The hunt for Mister X

The use of Alternate Reality Games for workforce gamification, recruitment and brand loyalty.

A tall, blond man enters the store. Besides the two women at the end of the aisle, he is the only customer. He wears sunglasses, a blue-checkered shirt, worn jeans and lemon green sport shoes. You look around and signal your colleagues, crossing your fingers and discretely pointing to the man: ‘Could this be him?’

You approach him like you would engage with any customer: open and friendly. You make eye contact, ask him how you can help and you start a conversation. The man seems a bit surprised by your interest and positive attention. Seemingly shy, he tells you what he is looking for. Now it’s your moment to strike: You look him straight in the eyes and say ‘Well. it’s not on ‘offer’ today, but I do have it over here…’. The man frowns a little, but does not respond. You try again: ‘Can I ‘offer’ you a cup of coffee…?’  – deliberately stressing the code-word: ‘offer’, this time…

Pleasantly surprised, the blond man accepts your coffee. You are able to help him perfectly. He ends up buying more than he intended to, meanwhile valuing his visit as super-friendly.

At the moment he leaves the store – just a minute after the two women – you feel your smartphone buzzing in your pocket. You take it out and you immediately notice the push-up notification in the middle of your screen: You’ve been visited by X.

This is not a story from a spy novel. It’s a real-life experience of a young salesman working at a retail store. Together with his team he is part of ‘The Hunt’ ; an Alternate Reality Game that is played with the whole company for 5 weeks. The objective is to discover X ; a mystery man (or woman) that will visit the store a number of times throughout the 5 weeks. X can only be revealed using a specific code-word (that changes every 2 or 3 days, and is communicated through the X. smartphone app)

What is an Alternate Reality Game?

An Alternate Reality Game (ARG) is a highly engaging game (that is not a game*), weaving the real world with a fictional world through a compelling backstory, using different media, subtle gameplay, and influence from the community that plays it.

(It has nothing to do with augmented reality or virtual reality)

The Impact of Alternate Reality Games

To me, ARG’s like The Hunt are amongst the best and most impactful applications of Gamification. Why? Because of the typical ARG ingredients:

  • It is not a game.*
    A good ARG denies that it actually is a game. The idea that it could be real drives the engagement.
    One of the largest ARG’s ever played – Ingress – actually states that it is not a game, both in the trailer video (at 0:10) as well as in the game (You have downloaded what you believe to be a game, but it is not. Something is very wrong).
    Being part of something that is not a game can’t be dismissed, as ‘It’s just a game’.
  • It has a strong story
    A lot of games have a very thin narrative supporting their game. Angry Birds has a backstory, but it’s mainly there to set the stage. The game is mostly about throwing birds at pigs.
    A good ARG has a compelling backstory. It provides context, meaning and purpose. Stories emotionally involve us. In most ARG’s you start out with just a few parts of the story. It evolves as it is played. The best thing is: the community (people playing the ARG) can have an impact in how the story plays out.
  • It fosters collaboration
    ARG’s are designed for a hive mind. You have to share information to progress or keep an advantage in the game. In The Hunt, teams of players could share information – for example about the identity of X, the place he was seen the last time, or tips on how to incorporate the code-word into sales conversation – with team members in other locations.
  • It has real-world impact
    One of the main reasons that ARG’s are so gripping for players is their proximity to reality. It’s there, and it’s not. The game itself can’t be seen by others, but it is real for the player. In the same sense that muggles can’t see the magical world of Harry Potter, or that we can’t see Pokémon’s around us unless have the Pokémon Go app. (by the way: also created by Niantic Labs, the makers of Ingress)
    We do share the same playground: the real world.

In The Hunt, anyone walking into the store could be the mystery man (or woman). It makes every encounter with a customer more exciting and focuses your attention. This sensation in essence drives your behavior to be even more customer-focused. The game triggers you to engage with everyone walking into your store.

The Hunt also had ‘side’ effects on customers (not playing the game): They were greeted more than before, they picked up on the positive and alert vibe in the shops, they had more interactions with the sales staff, and eventually they bought more. (average purchase value per customer went up, as well as the total turnover for the entire company over the 5 weeks the ARG was played)

Why Should You Use an Alternate Reality Game?

Let’s say you want to engage and drive certain behavior in a large group of people: your employees. You have some options:

  • Tell them how to do it (training, procedures, rules)
  • Show them how to do it (training, e-learning, peer-to-peer learning, lead by example.
  • Trigger them to do it:

When it comes to changing behavior, it’s almost never about the HOW. You really don’t need to teach people how they should engage with customers, for example. They do need to know something about the WHY of your company, but that’s also something they should experience from the company culture (and not just because you told them).

In a positive scenario, your people are – for a large part – driven by your company values.
Besides that, they might be motivated by extrinsic (salary, bonuses, commission) or intrinsic rewards (for example: personal development, sense of belonging).

Since Dan Pink made a good case about what really drives us (and no, that’s not money), we know we do well to focus our attention to dynamics like autonomymastery and purpose. All of these are natural ingredients in games.

Off course, games can vary in the cocktail of motivators they use to engage players: scaling from more extrinsic (achievements, points, badges, leaderboards) to more intrinsic: (epic meaning & calling, empowerment of creativity & feedback, social influence).

While a lot of Gamification initiatives lean on competition and towards extrinsic drivers, Alternate Reality Games evolve more around intrinsic motivators. It naturally taps into what Gamification pioneer Yu-kai Chou calls ‘Right Brain’ Gamification.

For What Could You Use an ARG?

Provided they are well executed, ARG’s are exciting and they can have a huge impact on a large group of people. You can use them within your company – with your employees being the hero’s – or create one for your customers to connect them to your brand.

Some of these might be evident; within your company you could use an ARG to let your employees ‘discover’ a new CRM system that will be implemented, to let newcomers ‘infiltrate’ during their onboarding and learn about the company, or to turn your people into ambassadors for your mission and values, or for your new product campaign.

ARG’s are also great to for marketing & brand loyalty. The Why  So Serious campaign for the Batman film The Dark Knight,was arguably the best ARG campaign ever,  playing for over 15 months, with over 11 million unique participants in over 75 countries.

For me, the most interesting type of ARG’s are those on the edge, where your company is in contact with the outside world. I’ve used The Hunt as my favorite example, because it shows the impact of the ARG on customers at the touchpoint where it matters most: the direct face-to-face interaction between your people and your customers.

Another great example is the use of ARG’s for recruitment. Performance Solutions devices covert campaigns to recruit hundreds or even thousands of people to work at hotels or retail chains. Starting out with small, targeted notifications on social media, talents are drawn into a thrilling backstory, eventually leading to a live casting event. People actually get a dream job based on who they are and how they fit the company profile, rather than a doing a stressful, twelve-in-a-dozen job interview. And if they don’t get the job, they’ll walk away having had a great experience. They become your first ambassadors. Depending on the brand, these recruitment ARG’s can double as stealth marketing, jumpstarting a brand in a specific region or country.

Why Wait?

Well, don’t. The use of Alternate Reality Games for workforce gamification, recruitment or brand loyalty isn’t mainstream – yet. If you consider investing in one of these areas, set yourself apart. Create a huge impact with the excitement and engagement that comes with ARG’s and gamification. Don’t mistake it for being ‘ just a game’. It is not.

Michiel van Eunen

You can’t win if you don’t play

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