Advertising and Gaming Part 2: How Play Informs Advertising

 Michael Bali

Michael Bali / Copywriter

Lasting interactivity associated with digital life has been defined as “play”.  So it’s no wonder that digital brands themselves have the most meaningful content. In the search to provide memorable consumer experiences, brands may interpret gamification too literally by providing gameplay-driven narratives. But, to become a brand leader in a brand-saturated marketplace, one cost of entry is that play – in any of its many forms – must always improve the customer’s life. Once they have a reason to play, customers need the drive to keep playing, and that comes from balanced gameplay.

Because play is comprised of a player’s choices within a system, balancing primarily serves to keep play fun while ensuring player choices matter. Noted game critic Ben Croshaw split game balance into three elements – Challenge, Context, and Catharsis. In his view, games can compensate for weakness in one element by strengthening the other two; on the other hand, they can’t succeed standing on one element alone.

The three elements of balanced gameplay:

  • Challenge is typically what marketers aim for when applying gamification, through some system of setting tasks and providing rewards. It usually translates into a point-based or competition-driven scoring system, like Starbucks Rewards or WeightWatchers.com.
  • Context, which has also returned as a buzzword in the form of “story” and “narrative”, is central to the Information Age by necessity: we are overloaded with information on a daily basis. Ads always create context, because important content drives meaning and relevance. One strong example is Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign, designed to promote confidence and motivation in young women.
  • Catharsis can be channeled into truly spectacular work, and the emotional connection of a great story can elevate an ad to another level. There are few recent examples as powerful as Save The Children’s Most Shocking Second a Day Video. The flip side is that since real catharsis is built upon challenge or context, without either to support it, the resulting work can seem hollow, cynical, or temporary. Just ask Pepsi.

Creating lasting, balanced brand interactions, or “play”, drives many agencies to produce their best work. For digital marketers who don’t gamify the worlds they occupy, the lack of a visible Challenge element leads them to lean on Context and Catharsis. Perhaps this explains why most content is not quite hitting the mark for customers, even though brand leaders are seen as over-performing by up to 83%. An answer to brand fatigue is knowing how to balance digital marketing so that it improves quality of life, thereby opening the pathway to brand leadership, for which we humbly suggest applying our Leadership Equity Model.


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