Mining the Game

With industry analysts heralding advergaming as the revenue model of the future, and success stories like last fall’s Burger King Xbox promotion capturing headlines left and right (and selling two million units in four weeks), the hype around advergaming is becoming all but unavoidable … whether you buy it or not. As this industry segment matures, the questions it raises about commercialization and the future of regulation in digital gaming could fuel debate for years to come. And yet, despite all the fuss, the hubbub, the unresolved tension between players and advertisers, I’m already feeling done with all this advergame talk.

The root of my ennui has a lot to do with the way the term has been used by both the press and academics in discussing what should be seen as the slow-but-steady integration of marketing tactics into videogames. But instead, we seem to be stuck scratching at the surface, focusing on how advertising will affect gaming instead of questioning how gaming might transform the twin fields of advertising and marketing. While it’s important the “adver” part of advergaming is getting attention, we now need to expand our thinking to include its less obvious implications, as well. Namely, once marketing is merged with the interactivity inherent to gaming, we’re suddenly dealing with something much more complex than what we’re used to.

Just as adware often incorporates spyware, games can also be used to gather various types of user information. Through data-mining, chat analysis and other forms of automated surveillance, player input can be turned into valuable market research data. This can range from statistics on player demographics and in-game activities to more nuanced findings about the ideas and opinions players communicate while gaming or participating in related forums. With advergames, this transformation can also lead to direct and detailed feedback on the effectiveness of particular ads and techniques. The feedback loop between advertiser and player is thereby brought full circle, from market research to reception analysis and back again.

I spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff as a result of a professional interest in kids’ online game culture, which seems to have become somewhat of a safe haven for marketers to experiment with new techniques. Here, the analysts’ predictions have, in many ways, already come true. For the past five years, advergames (and websites featuring advergames) like Neopets, and, have dominated both Hitwise and Nielsen//Netratings’ listings of sites most frequently visited by kids. They also feature prominently among children’s own top-rated online destinations. Kids are spending a lot of their time online playing advergames, and the children’s industries have certainly taken notice.

The most overt example of data-mining in advergames can be found in one of the most popular sites on the internet, Neopets constructs and sells extensive youth trend reports based on information gathered through the games, polls and forums featured on its site. By “immersing” clients’ advertisements and product placements into the very fabric of Neopets‘ gameplay, the site is also able to track players’ exposure to specific ads and then solicit their opinions about them. With over 30 million members, 39 percent of which are under the age of 13, Neopets offers its clients unprecedented access to the minds (and possibly wallets) of an otherwise hard-to-reach demographic. While most sites are likely to keep the results of their data-mining activities in-house, the information gathered can nonetheless be tremendously valuable for future advertising design and product development.

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Kids’ online games present a particularly rich case study for understanding the mechanisms of advergaming because – for the most part – they have been allowed to flourish there unchallenged. Even though children’s personally identifiable information, like their names and addresses, is protected in many regions under national privacy legislation, there is currently no legal framework in place that regulates the online collection of other types of data – even though consumer trends and opinions are often what interest marketers the most. And unlike the realm of adult MMOGs, where intellectual property (IP) ownership has become the issue of heated debate as a result of real money trade, children’s advergames are very rarely thought of in terms of IP and authorship issues.

Instead, public attention to children and online games is usually concentrated on the moral panic du jour. Most recently, politicians in the U.S. and Europe have begun targeting junk food-themed advergames for their possible contribution to the growing childhood obesity problem. As with similar campaigns against violent and sexual content, the focus always seems to stay fixed on the possible effects of exposure to said content while ignoring the two-way dynamics of interaction. This oversight reflects a deeper dependency on portraying children as “helpless victims,” which comes up whenever conflicts arise (as seen repeatedly in the game-ratings cases). Meanwhile, kids are left to fend for themselves in regard to their potential rights as the collaborative producers of game content.

As a result, norms are being established within these sites that are extremely industry biased. I decided to take a look at the games’ terms of service (TOS) contracts and end-user license agreements (EULAs), since these have been so central to the IP conflicts with MMOGs. What I discovered was most kids’ advergames require their players to agree to many of the same clauses in adult-oriented MMOGs’ EULAs, including transferring ownership of any and all contributions they’ve made on the game’s site – everything from direct feedback and avatar customization to uploaded materials and forum replies. If these items are to be data-mined and used for business purposes, it’s better to secure ownership first, right?

The agreements themselves are long and complicated, written in a mix of legalese and hyperbole, with sentences like: “We exclusively own all now-known or hereafter existing rights to Submissions of every kind and nature throughout the universe until the end of time, and are entitled to unlimited use of your Submissions for any purpose we can think of.” If it’s difficult for a layperson to make sense of TOS contracts, you can imagine how impossible it is for a kid – assuming he reads the thing in the first place (which, let’s be honest, hardly anyone does).

Admittedly, a number of the contracts I reviewed did list the parent as an assumed agreeing party, but none of them did any follow-up to ensure the parent actually read and agreed to the terms. In the one case where written parental consent was mandatory (Neopets!), very few details were provided about why kids’ information was being collected or how it might be used. And yet these contracts are clearly supposed to stand in for the informed consent procedures that are normally required when enlisting a child to participate in research activities.

It doesn’t seem to matter that contracts made with minors are legally void. Nor has the issue of unconscionability – a legal defense used when unfair contracts place one party at a disproportionate advantage over another – come up in any significant way, even though sweeping claims like “for eternity” and “throughout the universe” are undoubtedly susceptible to such a challenge. Thus, while it’s highly unlikely that the TOS agreements found in children’s advergames are valid, the lack of opposition seems to have given the writers of the agreements carte blanche.

But all this may soon change. A small controversy has now erupted around Battlefield 2142, a “T”-rated futuristic wargame that not only features dynamic in-game advertisements (i.e. ads that can be updated and changed over time) but also data-mines its players. Allegations that the game contains spyware have prompted California Assemblywoman Lori Saldana to announce plans to draft a new bill making it illegal for companies to embed spyware in their games.

The irony here is this time around it might actually take some adult “victims” for these gaming practices to attract public scrutiny. While it’s nice to see a game-related debate that doesn’t revolve around the old “kids-in-peril” trope, it does seem like a bit of a lost opportunity for a long overdue validation of kids’ contribution to game culture. The idea of children as content producers also challenges many of the underlying assumptions of political campaigns that seek to “protect” kids from videogames. The omission of child players when it comes to IP issues reveals an important contradiction: Despite their prominence within videogame debates, kids’ own interests are actually rarely considered.

Sara M. Grimes is a doctoral student in communication at Simon Fraser
University in Vancouver, Canada. She researches children’s culture, digital
games and the role of play in society.

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