December 10, 2005
The Next Big Thing: Lifestyle Gaming?

Last week Dr. Jenkins' Creative Industries class was visited by Jon Cropper, a friend of the C3 and the man in charge of marketing Sean "Diddy" Coombs' media empire. In his lecture, Jon presented two huge photomontages evoking the 'mood' of a brand, including locations, objects and people that all fit this brand style. Looking at them, it was almost impossible not to start imagining connections between the images and quickly forming some type of brand narrative.

C3's research keeps returning over and over again to the use of storytelling as a marketing and entertainment device. We grapple with the functions that these stories serve in ads, the function that product placement for ads serve in stories, and how video gaming is developing as a narrative form. Aristotle argued that drama was all about the plot – characters are nice to have, but you can still have a story with a rousing plot and no characters. Video games, on the other hand, seem to be primarily about the setting, granting the player agency to run around in an authored world.

So why not take this one step further and let gamers slip into the world that these brands attempt to personify in their advertisements? We have racks and racks of lifestyle magazines, so why not lifestyle gaming?

Imagine a MMORPG for the Vanity Fair set that lets you be the heir or heiress to some massive business empire, providing you with nearly inexhaustible resources. In the game, you can then assemble the materialistic life of your dreams, obtaining houses and vacation homes and planes and cars or whatever, taking this life out for a spin. You can connect with your friends online and show off the newest toys that you've found, with the option of actually purchasing one in real life with real money in-game. It would be similar to a James Bond game, but playing up the shaken-not-stirred aspect instead of the Walther PPK. How would such a project succeed or fail?

On the one hand, there's something intensely sexy about the concept of a Ralph Lauren videogame, distributed via free DVD-ROM in every issue of Vanity Fair, or even an Eddie Bauer or Timberland game. Pop in the game, and you're suddenly running around a lodge in Crested Butte wearing the latest fashions, sipping Godiva cocoa, cuddling with ski bunnies and taking your Land Rover out for a spin. On the other, there's the simple solve-all-my-problems psychology trap of big ticket purchases. People tend to buy brands because they believe that their lives will radically change when they obtain that $500 Gucci bag, but their friends stay the same, their waistline stays the same, their house stays the same... Very few big-ticket purchases would offer the same kind of massive life overhaul that such a game could offer – unless each game also offered a Buy This Life button that instantly sucked $20M out of your credit account, filed divorce papers, sold your house, and booked you plane tickets.

Regardless, I think there is some interesting – and potentially lucrative – territory to be mined here. What do you think?


On December 10, 2005 at 3:12 PM, Ivan Askwith said:

It's an interesting concept. The closest thing I can think of to where this has already surfaced might be the official game of Playboy: The Mansion.

From IGN's review:

Live the life of Hugh Hefner. That's what Playboy: The Mansion promises. It invites you to walk the halls of the infamous Playboy Mansion, a wildly hot babe on each arm, and erect a publishing empire second to none. As Hugh, you'll throw nightly parties full of socialites and topless women, form million-dollar contracts and rub shoulders with some of America's biggest characters. As Hugh, you'll command a loyal staff of journalists, photographers, executives and models, all of whom you can befriend or fire on a whim. Lastly, you'll command the affections of almost every woman who dares step through your front door.

Life, for Hugh, is good. Too bad it's just not very fun. For all that real Hugh has going for him, virtual Hugh can't seem to escape the pedestrian lifestyle of your average Sim. True, Playboy: The Mansion bombards you with wide array of digital boobies, but sex in-game holds the same appeal as clipping your toenails. You can expand your mansion and stuff it with big-screen TVs and a $24,000 DJ station, but it never captures the eclectic pizzazz of the real thing. Or even of a similar game, for that matter. Take the Urbz, for example, a flawed yet oddly charming title that did a pretty decent job of distilling the essence of the urbanite lifestyle.

So it sounds like Sim gaming may already have some element of what you're talking about -- I haven't looked at Urbz yet, but I guess I should.

From a brand perspective, of course, online gaming might have more promise: one of the main motivating factors in purchasing brand names is knowing that other people see, and identify you, with the brands you sport. Part of the allure of being able to buy a Ralph Lauren suit in a game might be the wish-fulfillment aspect of not having the resources (or perhaps the figure) to wear that suit in real life; there's some interesting stuff going on in this arena, most notably in Second Life.

We should probably look into this further.

On December 11, 2005 at 1:51 AM, Alec Austin said:

I know that lots of Sims and Sims 2 modders have been creating branded clothing skins, appliances, furniture, and the like for quite some time, which feeds into the points that Ivan brings up.

At the same time, the major obstacle to lifestyle gaming taking off is: How the heck do you make it fun/fulfilling? The review of Playboy: The Mansion which Ivan cites brings this into sharp relief. While all the trappings of the lifestyle are present, they're only present on-screen, at a level of abstraction which does very little for the player. Designer clothing in Second Life is one step closer to making the lifestyle fantasy have a real impact, but it's still a very specialized market, and the payoff relies on other users recognizing your virtual threads.

My instinct is that lifestyle gaming will only really make it big when a greater level of fulfillment is imbedded into it. Whether this will take the form of a universal avatar protocol (ala Snow Crash) where your 'net presence always includes whatever accessories you've purchased, or some way in which the fantasy lifestyle a player constructs for themselves can be made real, there's a threshold of relevance for widespread adoption that has yet to be achieved.

On December 15, 2005 at 4:00 PM, Parmesh Shahani said:

I'm thinking more of a world wherein the the two 'worlds' are connected - i.e. purchasing a Ralph Lauren suit (for full price only, from a Ralph Lauren store) gives you a code (maybe sewn into the collar) for your online avatar which will come clothed in that suit. Think of it as an exclusive online club, where you have to buy your way in. The more accessories your avatar has, the more it means you have purchased from RL in real life. Of course, you can trade, swap, kill (!)... for all of this, online, which is what would make it delicious. :-)