The Necessity of Purpose

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

One of the rites of passage in the real world is the summer job, which gives kids a taste of responsibility outside the home, not to mention the fun stuff that can be purchased with paychecks.

Only now that rite has shifted to virtual worlds. It seems that computer-savvy kids are finding work in MMOs and MMORPGs (online games):

  • Open a Store. When you visit a virtual world like Second Life, there’s little obvious regarding what you’re supposed to do there. It this way, it resembles the real world, only there are no requirements for an occupation, demands for sleep or nourishment, and few applicable rules of physics. What happens is that most visitors focus on giving their cartoon selves — called avatars — shape and form, and then go about buying digital clothing, wigs, homes, and lots of other stuff. A kid with limited programming ability can set up shop and sell the stuff. It’s not a lot harder than selling your parent’s junk on eBay.
  • Be an Indentured Servant.For those virtual experiences that have at least the hint of a game framework, like World of Warcraft or other fantasy realms, the way players get new, better stuff is through time/expertise. You have to go kill so-many trolls before you can level-up your glowing scimitar, or whatever. Enterprising kids can go earn these higher-value objects by using their own God-given skills: an ability to play video games, and a willingness to expend endless hours doing so. Then, they can resell these objects to players who lack those blessings. 
  • Become a Mercenary. Team-based game-play is a strong, emerging experience made possible on Xbox 360 (and other platforms); players join together to fight battles together, utilizing VOIP communications to actually talk to one another in the real world as their avatars are sneaking up on an enemy position in Call of Duty 4. Now imagine a high-schooler who is a particularly adept virtual sharp-shooter…and selling his services to a team that wants to win better or faster.   

I have no idea how many kids are actually doing any of this, and I’m not sure that I care (as long as it isn’t my kid doing it). And the idea that people go to places like Second Life to sell stuff to people who go to places like Second Life is, well, circular logic, or a pyramid scheme, depending on your geometry preferences.

I’m interested in this phenomenon because it starts answering a question I’ve been asking myself for a while now: why do people spend time in online virtual worlds?

They go there when there’s a purpose.

Whether it’s to slay dragons or terrorists, or sell stuff to any avatar that is willing to buy something, most MMO-ers are doing something. It’s active, or the exact opposite of the passive content consumption that drove print and broadcast media. 

I wonder what this tells us about how to adapt brands to new media generally.

For instance, if branding in these old media was an interruption, isn’t it just a distraction in these new online worlds? If I’m getting chased by murderous thugs, do I really care that the virtual billboards advertise real products, or that my imaginary vehicle is badged with a real logo? 

Ads were relevant to old media because we knew, deep down, that we endured them so we could get our programs for free. But those days are gone…we pay for the games, consoles, and the broadband access to play them.

And what about social media that don’t involve killing things?

So much of the advice seems to be that companies should simply get involved and start a bunch of conversations. But to what end…what purpose? Perhaps people go to chat rooms and forums with the same sense of intention that game players bring online. They want to get something done. That renders the corporate approach of engagement rather moot, doesn’t it? 

Content in MMOs, MMORPGs, and most any online experience needs to be relevant, not just present. 

Maybe purpose-marketing is the new permission?

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