Game On

by Jon Fortgang, Figaro Digital

Head of PR at Xbox Paul Fox will be among the panellists at Figaro’s Social Media Marketing Conference on 20 July, where he’ll be discussing what families want from brands online. Here he tells Figaro how marketers are making the most of social gaming, and explains how Xbox are giving families the tools to help them manage youngsters’ console time

Once upon a time, not so long ago, games were considered the preserve of red-eyed guys in dusty bedrooms hacking up alien invaders. Now, not only is gaming a vast industry with a revenue eclipsing that generated by movies and music, it’s become a mainstream, socially relevant experience enabling players to connect and interact with others around the world. What’s more, social media has turned gaming into an attractive proposition for brands and marketers. The impulse to engage and share is written into gaming’s DNA making it a highly significant platform capable of uniting video, viral, social and more.

“Games initiated by brands can be incredibly powerful,” says Paul Fox, Head of PR at Xbox and an expert on the industry. “Brands are looking for more and more ways to engage with consumers. Games provide a fantastic platform for doing that. I think the challenge the brand has is to make a game compelling so that consumers will come back to it and – this is the critical bit – make it relevant to the brand and the marketing message as well.”

Get yourself connected

As an example of this sort of thing done well, Fox points to the recent Desparados YouTube takeover – a neat piece of interactive video designed to promote the Tequila-flavoured beer brand. “It’s compelling, it takes you on a really fun story and the way it inspires interactivity is great,” he says. “It’s not a game per se, but it gives you an idea of some of the attributes this activity needs to have. The sweet spot is, it needs to be fun and compelling, but it also needs to do the job that the brand intends.”

According to a recent study by Emarketer, there are expected to be 68.7 million gamers online by the end of 2012, and brands from McDonalds to Honda are getting involved. So what does Fox think works in this field, and why? 

“By necessity,” he says, “you’re appealing to people who’ve got maybe a couple of minutes at lunchtime. So these are rarely deep experiences – it’s light engagement, connecting with the brand in such a way that you understand what their message is. There needs to be a reason to engage, other than just killing time, so stuff with a competitive element works well – a leader board and some sort of payback in terms of a competition prize can be successful.”

That link between gaming content and social media, says Fox, is where marketers in this field should focus their attention right now. “If it’s a quiz game, for instance,” he says, “it should have a Facebook connect tab and something that links through to Twitter so if you don’t know the answer you can reach out to your social network for clues and help, which in turn adds to the viral quality of the creative.” 

Rather than the conventional notion of viral, then, in which users forwarded something cool to whoever they thought might like it, this new gaming-based model has sharability built into its infrastructure.”It’s stuff that gives you a reason to reach into your own social world,” says Fox, “and it makes it really easy to do that. Interactivity and the ability to connect large audiences around a single piece of intellectual property are key. In the old world it was about me saying to you, ‘hey, did you see that movie?’ Here we can interact around a shared entertainment experience that we enjoy together, but also separately. 

Playing safe

Gaming itself may have gone mainstream, but the debate about the impact on young players of content intended for more mature audiences remains an emotive issue. So what does Fox feel the gaming industry’s responsibilities involve?

“It’s incredibly important for us not to be complacent,” he says. “This is a key area that we’ve been working in and I think we need to be on top of our game in terms of making sure we’re genuinely family-friendly and treating audiences in an appropriate way.” 

Xbox, he says, have been dedicated to building family-settings into the platform. “That gives parents and caregivers the opportunity to make the most appropriate decisions within their household on what their children are exposed to from an entertainment point of view.”
Making sure kids only have access to age-appropriate content is clearly important. The Xbox, Fox explains, can be set up so that when kids are signed into the console, they’ll be locked out of unsuitable content. “It’s not about us being censors,” he says. “It’s about giving parents the tools to lock content as they feel appropriate.”

Content itself isn’t the only concern, however. The amount of time kids spend in front of the screen is also an issue. Xbox’s solution is the ‘Family Timer’ facility, which enables parents to stipulate how long kids can spend at the console. 

“What you can do for a young child is lock out the console for all times except, say, between five and six on weekday evenings,” says Fox. “The idea is that parents say, ‘look, the rest of the evening is for spending time with Mum and Dad or doing your homework, but for that one hour you can have access to the console’. Again, it puts parents in charge of making that decision.

“The other way you can do it for an older child is to say, ‘okay, you’re responsible, I’m not going to predefine the time you can have on the console, but I’ll give you a budget of ten hours a week game-time, and you can stay up all night the first night if you want, and exhaust your ten hours, or you can spread that time throughout the week – the choice is yours. You’re grown-up enough to decide.'”

Thinking outside the box

It’s also important, Fox, stresses, that games manufacturers like Xbox work closely with families to ensure there’s openness and understanding on both sides. Community sites like Mumsnet and Mummy Bloggers have been brought on board and are encouraged to give their feedback – whatever that may be. 

At the end of 2010, Xbox launched their own ‘Playsmart Playsafe’ ( programme which provides parents with information, guidance, conversation and support around gaming. ‘Ambassador families’ were invited to blog about their own experiences. The move was positively received and the broad, inclusive approach was designed to unite rather  than divide families for whom the console risked becoming a battleground.

And that brings us back to the topic of Figaro’s panel discussion: ‘what do families want from brands online?’ How does Fox respond to that?

“A mixture of responsibility and authenticity,” he says. “We need to demonstrate very visibly that we’re always ready to do the right thing for families – be open, honest and transparent. I also think it’s about going the extra mile. It was great that Microsoft initiated family settings on the console, and we were all very happy about that. But we felt it wasn’t enough just to come up with a technological solution – we needed to go a step further and communicate those family settings to people in a powerful way, which is why we initiated ‘Playsmart Playsafe’. We wanted to be explicit about what it was about and why we felt it was important – to establish that bond of trust.”

For parents anxious to ensure kids have the most appropriate console experience, as well as marketers seeking to mine social gaming’s opportunities, this territory is hugely significant. The more work we all put into understanding gaming, the better we’ll all be able to play.

Article by Jon Fortgang