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The Advertising Crusade

May 25, 2007

I’d heard about Google’s plan to collect data from players of MMORPGs (here, here and here) but as it was old news and I hadn’t picked up anything from any of the MMORPG blogs I check out I thought I’d give it a miss.

Then I found Nicodemus’s post on Kill Ten Rats and decided it was worth posting about after all.

Without sounding big-headed I think Google need to read my MRS presentation (scroll down a few posts, if you’re reading boys). Then, as Nicodemus rightly points out, they probably need to try playing an afternoon (or better still six months) of World of Warcraft.

Now it’s possible that we don’t really know what Google have got planned and that the media have got the wrong end of the stick but if The Guardian have got it right and if “you’re the sort of gamer who explores every inch of the environment, you might see ads for trekking holidays on in-game billboards” then it’s safe to say Google are officially, utterly braindead.

While I firmly believe that player and avatar are essentially the same person in MMORPGs (“it’s still me behind the keyboard” Pabloleafiss) and the interaction between players makes this more the case than in single player games, it does not correlate that in-game a player will be motivated by the same things that motivate them in RL.

Let me simplify this. Google seem to believe that the behaviour my avatar displays in game is a reflection of my needs/motives/attitudes in RL. To start with this correlation may or may not be accurate, many people find a different side of their personality comes out in MMORPGs, an adventurous avatar doesn’t always equal and adventurous player. But supposing it is true that most peoples’ playing style reflects their RL life, surely then Google are doing the right thing.

Well no, to be honest. Let’s apply Google’s logic in a different context. Say for sake of argument you are the kind of gamer who enjoys exploring every inch of the game world and coincidentally in RL you also enjoyed actually enjoy trekking holidays, theoretically speaking Google could sell advertising space alongside the path of your favourite countryside walks, guaranteeing to those sellers of walking equipment who chose to pay for the space that they’d definitely hit their target audience.

Now imagine this idea in practice: our gamer/trekker has escaped the confines of his bedroom to journey into the great British countryside and is  confronted by a stretch of billboards following his favourite footpath as far as the eye can see, is he impressed by these cleverly targeted adverts? No, he’s shouting obscene words and throwing things at the billboards and storming off to the car park so he can return home. Later through gritted teeth he explains to Google that they’ve completely ruined his day out and his favourite pastime (apart from gaming) because the beautiful views of the rolling landscape have been obscured by billboards and the wonderful feeling of calm and escape he gets from wandering around in the countryside has been utterly destroyed. Basically it is totally inappropriate to put advertising billboards up in contexts that are not suitable!

The problem with this kind of targeted advertising is that even the most accurate data isn’t an entirely accurate representation of anybody as a human being. Say for example Google work out from my in-game chat that at the moment I’m listening to a lot of Death Metal and Thrash Metal by bands who formed in the late 80s and early 90s, they’d have pretty tightly defined data perhaps even a few band names. So the next time I’m in Orgrimmar there’s a letter in my postbox and I open it and find an advert telling me that there’s a new compilation of Pestilence tracks, a new Deicide album and a link to a website that sells more of this kind of music. My reaction would be ‘I’ve got all Pestilence’s albums so I’m not interested in hearing some of their tracks in a different order, I was never even a big fan of Deicide back in the day, I’m certainly not now, and the link is useless to me as I can’t copy and paste it or save it in Del.icio.us, more importantly I’m off to the Auction House and then I’ve got 7 more quests to complete in Nagrand and I’ve got to get a good night’s sleep on top of that’. Delete.

This kind personal targeting of adverts always runs the risk of trying to be too clever, but it’s ‘intelligence’ is based on a very limited set of data. It will eventually learn that I have all Pestilence’s albums and that I don’t like Deicide, but by that time I’ll be so pissed off with it that I’ll be naturally ill-disposed toward it.

There are probably exceptions to the rule, maybe some areas of Second Life could become advertising friendly and the more casual virtual world environments are probably relatively well suited to it, but on the whole brands should view MMORPG as opportunities to engage people and show them they understand what each individual game world is about and what my immediate needs are as a player in those game worlds.

Brands going into Second Life are beginning to realise this and rather than replicating their RL presence in virtual form are trying to engage users through playfulness (Calvin Klein) or User Generated Content (Coca Cola). Admittedly the success of these examples has been questionable, but it’s a step in the right direction.

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