Video Games, From Toys to Tools

“A 33 year old playing video games means neglected children and a very irritated wife.”

This is a quote from a college friend who is a mother of two. In addition to her motherly instinct, you can see she has developed a strong opinion on gamers and their activity of choice. I’ll spare you the e-mail exchange we had last week and tell you that we agreed to disagree on the topic until we had a chance to talk face-to-face. After our discussion, I realized the conflict was not caused by a misunderstanding of all those mothers who feel video games are corrupting the minds of their children and husbands. Instead, the problem is linked to the idea of games being just shiny toys that line the store shelves. Unfortunately, as long as video games are synonymous with toys, they won’t be able to take their appropriate position as the preferred entertainment medium in the marketers’ eyes.

It’s no secret that, with today’s smorgasbord of media choices, a consumer’s attention span keeps getting smaller. Marketers realize they must provide more interactive experiences to engage their consumers. While they’re still wrapping their heads around how, professionals in the video game industry have recognized that games are quickly moving up the entertainment food chain as consumption, both time and money spent, increases across most demographics.

Despite the amazing growth, many gaming adversaries, such as my college friend, classify them as a childish activity that prevents gamers from living an active and responsible lifestyle. What they don’t realize is that video games have impacted all forms of entertainment media:

  • Worldwide, movie theaters are exploring methods of infusing interactive game-like features into the usual movie experience, such as head-to-head game play during the previews and interactive advertising boards.

  • Console manufacturers are trying to bring television and movie content to their platforms. Meanwhile, cable and satellite providers are experimenting with adding console-like games to their set-top boxes. Traditional broadcast providers realize that consumers are becoming all too comfortable with the console interface. They’ll have to provide similar experiences to prevent their hardware from becoming obsolete.
  • Second Life and “World of Warcraft” combine game play and social networking. While Second Life clearly lacks many video game components, such as scorekeeping, many visitors create an alternate life because of the game-like look and feel. In addition, both MySpace and Facebook added games to their sites to meet the consumer need to play their favorite word or trivia game without having to leave the sticky social network.

Contrary to my friend’s belief that all game playing requires gamers to neglect more important responsibilities, video games can assist gamers in meeting those responsibilities. Companies are using video games to train employees in real-world work situations instead of using traditional training methods. The games simulate scenarios that employees can master before they encounter them in the real world. Hilton Garden Inn leveraged a training game, Ultimate Team Play, which places them in a virtual Hilton hotel. Employees, who play as their specific role, are able to measure the effectiveness of their decisions by in-game guest and hotel ratings. As you can imagine, the employees were more motivated to dive into the interactive game experience than to read instruction manuals or watch how-to videos.

In addition to employers looking for innovative ways to train their staff, video games may help the next class of college freshman raise their chances of getting into those highly competitive universities. Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions recently announced a partnership with Aspyr Media to create Kaplan-branded games. The initial game in this partnership will be based on SAT prep curriculum and is scheduled to release later this year on the PC, Mac, and Nintendo DS. Kaplan identified the opportunity to reach teens through a recognizable medium not limited to a toy or hobby.

As the gaming demographic continues to extend beyond the male 18-34 label, video games will extend beyond the toy aisle into mainstream entertainment activities. Game mechanics’ interactivity will create new opportunities for video games to be included where you least expect it, increasing the chances for marketers to partner with video game content. I can only hope this transition takes place before our next college reunion, so I have more ammo for my debate with my friend. Because they do say that “mothers know best.”

Maybe one day, we’ll even see an instance when game play is used to improve the tax preparation process, allowing consumers to actually enjoy the countdown to April 15. Heck, maybe one day my friend will see game play plan her dream vacation and help get her kids into our alma mater.

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