Friday, March 19, 2010

Neopets and Creepy Moves

It's never been news in my lifetime that we are living in both a material and a virtual world.

In theory, the virtual world of the present resembles by ever greater degrees our thoughts and feelings about whatever we mean when we use terms such as "reality" or "the real world."

It's true that none of the television shows that ran when I was a kid had anything to do with the realities of anyone's everyday life. But when I first heard the Rolling Stones' song "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on the radio, I knew it resonated with emotions I had; I just didn't know what the emotions were.

The virtual world that exists 40 years after the release of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" has this distinction: it's interactive. One can make choices about one's place in it. If I have the right program, I can make "Jumpin' Jack Flash" sound any way I want it to just by moving a mouse around. In an online game, one can go down one hall or another; talk to another character or keep quiet; even take actions that will get oneself killed (in a virtual sense).

How does virtual interactivity affect the life of the typical American consumer? The marketing think tank Trendwatching (see gets at it when its representatives write (in somewhat overworked prose):

"The new consumer ... creates his or her own playground, comfort zone, universe ... At the core is control: psychologists ... agree ... that human beings want to be in charge of their destiny, or at least have the illusion of being in charge. And because they can now get this control in entirely new ways, aided by an online, low-cost, creativity-hugging revolution ... consumers now weave webs of unrivaled connectivity and relish instant knowledge gratification. They exercise total control over ... identities in cyberspace at a whim, wallow in DIY/ customization/personalization/co-creation to make companies deliver on their terms. (They make) ... virtual worlds in which they can truly be whoever or whatever they want to be."

In its description of a general on-line virtual experience, Trendwatching listed, by my count, 12 states of interest to the contemporary consumer: possession, comfort, a sense of control, economical alternatives, access to new technology, acquisition of information, gratification, socialization, a sense of identity, collaboration, an opportunity to create and reality creation.

In the long passage I quoted above, Trendwatching didn't specifically mention Internet games. When it turns to online gaming, Trendwatching quotes experts who see gaming as meeting consumer's desires for these states:
• escapism
• the "drive to explore" (Mediaedge)
• the "promise of reward" (Mediaedge)
• a sense of accomplishment (economist Edward Castronova)
• the experience of "feeling ... be friended" (Castronova), and
• "feeling ... loved." (Castronova).

Now we're moved into the uneasiness many associate with the "simulacrum." What's the simulacrum? Philosopher Jean Baudrillard believes contemporary consumers — that is, you and I — live entirely in an illu sory world created by electronic media. He calls this the simulacrum — a fancy term for the imitation.

An imitation is by no means bound to afford an accurate representation of what it imitates. Reality, Baudrillard would say, is seeing a space ship blow up with your own eyes at the very place where it blows up. The simulacrum is seeing and hearing 1,000 media representations of a space ship blowing up.

Let's use the term "simulacrum creepiness" to describe a situation in which my experience of electronic media inclines me to experience potentially dangerous states of mind or symptoms of mental illness, such as, say, unwarranted terror or traumatic disappointment.

Consider the idea that a game makes me "feel loved." I can easily understand that a person would have nostalgia for a game he spent a lot of his youth playing. But when a person tells me he thinks the game loves him — or even that a participant in a mas sively multiplayer on-line game "loves" him — I start thinking "ther apy."

Does a corporation that puts its advertising in a on-line game want the user to feel loved? If it did, it would presumably at the very least have to insert an ad that works.

Let's start with the basics. What makes an ad in a game effective? Trendwatching can get us started:

"In-game communication [such as advertisement] should always facilitate escapism ... There's a delicate balance between enhancing realism and obstructing escapism. Wizards with cola cans or aliens brandishing chocolate bars are almost certainly wrong."

In one respect, those who advertise in games are realists who have the advantage over idealists, cynics and Luddites; Nicholas Longano, CMO of Massive, describes the advantage: "If (the game is) set in the 20th century or beyond, you expect to see advertising. Advertising enhances the sense of realism," he tells Business Week.

Smart marketers know that if they can figure out a way to integrate their brand smoothly into the game's story line, there's a possibility they can get gamers to use their products and services. A 2005 study by Nielsen Interactive Entertainment found that in-game advertising increased players' awareness of the product by 60 percent. Product awareness isn't the same thing as product consumption, but it's enough to put a smile on the marketer's face.

Locate the role of the simulacrum in this quotation from MediaEdge: "The opportunity and challenge for brands is to figure out how to add something relevant to virtual worlds: providing players and inhabitants with experiences they actually enjoy and could even co-create with you."

I felt a shiver of simulacrum creepiness there. Can I really co-create with companies run by people who have 100,000 times the amount of assets I have? Does the owner of a chain of multi-million dollar seafood restaurants co-create with an oyster shucker? I doubt that happens even in the virtual world.

Let's look at the specs of ads imbedded in games. Games about race cars can have brands on the virtual cars or on billboards along virtual race tracks. One expects race cars to bear advertising to begin with, so when an ad appears on a virtual car, the ad seems perfectly realistic. Such an ad — one that seems to belong — is called "imbedded." It's one of the millions of details imbedded in a long believable storyline.

Virtual billboards can be changed at any time. Brands using them include Honda, Cingular, Reebok, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Honda, NBC, Verizon, Warner Bros., and a few jillion others.

In the NBA's cleverly named 2K6 video game, more than 200 of the virtual basketball players wear Nike shoes in the game. Users improve their performance by collecting various types of Nike shoes and storing them in the game's "Nike Shoe Locker."

The PC game of the television show "CSI" was a collaboration between Visa and Ubisoft that resulted in a game plotline in which credit-card fraud protection was a central motif. Visa got 10 minutes of exposure in the game CSI 3: Dimensions of Murder. Nokia and General Motors also worked in ads.

Before we get stuck in games, let's look at imbedded, as well as pretty much open, advertising in virtual "being spaces." A being space, such as the 50-million user Habbo Hotel, is a virtual meeting place where people can communicate with friends or strangers online and engage in a multitude of online tasks and diversions. Being spaces aren't games that one wins or loses. Consider them gigantic online communities.

Each of the 50 million regular users of Habbo Hotel creates an online persona called a "Habbo." Habbos explore the hotel and create and decorate their rooms with furniture ("furni") that are purchased with "Habbo credits." Habbo credits are paid for with real-world credit cards, whether mom's or dad's or the user's.

Habbo rooms can be named after an advertiser. The advertiser's virtual billboard is placed in its virtual hotel room. The virtual maids and personnel who come and go in the room speak ad lines that promote the product.

In Habbo Hotel Germany, L'Oreal's Party Proof Gel opened two sponsored rooms: the Party Proof Club and the Party Proof Lounge. At mid-year, the first had been visited by 174,920 users and the second by 99,996.

In Canada, Habbo Hotel leased its largest club space to "Miles Thirst," a Habbo who's a virtual walking, talking advertisement for Sprite. Not only does Miles have Club Thirst, he has "virtual pouring rights" in Canada's Habbo Hotel, meaning Sprite's the only virtual soft drink users can get there.

Miles Thirst opens up his penthouse to all Habbos twice a week. If you visit, you get two Habbo credits, which are worth 40 cents in real-world money.

Sprite ran a television commercial for its Habbo Hotel set-up on MuchMusic. After that, Club Thirst became the most popular site in Habbo Hotel.

Here we come to another simulacrum creepiness moment. Most people are aware of risks that can arise when users start to think of virtual characters as actual flesh-and-blood people. There's a host of users who adore the set of electrons that is Miles Thirst. "Miles" has gotten more than 9,000 emails. Many include accounts of very personal experiences and of daydreams and fantasies that center on Miles. I realize we're mainly talking about kids here. But when a kid is expressing intense personal emotions to an ad, what's going on? Is the kid all right?

Speaking of kids, there's concern about advertising in the Neopets site, since it's geared towards children. The site draws 70 million Neopet owners ("Neopians"). They can communicate electronically with each other, and play more than 160 games in several zones. Zones and games are sponsored by such companies as Nestlé, McDonald's, General Mills, Atari, Frito-Lay and Disney. Neopets is itself owned by the monster corporation Viacom.

I don't know that I necessarily find all this troubling. In an age when every consumer is disconnected from every other consumer in the material world, it may be helpful if some consumers find solace in the ad-imbedded virtual world. And I know that marketers have to earn a living.

If one has a concern, one can look toward the source of the marketer's clout: the corporation. Aside from the occasional Enronesque fiasco, the corporation is always silent.

Don't shoot daggers at the player; don't rage at the imbedded ad. Ponder what is imbedded within the imbedded ad.

If the corporation wants me to believe the corporation loves me and co-creates with me, I may find myself wondering what the corporation really wants to do to me. The corporation is the entity on which I depend for my shelter, water, food, clothing, heat and health care. Can I afford to ignore its moves — however imbedded they may be?

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