somewhat covertly) to develop new forms of online marketing that bear no relationship to the models we’re all used to.

Advergaming is one of those formats, but a lot of other stuff is going on, too. Viral and buzz marketing are pushing the envelope and starting to gain more mainstream acceptance. During the past year or so, groups such as the Viral+Buzz Marketing Association and the Word of Mouth Marketing Association have arisen to try to bring some order to the rapidly exploding new industry. It may have taken a Subservient Chicken to focus attention on these new forms of advertising, but there’s no doubt they’re here.

In fact, if it’s industry acceptance you’re after, look no further than AdWeek. It’s launching “Other Advertising” this week, a magazine devoted to nontraditional advertising. Folks, the fringe has arrived.

Enter Alternate Reality Gaming

Alternate reality gaming is one of the most interesting new trends in online brand immersion. Pioneered commercially by online campaigns for properties such as the film “AI” and the game “Halo 2,” these efforts blend “hoax”-like Web sites that don’t announce their affiliation with online quests, unfolding mysteries, and even real-world activities such as messages received at phone booths or prerecorded calls to participants in the middle of the night.

Many of these efforts were inspired by Electronic Arts’ reality-bending game “Majestic,” which blended computer game play with prerecorded Webcams, phone messages, and other sinister-seeming “intrusions” into gamers’ real-world lives. “Majestic” was killed after September 11, for fear players would mistake the game for what was going on in the real world. Since then, efforts such as I Love Bees, a promotion for “Halo 2,” and ABC’s “Alias game have continued the idea that reality and fantasy can be seamlessly blended together using the Internet.

In fact, the whole genre (which evolved primarily as a cutting-edge promotional technique) has spawned an ever-growing number of noncommercial alternate reality games, tracked on sites such as Cloudmakers and others on the Alternate Reality Gaming Network. Fans are working together to create new games or discuss existing commercial efforts, such as the “Alias” game.

What’s in It for Marketers?

What does all of this mean to you as a marketer? No real public numbers exist on the success of “Alias,” “I Love Bees,” “AI,” or the now-famous Mini-Cooper Robot Hoax site, but we haven’t seen the last of these efforts. They integrate facets of viral marketing, buzz-building, PR, word-of-mouth generation, and brand immersion into true experiences that pull players in and don’t let them go.

Rather than 30 seconds of exposure to a brand, they generate stickiness that can last days, or even weeks, as they subtly (e.g., “I Love Bees”) or not-so subtly (e.g., “Alias”) draw in users and encourage them to bring other players into the “game.” As branding experiences go, these things have the potential to be far more powerful than the short viral video clips that get passed around, or somewhat gimmicky one-trick ponies, such as the Subservient Chicken or the now-defunct Burger King Angus Intervention site.

I don’t want to discount what came before. The vector running from the now-famous BMW Films campaign through viral video and Subservient Chicken to alternate reality gaming has been a fairly logical progression. Cutting-edge marketers are now moving beyond thinking the Internet is just a nifty medium for viral video delivery. It’s something much more powerful. The move toward integrating games, reality, and alternate reality has a huge potential for creating real lifestyle branding opportunities.

It also holds the danger of being misused or abused by unscrupulous marketers. Figuring out where alternate reality marketing ends and scams begin will be an interesting exercise. When reality can be constructed with a simple Web site and an automated phone-calling application, what kinds of ethical issues will we deal with? How will consumers react when they learn they’ve been tricked? How can a brand be explicitly integrated into an alternate reality campaign without ruining the illusion? We’ll have to contend with questions like these (and a host of others, I’m sure) in coming years. But make no mistake: alternate reality gaming (and marketing) is here to stay. Now, we have to figure out how to make the most marketing sense of it.

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