Gamification: it’s not just child’s play

American toy manufacturer Mattel playfully promotes Scrabble on JCDecaux's Transvision screens.

American toy manufacturer Mattel playfully promotes Scrabble on JCDecaux’s Transvision screens.

We learn to play before we walk or even before we talk. Games give us a thrill, not just due to the interaction involved, but also the reward at the end of them. Playing games, however, is not just for children: in advertising it is something that is proven to drive interaction.

Gamification is becoming increasingly used by brands as a tool to raise awareness and engage with customers at a deeper, more memorable level. One of the great enablers for gamification is digital technology, through computers, interactive screens and mobile.

“Game playing is a vital way that advanced animals learn and develop, and is therefore an inherent human behaviour,” believes Richard Simkins, Talon Outdoor’s innovations director. “Advertisers have found that ‘gamified’ content helps people to quickly learn about new products and to change their feelings towards established brands.”

Sam Bird, director of production and creative solutions at JCDecaux Innovate, agrees, saying that, with the growth of DOOH networks, games are just a natural progression for advertising: “Younger audiences are not afraid of screens; it is second nature to them. Yet older people, even if they just watch the games being played by others, can also become hooked.”

Obviously, brands are not just trying to give customers a good time: they want to learn about them and reach out to them with new offers. They want big data and gamification is one way of enabling this. As Bird points out: “We found that, when people are offered a reward at the end of an exchange, they are more than willing to part with personal information.”

MediaCo Outdoor’s new CityLive network in Manchester is a prime example of touchscreen technology mingling with everyday life, while offering a chance to play at the same time.

“The catalyst for this increase in brands using games to communicate is social media and sharing, particularly through mobile,” opines Richard Blackburn, commercial director at MediaCo. “Consumers do not want brands shouting in their faces; they want to engage with brands on their own terms. It is imperative for brands to weave their existence into the lives of consumers in ways that are positive, which add value to consumers’ lives and reward their involvement. Compelling and addictive games are a great way to broaden brand reach and make it memorable, therefore increasing brand loyalty.”

For a gamified campaign to succeed, location is key. Dan Dawson, director of creative and technology at Grand Visual, suggests: “Creating fun and participatory campaigns is a great way to incentivise people to connect with DOOH screens. It is particularly effective in locations where average dwell time is high, such as shopping centres, train stations and airports.”

Media owners keep investing in cutting edge technology, but who is driving gamification adoption in OOH? Brands have been using online games to capture people’s attention for quite a while, so taking it onto the streets and public spaces is just an extension of this. On the creative agency side, using games can tangibly surpass what has been done before and can provide companies with real information on how well the campaign is doing, justifying the initial investment.

“In our experience, creative and media agencies are the most enthusiastic about gamification strategies because they are typically exciting to develop and have been proven to deliver results,” believes Simkins. “In the context of OOH some of the most successful interactive campaigns have introduced an element of game playing – whether this is using interactive touch- or gesture-enabled digital screen in bus-shelters, games that turn your phone into a game controller for a huge public digital screen, or even a pure-play gamification platform like YourVine which creates out-of-home challenges for participants.”

In order to make the best out the game experience, a little help is sometimes advisable, suggests Nick Mawditt, director of insight and marketing at Talon: “We have found that when using emerging technologies such as Augmented Reality (AR) or gestural interactivity the presence of on-site brand ambassadors, who can explain the experience to customers, significantly helps to drive interactions and understanding. Gesture and AR technologies increase the functionality of an interactive experience and, amongst a core gaming audience, gesture technology meets the expectations of high performance.”

Gamification works for brands because it is a means by which they can connect with customers for longer and more meaningfully. Engagement hot spots are emerging in most metropolises and the technology is also widely available. What is now needed is more outstanding creative content that explores the possibilities of gamification across all platforms.

Screens in the Wild

The research provided insight into how location and audience can affect interaction with DOOH

The research provided insight into how location and audience can affect interaction with DOOH

For the past two years the University College London (UCL) and the University of Nottingham (UoN) have been working together on a project called Screens in the Wild. Researchers from the UCL’s Space Group and the UoN’s Mixed Reality Lab investigated how media screens located in urban space can be designed to benefit public life.

The research team includes architects, human computer interaction designers, computer scientists, anthropologists, developers, artists and curators. Notably, it doesn’t include anyone currently working in DOOH. The reason for this is simple; they wanted to have total independence in order to be able to invite companies to try their test platforms in the second phase of the project, which began recently.

Ava Fatah gen Schieck, lecturer at UCL and head of the project, explains: “We built a series of architectural interfaces in Leytonstone, east London and Nottingham which use broadcast media and interactive technologies to foster community participation and ownership of the urban space.”

A total of four screens have been installed: two are in Nottingham, at the New Art Exchange and the independent Broadway Cinema, while the other two are in East London, one at Leytonstone library and another at volunteer-run community centre The Mill. The displays run as a network and, from the moment the first screen went up, the project has been running 24 hours a day. Each of the four nodes contains a touchscreen, a CCTV camera and a webcam, a microphone and a speaker.

Dr Holger Schnadelbach, the principal investigator and senior research fellow at UoN, was in charge of creating the technical platform for the project. The displays, which are NEC MultiSync screens, run on a Windows 7 platform using a Union Server and a touch foil overlay from Visual Planet.

“We tried various technologies, such as an Xbox for gesture interaction, but they didn’t work,” says Schieck. “We wanted to bring interactivity into the public realm and a simple touchscreen was the best.”

The research results show that slight distinctions in a screen’s surrounding area can provide remarkably varied results. Nottingham’s Broadway cinema is situated a few metres back from the street; here, people tend to stay and interact with the screens for extended periods, or just sit around and passively watch others play. In east London, where the screen is on the high street itself, the dwell time is briefer.

The project’s aim is to invite people to get more involved with their local community. With this in mind, researchers invited local digital artists and residents to workshops and events in which participants generated their own relevant content.

“A key element for engaging the public, besides creating simple interaction mechanisms, is to focus on locally generated content and to collaborate with communities to generate and develop the content,” believes Schieck.

One of the most popular interactions is a photo booth application, where pictures can be shared between the four locations, while another – a game – saw a high level of participation from children.

“Depending on the time of day you can get a very different picture of the interaction taking place,” explains Schieck. “For instance, inhibitions seem to disappear in the evening.

“There is an interesting case with the community centre screen where, for the past two years, a man has visited the screen every other day and had his photo taken. The picture only shows a snapshot of the interaction, but through our CCTV camera observation we can see that what he does is a whole performance: he dances in front of the screen!”

The research and development phase has ended; however, the screen network with its scheduled experiences continues to run and is available for any interested party to run tests on. Local venue owners and the residents involved in the project have expressed their continued interest in supporting the project.

“We have developed knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work, knowledge of the urban setting and the types of community around the screen locations, ” concludes Schieck. “We would like to test the possibility of offering the screen locations as a research test bed for developing novel ideas and supporting new ways of engagement with the public, which might be of interest to media owners and advertising agencies.”

The DOOH industry has a gap to bridge between academic research and the practical application of screens in the urban landscape. The Screens in the Wild network could be an ideal platform for identifying useful information about specific locations and engagement levels. This controlled environment can provide an outline of the social and technical challenges and opportunities for further developing out-of-home advertising and permit the transfer of this knowledge to other networks.

First published 12 December 2013 – Output