Building Social Currency in Online Games

Back in the days of classic video games like “Space Invaders,” “Pac-Man,” or “Frogger,” we as gamers were reluctant share the stories of continually pouring quarters into arcade machines to see our initials at the top of the leaderboard. When it came to “Super Mario Brothers” or “Sonic the Hedgehog,” we again were hesitant to share details of our all-night sessions, playing until our thumbs were blistered.

Failure to share addictive gaming habits was not for lack of enjoyment, but instead tied to the unfavorable perception of gamers and the video games they played. Today, that perception has changed drastically, so much so that you might find it difficult to get gamers to talk about anything other than what game they’re playing.

The knowledge of video game content and proven gaming expertise has become valuable social currency among the general public — not just gamers. Buying the latest $60 title delivers gamers more than just an enjoyable interactive experience: social credentials among peers.

Leading game releases are no longer limited to hardcore gamer audiences — they’re integrated into mainstream popular culture. Anyone watching this year’s NBA playoffs has seen commercials pitching highly anticipated summer releases such as Ubisoft’s “Haze” or Sierra Entertainment’s “Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Conspiracy.” (Sidenote: Anyone who can name the leading franchise that “Haze” is competing with receives 5 social cred points)

While game publishers hope to reach key consumers with this far-reaching medium, they also intend to effectively integrate their games into “water cooler” conversations. Consumers now share which video games they look forward to playing, just as they discuss which movies they look forward to seeing.

Leveraging the larger trend of retro-culture, gaming’s illustrious history has seen a revival of downloadable snack size games, and has even influenced clothing choices of the hard to reach male 18 to 34 target. All next-generation consoles have developed online networks that allow smaller video game experiences to be downloaded directly to the local hard drive. As game developers work to create new properties for these channels, the most popular and talked about games are those older games.

Gamers can show off their true gaming prowess by remembering codes and game play moves necessary to finish “Contra,” while only using one life. (Those who remember the actual code without going to search for it online receive 10 points.)

Gaming-related clothing has also become a popular way to display your gaming roots. GameDaily recently covered a collection of retro-gaming shirts with familiar references to the same highly downloaded games.

In addition to clothing, consumers have an increasing amount of options when it comes to representing themselves as a gamer. These options exist in both the physical and virtual worlds. The latest examples of this in the physical world would be the amount of customization found in the gaming handheld device market. Nintendo has maintained the amazing sales of Nintendo DS by offering the device in multiple colors.

Not to be outdone by the DS, Sony has taken additional steps with the PSP, creating custom PSPs and bundling them with additional non-gaming goodies. The most recent, the NFL Madden bundle, will be released this summer. Gamers with the most exclusive color or most recent bundle are able to raise their social currency. (Add 10 points if you have the latest color of the PSP or DS.)

Many of you have likely created your own avatar in a virtual setting, or at least read about avatars. The most important feature when creating an avatar is custom, unique characteristics. Gamers are big on being able to differentiate their online representation from others, and they’ll search high and low for exclusive add-ons. As strange as it sounds, gamers can add to their overall social credentials when recognized by peers for owning a distinctive element. (Add 10 points if you have a unique avatar.)

As I’ve discussed previously, gamers spend a significant amount of time interacting with video game content, even though they aren’t holding a controller. New sites, such as GameStrata, allow gamers to aggregate their gaming information in one place. Here, gamers can record which games they’re playing, track in-game statistics, and connect with friends and other gamers with similar interests. (Add 15 points if you have a GameStrata account.)

With opportunities like this, advertisers can enter the conversation with consumers by helping them achieve coveted social currency. Gamers are more likely to look on your brand favorably if you help improve their standing within their peer group. (Add a final 10 cred points if you already have your next idea for starting a new social trend via video games.)

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