The story of Brandon Scott is by now a familiar one to most gamers: A manager of a GameStop outlet in Dallas, Scott began demanding proof of good grades, by way of report cards, before he would allow school-aged children to purchase games from his store. Perhaps to burnish his harsh-sounding image among the young gamer crowd, he also offered a free game (paid for by Scott) to any student who earned straight “A”‘s.
Naturally, this policy wasn’t approved by, or even known to, GameStop management, and when they became aware of Scott’s activities, their response was as predictable as it was inevitable: The company made forward-sounding noise about “evaluating Mr. Scott’s concept” and immediately suspended him from his position.
His story spread quickly, across both online and conventional news outlets. Within days he was transformed from just another GameStop guy to a cause célèbre inspiring heated debate on blogs and forums across North America. Those old enough to be immune to Scott’s policy tended to applaud his innovative approach to encouraging kids to do well in school; those caught in his wheelhouse decried his unwelcome intrusion into both their freedoms and their privacy, neither of which were any of his business. And in the more reasoned and rational (and therefore, by definition, less interesting) middle ground of the debate, a question was asked: Wouldn’t a similar but less punitive program be a better idea? A program that rewards kids for educational excellence while not infringing upon those who don’t is a simple and positive concept; why not do something like that instead?
As it turns out, someone already has. Play N Trade, a U.S.-based videogame retailer that bills itself as “the fastest-growing videogame franchise worldwide,” launched its “Games for Grades” program in May of this year, offering discounts to students who achieve good grades, as well as financial support for their schools. The program was first conceived in 2001 at the original Play N Trade store in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which was located next to a high school. As part of the store’s promotional effort, store personnel went through the neighborhood putting fliers on windshields, which quickly earned the ire of the local Parent-Teacher Association. Rather than meekly stepping back or picking a high-profile fight, management at the store took their unusual tack.
“We came up with an idea that demonstrated our commitment to promoting responsible gaming, by rewarding students with good grades, as well as our commitment to building strong, positive relationships in the community by making donations to local schools,” says Play N Trade founder Ron Simpson, describing the early days of his company’s community-based response to what could have been a bad bout of negative publicity. “We worked with the PTA to develop the program, and they became our ally and one of our strongest supporters. When the Play N Trade franchise reached a significant national presence, we launched the program at participating stores across the country, and it is the positive response and energetic support of the franchisees that has made Games for Grades such a success nationwide.”
Unlike Scott’s effort, “Games for Grades” is all carrot and no stick. Students receive 10 percent off the purchase price of any used game in the store for up to four purchases per semester, while 10 percent of the game’s retail price is donated to the student’s school each month. The discount applies to each store’s selection of used games, which Simpson described as “extensive … which no other store offers,” and while 10 percent sounds more like a public relations token than a useful return to local education, Simpson was quick to clear up that misconception.
“Our estimates are that Games for Grades has generated close to $100,000 for donations to schools,” he says, “and as additional stores open and participate in the program, we estimate that donations will soon reach $250,000 and continue to grow as Play N Trade grows.
“The program gets a lot of use. We launched at the end of May, but even during the summer, when grades came out, we saw a spike in sales and we expect even greater participation, now that the fall session of school has started.” The incentive program’s penetration and impact will continue to grow along with the company, Simpson says, adding that since 2001, Play N Trade has grown to 84 franchises across the U.S., Puerto Rico, Guam and Canada, and is opening an average of one new store every other day.
Based on reactions and results so far, Simpson expects Games for Grades to continue as part of Play N Trade’s success for the foreseeable future. “The reaction has been phenomenal. We have definitely received positive feedback from parents and teachers, and even the students themselves. Parents and teachers appreciate the fact that Play N Trade places an emphasis on doing well in school and also the financial support the program makes to the school itself, while students always appreciate getting a discount on the used games they buy,” he says.
In conjunction with Games for Grades, Simpson also pointed out his company’s overall “Responsible Gaming” program aimed at helping parents select content-appropriate games for their children. Play N Trade maintains a strict policy of age verification before the sale of any Mature or Adults Only-rated game, and managers and staff are also prepared to offer game recommendations to parents who are unsure about what their kids are playing. To encourage even greater parental involvement, Simpson says, “Play N Trade goes beyond that by allowing the parent to actually open the game, pop it in the console and see it for themselves before making the decision of whether or not they want to buy it for their child.”
The Games for Grades program is both a creative marketing tactic and proactive approach to grassroots community involvement from the videogame industry. While GameStop “learns about Mr. Scott’s concept,” and other retailers hire disinterested, glassy-eyed clerks to stand behind their counters, Play N Trade appears to be breaking new ground in both videogame sales and parental education. “As Play N Trade continues to expand its footprint, the program will gain momentum,” Simpson says. “We believe that we are setting the standard that will be copied by retailers industry-wide.”