Game on

Non-fiction entertainment can also make for engaging gaming experiences. Whether it's with GPS-outfitted sharks or Alternate Reality Games, some shows are finding a little bit of play can pay off.
March 1, 2009

Thinking about gaming might conjure up images of a skinny 12-year-old boy playing hours upon hours of World of Warcraft, but many in non-fiction TV should rethink that picture. Some networks are already successfully furthering audience engagement by pairing up with developers to offer gaming experiences online.

Discovery Channel is one of the broadcasters avidly playing in the gaming space. Randy Rieland, SVP of digital media for the Discovery Channel, says there’s much value in offering a gaming component to a property. ‘There is the amount of time [people] spend with it, and the way they share the game-playing with other people when it’s a multiplayer game,’ he says. ‘We felt that part of our role is to take the brands that the network has created and allow people to interact with those brands 24/7.’

Rieland says in order to spin off a game from a popular brand, the show has to naturally lend itself to a gaming experience. ‘I don’t think it’s a smart idea to automatically develop a game for every show,’ he says. He says it’s also important for a game to still have value even if the show it’s attached to goes off the air, so that necessitates a less narrow focus.

Take, for instance, Discovery Channel’s massively popular, 20-year-old tradition, Shark Week. With this programming block, Discovery rolls out, over the span of a summer week, tons of shark-related, primetime programming. During and after the event, the Shark Week website offers up a number of shark-related games and trivia, most notably Sharkrunners.

Created in 2007 by Manhattan-based multimedia and game developer area/code, the game allows players to track sharks with real life data and create their own crews or teams. Instead of being a wholly immersive experience, the play with Sharkrunners is more pervasive, since the player’s boat moves in real time. Kati London, VP and senior producer at area/code says, ‘It would run all the time but you could walk away from it and have it interrupt your day in a light but really deep way.’ The game proved so popular in its debut year that Discovery teamed up with area/code for a second iteration, set in another location with new shark data. It’s garnered 12 million hits as of mid-February, and continues to pull in gamers even though Shark Week’s programming ended on August 1.

Going against Rieland’s idea of a game carrying on after the programs have ended is the Routes multi-platform project created by Oil Productions for Channel 4, in association with the Wellcome Trust. Routes, which ran from January 26 to March 26, incorporated weekly games, a documentary series presented on YouTube, and an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) component, all of which became static on the last day of the project. But although it didn’t exist in online perpetuity, the endeavor has been successful. Oil Productions’ CEO and creative director, Mike Bennett, says that the Routes project has intrigued every level of gamer: casual, engaged and heavy.

Commissioned by Channel 4 Education to bring science education issues to the Web – where the target demo of 14 to 19-year-olds was spending its time – the Routes initiative takes the topics of genetics and bio-ethics and integrates them into interactive content online. Routes revolved around documentary webisodes featuring comedienne Katherine Ryan, who has endured two bouts of skin cancer and lupus, as she submitted herself to a series of genetic tests. Alongside the webisodes were image challenges and flash mini-games like Breeder, which allowed gamers to create and evolve their own organism, and Sneeze, in which players represented viruses infecting a human population. A new mini-game would launch each week, related to Ryan’s doc series.

There was also the ARG, or the ‘thriller’ as Bennett calls it, which linked to the online realm with YouTube videos and postings. The thriller sent players running all over England to find out who ‘killed’ one of the scientists involved in the main show, all of which was being filmed by the Routes team. This last aspect had proven so popular that Channel 4 agreed to air the thriller component in early March; quite the reversal considering C4 saw Routes as a completely Web-based project and didn’t commit to airing a show until it’d seen the online experience. At the three-and-a-half week mark, Bennett reported that the game had almost 1.5 million plays and that had 100,000 users and 20,000 registered users. It also managed to not only pull in the coveted 14 to 19-year-olds, but also a swath of 12 to 45-year-olds.

Canada’s Vision TV is also betting on online gaming to bring younger audiences to its network. Vision’s head of programming, Joan Jenkinson, approached James Milward, executive producer of Toronto-based interactive media production company Secret Location, to create a web community and expand the demographic for Vision’s new strand ‘I Prophesy,’ which launched at the end of January 2009. He created a multi-player environment where avatars could chat with each other within the context of the episodes, or they could immerse themselves in the game world, collecting avatar attributes.

Games such as I Prophesy also offer the capability for integrated advertising. Milward says Secret Location created the game’s avatars in 3D for two reasons. ‘That was a stylistic choice as much as it was strategic,’ he says. ‘That allows us to skin the avatars themselves, so if we add a clothing company, we can add those elements to the avatars. Your sponsorship or advertising is integrated directly within the characters.’ Sharkrunners also had the option of product placement, with one coffee company pitching to have captains drink its brand within the game. ‘It’s sometimes more challenging to work those things into [a game],’ Rieland says. ‘It’s not an easy sell at this point.’

The marketing of the games also requires special consideration. ‘Online extensions for TV shows need to be marketed as much as the TV show. It doesn’t just end by putting up a website,’ says Milward. He was in charge of his own marketing, spending 10% of his budget on advertising online through search engines and other means.

There was a big push from the tube to the Web for Sharkrunners, with Discovery running on-air spots throughout Shark Week to promote both seasons of the game. Last year, pop-ups identified sharks during the program Mysteries of the Shark Coast to let viewers know that they were also in Sharkrunners. ‘People could easily make that connection between what’s happening on screen and what they could be doing online,’ says London.

Thus far, there isn’t any data to prove that people spending time on the online games will leave their computers to watch the brand on television. ‘It’s very hard to measure at this point how much content on a website drives ratings,’ says Rieland. However, he does believe that interaction with the game impacts the brand, which can only deepen levels of loyalty to the show. Area/code MD/founder Kevin Slavin agrees, saying that games aren’t necessarily built to direct eyeballs back to programming. ‘Games are good at extending content and an idea rather than directing traffic towards something,’ he says.

Rieland, involved with Discovery’s interactive department since 1995, says that although there are gamers that prefer a complex multiplayer virtual gaming experience, those looking to extend their brands into gaming shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most people are online to kill time.

‘It’s very hard to project where things are going to be two or three years from now,’ he says. ‘You want to have in your stable fairly straightforward, universal games as they’ll always work.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.