Serious Games: The New Frontier of Online Marketing

You probably know about video games. And you may know about social games. But there’s a trend going on in the industry that, like much of the B2B market, doesn’t get as much credit and attention as it deserves. That trend is serious gaming.

It’s an oxymoron but every person in the social space and in marketing should be aware of it. And after attending a session at the East Coast Gaming Conference this past week titled “Serious Games: The New Frontier of Online Marketing,” it truly is an area of exciting opportunity for marketers who want to lead the way.

What are serious games?

Serious games are just games designed for a purpose other than pure entertainment. Serious gaming can refer to games used by industries like defense, education, health care, city planning, scientific exploration and more. The main point of serious games is to train, investigate or advertise. Edutainment and advergaming both fall under the umbrella of serious games but most people think of those separately.

The term came to life in the 1970s and since 2002, the Serious Games Initiative has been supporting the use of the term and the industry as a whole. This year marked the 8th annual Serious Games Summit. Those of Generation Y and the Millennials have been exposed to serious games all of their lives (Number Munchers or Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, anyone?) so that some people have grown up playing virtual games all of their life. If you’ve been ignoring games as a whole and the growing opportunities this industry presents for marketers, you need to open your eyes.

The two presentations I attended were led by Phaedra Boinodiris, Serious Games Program Manager at IBM. Phaedra is a legend in the video game industry as the founder of, one of the largest and first women’s gaming portals on the Internet. As someone who has been in the gaming industry for over a decade, she knows what she’s talking about.

So how do they help with marketing?

Games, Phaedra says, are excellent at explaining complex concepts. When you think of IBM – what do you think of? Most people still think of mainframes instead of the vast and complex products and systems that IBM supports. IBM’s brand is difficult to understand these days. How do you help people understand these complex systems that IBM does? How do you explain something IBM helps with like business process management (BPM) and make sure the information is retained? To Phaedra, the answer was simple: you make a game.

Innov8, a serious game created on the Vicious engine, was rolled out as an IBM academic initiative to explain BPM to students across the nation. To this day, over 1,000 universities use it. What does this mean for marketers? It means that IBM has a foot in the door with rising generations. Students going through college and learning about BPM learn it through an IBM product with IBM branding attached to it. This game gives IBM a presence in the schools, making an impression on the future leaders of the world and future potential customers. Moreover, Innov8 became the top brand for IBM within a few days of it going live in 2009. The number one lead generating asset for IBM became a serious game and it happened almost overnight.

How do you explain IBM’s city planning processes, however? Serious games make sense in a school setting. Young adults seemingly love games, they have to learn complex things to pass classes, and in general it seems like a natural fit. As mentioned earlier, they’ve also grown up with virtual games. But to Phaedra and IBM, it was clear that serious games could be used to a much greater extent. Games could be used to tap directly into the leaders working with IBM to solve problems. So that’s what they did.

Innov8: CityOne is now IBM’s top lead generator, according to Phaedra. The pitch of the game is to “Level-up your skills and discover how to make our Planet smarter, revolutionize industries and solve real-world business, environmental and logistical problems.” CEOs, Presidents, COOs and other top executives across the globe embraced the game. ROI, the blessing and curse of the marketing industry, needs to be created on an infrastructure in order to gauge results. The ROI for Innov8: CityOne revealed that in five months, the game resulted in 100x the investment put into it. Tracking the people who played and who bought resulted in tremendous sales for IBM. Innov8: CityOne is free to play but registration is required – this is a must in order to track results. The press for the game was also phenomenal for IBM’s brand – press through a game like Innov8 can’t be bought.

More importantly, Innov8: CityOne now serves as a sales tool for IBM salespeople. One hour of gameplay was given to “ambassadors” – the game is free but games could be customized for sales representatives based on the needs of clients. Creating a platform where sales representatives can cater to client’s pain points proved to be an incredibly useful feature of Innov8: City One.

While flight simulators have been a serious game used for a while now and schools can use serious games for education, new uses of serious games are exciting for marketing and the world in general. FoldIt, an experimental game about protein folding, lets people help solve problems that computers can’t solve very well while contributing to scientific research on protein biosynthesis. Not only are serious games a serious advantage for marketers but they’re helping make global advancements too.

“We are in a complex world made of complex systems,” said Phaedra. “White papers aren’t going to cut it.” Experiential learning is the future for marketing.

What’s social about all of this?

I’ve already discussed aspects of the socializing of the gaming industry and its impact on marketing. Serious games, just like any rising industry trend, have social aspects as well.

Another proponent of serious games, Chris Hazard, President of Hazardous Software, talked with Phaedra at one of the serious games presentations. His game, Achron, focuses on the social aspect of serious games and learning with others. Achron trains its participants, helps people learn about best-response strategies, helps them work on their collaborative planning and it explains abstract and complex theories.

“Playing and experimenting without risk is how we learn things,” said Chris. So it makes sense that if you want to teach people complex ideas, teach them about your brand, or even get them to help you make scientific discoveries…games are the future for all of these goals.

Serious games have already crept onto Facebook, like in the form of Blue Fang’s Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? and Oregon Trail edutainment games lately, and incorporated tactics used by Zynga and other social game companies to get as many people involved as possible. Social comes into the scene in the sense that, while most serious games are focused on training, games like IBM’s Innov8: City One and Hazardous’ Achron are about using those skills learned in previous serious games and collaborating with others to achieve goals together.

What do you think? How do you feel about serious games and using them for marketing purposes? Have you tried out Innov8, CityOne or FoldIt? Let us know your thoughts.

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