I’m in pole position, tensely awaiting for the race to begin. Three sets of red light up – time to get serious. I can hear my lady purr as I depress the accelerator. Two yellow. The kitty becomes a lion. The noise is deafening. Suddenly, green! The combined force of eight engines and 32 squealing tires tears apart the pavement. Within seconds the pictures on the walls beside the track become mere blurs of color. Moments later, we’re tumbling through a curving pipe, collecting power-ups and learning about modestly priced, fuel-efficient compact cars together.

Wait a second …

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Cue the canned record-scratch now, because I’ve just been hoodwinked. As it turns out, the Xbox Live Arcade download Yaris is less a game than an advertising gimmick designed to increase product awareness among 18- to 24-year-old college kids with a streak of green in them. The goal wasn’t so much a finish line as it was a dotted line: Sign here, and you could be winding through traffic in a Yaris of your very own.

My obliviousness to Yaris‘ true purpose aside, Toyota’s marketing ploy represents a shift in the way corporations view electronic media. Games have become a previously untapped source of millions of possible consumers. But the trend began long before Toyota offered their sporty subcompact as an XBLA download.

The first wave of in-game advertising and advergames hit the market in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Largely credited as the first company to promote their products in a virtual environment, Coca-Cola made a deal with Atari to display their brand on a special release of the blockbuster Space Invaders. That paved the way for games like Cool Spot and its sequel, Spot Goes to Hollywood. Soda giant 7 Up published both using an anthropomorphized copy of its logo as the games’ protagonist.

At this point, the phrase “in-game advertising” meant nothing more to the console world than being barraged with the EA logo any time you wanted to play a sports title. Media buyers stayed away from the games industry even as the public proved surprisingly receptive to early efforts. But 7 Up had stumbled upon a surprising truth about advergames: Players are usually more than willing to forgive the “advertising” part as long as the “game” part is fun.

Companies have quickly caught on since the days of Cool Spot. It’s no longer surprising to see a lone Gillette Fusion truck on the streets of Burnout Paradise, or watch Mattias Nielson call in a Hummer H3 for his gallivanting in Mercenaries. We expect most of these marketing ruses, even when they don’t fit the rest of the game. (Every other vehicle in Mercenaries, for example, was brown, dark green or grey, while the H3 was bright red.)

Corporations have noticed this stagnation and decided it was time for the relationship to get a little more serious. Enter the MMORPG. Gamers are now online for extended periods of time interacting in a world that exists only as a case on a rack in a server room. Move over de Gama, we’ve got new realms to explore. Get hungry on the journey? /pizza. Pizza Hut’s on the way to the house. Need to buy some furniture on credit? Apply for the World of Warcraft credit card. Sims home a little sparse? For a nominal fee, fill it with virtual IKEA furniture. And those looking to do some shopping can now do so entirely through the commercialized virtual world of Second Life. Many Fortune 500 companies have even developed their own plot of e-land within this growing world to allow users to live, play and (hopefully) buy with greater ease.

Beyond advertising, companies are finding other ways to incorporate videogames into their daily operations. As the industry gains a stronger economic and cultural presence, corporations are using games to promote workplace cooperation, relieve stress and attract new talent in previously unheard of ways. Many unlikely companies such as automotive manufacturers, law firms and even teaching associations are adding gaming rooms to allow after-hours team building. Some of the more progressive entertainment companies such as PopCap Games Interactive even allow employees to play games during the workday, so long as they regulate themselves.

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Businesses aren’t the only ones using games to improve their performance in the market. Many argue that workers can develop personal skills that may increase their worth to their employers through games. In an interview with Seriosity co-founder Byron Reeves in Computerworld earlier this summer, Reeves discussed a recent study cataloguing the leadership benefits of multiplayer gaming. He concludes that skills between the two venues line up because in both worlds leaders are “recruiting, evaluating, retaining, persuading and compensating.” Obviously, the stakes are lower in a videogame as opposed to the real world, but at a basic level, a guild leader needs to make the same decisions while enlisting a new player as a manager does when making a hire.

Some companies are going so far as to copy ideas from virtual worlds and bring them into reality. The BBC has reported that some companies are employing game mechanics, like attaching “virtual currency” to emails that indicate their importance, to improve worker productivity and increase efficiency. It remains to be seen whether or not the more radical approaches like these will serve to benefit companies or simply alienate the non-gamers among them.

The only real certainties are that games are here to stay, and business organizations are beginning to take notice. As gaming continues to find its place in our culture, corporations are discovering that the difference between work and play may not be as stark as it seems.

And this, of course, is good news as this gamer tries to find a real job.

Robert Sullivan is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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