Want A Rush? Read This Story About Digitaria Games For A Quick Dopamine Fix

Well, you might, if Jim McArthur wrote it. McArthur is an expert on getting people’s brains to release the drug-like chemical dopamine, which is our body’s way of making us feel rewards for doing something in order to get us to do it again. And now, as head of a new “games” division of JWT’s Digitaria unit, he’s going to use techniques developed by the games industry to interact with the agency’s clients’ brands as if they were playing games.

While the concept of game mechanics, or “gamification,” isn’t new on Madison Avenue, McArthur’s team at San Diego-based Digitaria plans to formalize the practice in a way that professional game developers might, producing advertising, promotions and digital interactive experiences that use our brain’s own rewards systems to get people to feel good about interacting with brands.

“That’s the whole concept behind this,” says McArthur, senior vice president-global business development and managing creative director, Digitaria, who oversees the agency’s “vertical” units such as Digitaria Games. “Whether it’s a video game or board game, there’s that moment of elation that releases dopamine and creates that feeling of achievement or accomplishment.”

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McArthur says that process can range from adrenalin-rush games like a massive multiplayer online video game, or even simple contests or sweepstakes that give people a sense of accomplishment, or tap into their sense of status. It’s not always a rush, he says. Sometimes it’s just about making people feel good about something -- even things that are, well, the opposite of rushing.

That’s something McArthur learned firsthand while driving his Lexus CT Hybrid, which isn’t about speed so much as it is about fuel economy. The car’s dashboard interface reminds drivers when they are attaining optimum fuel economy by not accelerating too fast, and maintaining a consistent pace. But the process has modified the way McArthur drives, he says, giving him a sense of reward when he achieves his 40-plus miles-per-gallon level of performance.

The behavior is so ingrained in him, McArthur says, that he cringes when someone else drives his car and lowers its average fuel economy level.

McArthur says the concept is one that can be applied to virtually any industry or product or service category, and merely requires creativity and an understanding of consumer motivation, and game mechanics -– not to mention some savvy developers and designers.

And it need not be performance-based. Using another hypothetical example that could be created for the car industry, McArthur says that a game application might mean rewarding car owners who perform routine maintenance such as changing their engine oil.

The reward, he says, might mean having the car’s system issue a free Starbucks coffee when they hit 30,000 miles of proper maintenance.

“You’re tapping into someone’s rewards center, but you’re also pulling in their warm and fuzzy center when you do that,” he says, adding: “If you provide someone with positive feedback that provides a goal, they are more likely to do it.”

While that may be one of the underlying goals of most brands, the science of applying game mechanics to branding is still pretty new, and McArthur says Digitaria Games is just the formalization of what Digitaria already has been doing for some of its clients’ brands, ranging from athletic apparel manufacturer Under Armour to petcare marketer Petco. For Under Armour’s recent “Footsteps” campaign, Under Armour created a “Scavenger Hunt.” For Petco, Digitaria launched “Petco Pals Rewards Push,” which was such a big hit that the agency has to pull the platform down to retool it to accommodate so many consumers using it to win $5 discounts. One week after launching the first version of the game-based platform, Petco maxed out its entire budget for the program.

McArthur, who also oversees the Digitaria Automotive vertical, says there’s a lot of overlap between the two divisions, but even brands that don’t have that obvious adrenalin connection with their consumers can figure out ways of rewarding them to interact with their brands, and to utilize better digital media technology to do it.

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