Playfulness and programmatic advertising: help for primary prevention strategies?

Playfulness” is a bona fide example of a travelling concept (Bal 2002),
with a complex conceptual history that ranges from anthropology and
psychology (e.g., Lieberman 1977; Sutton-Smith 1997) via literary theory
(e.g., Stewart 1979; Hutchinson 1983) to the interdisciplinary field of
game studies (e.g., Ensslin 2014; Sicart 2014). Playfulness has been used in conjunction with concepts such as edutainment or gamification. Gamified narratives have been implemented in social marketing, consumer behaviour and commercial marketing (IGI, 2019). In our own understandings, and in our current project ENCOADE (Ending Economic Abuse through Digital Empowerment) we have decided use playfulness and link it to concepts such as “information needs” (Taylor, 1962, 1968) and sensemaking (Endert et al.2017) and applied to another invisible issue: economic abuse.

Programmatic advertising doesn’t have a final and agreed definition as of yet but it is usually agreed to be a set of algorithmic-driven activities that see an advertiser let platforms such as google of facebook deliver ads based on a bidding process. (Busch, 2015). I work in the field and academic research on the topic lacks. Although not ideal, it offers a unique opportunity to bring innovation in non profit and institutional marketing

We applied them to think of prevention strategies focused on economic abuse

Economic abuse has been discussed and debated in academic and policy circles (Postmus, 2018; Sharp-Jeffs, 2015) but it is nowhere to beseen in the public agenda.Unless one is a survivor of domestic violence, economic abuse exists is an invisible issue . During one of our courses in social media marketing at the University of Stirling, we asked students to think about the meaning of economic abuse. They had no idea what it was. We then tasked them to ask a friend or family member to ask: “what is economic abuse?”. The answers we got were pretty much the same: No Idea!

And yet. there is so much information in the form of policy papers, reports and nice data (which seem to now have a new gatekeeper… in the UK at least). Why are people not aware of this form of abuse? After a very quick analysis of social media we realised that economic abuse is discussed by a close and ego-centric network of researchers and policy makers that promote each others’ work but fail to talk to people. Additionally, all research that is currently available INTERNATIONALLY is based on small samples of SURVIVORS of economic abuse: women in violent and heterosexual relations. There is virtually no information about LGBTQ+ experiences and nothing about the multiple definitions and meanings that economic abuse can have for heterosexual male victims.

This was a very useful start for our project that brought together economic abuse, playfulness and sensemaking principles and programmatic ads!

Our Project: ENCOADE – Help Mandy!

Our project was created and tested during the autumn semester; it considered these limitations and possibilities of current research on economic abuse and built upon: Information Science (especially library access and retrieval and serendipitous discovery of information) and Gamified Story Telling. We therefore created a short pilot game (which we are improving and testing): Help Mandy!

The game followed the structure and the objectives of a serious digital game but tried to bring in innovative elements such as the maximisation of programmatic marketing techniques and the introduction of elements of decision making in relation to the presence of  “branded content” in the form of well-known organisations that provide either financial or domestic abuse support. The latter, it was noticed, are usually at the forefront of the battle against abuse but may not necessarily be well known to the general public for their activities to tackle economic abuse.

The game “Help Mandy!” was designed using Twine, a text-based and open-source tool for interactive and non-linear storytelling because, although we recognise the possible risk of losing valuable insights from younger audiences (mainly those comprised between 18 and 30 years of age), we were also thinking about the non-digital natives or people that may have low digital literacy. Therefore, we kept the visual appeal to a minimum, removing the presence of avatars (although the player is still asked to build their character,) and emphasising instead the story, the placement of crucial organisations in the game, and the decision-making aspect of helping the character of the game make the right financial choices and recognise the instance of economic abuse.

Three principles were investigated in this game: 1) game narrative  2) brand recognition and its effects on the decision-making processes, and 3) multi-channel programmatic marketing techniques for games distribution. We are writing a paper at the moment but we will update this part with a link to the paper!

The game: One of the main features of effective and successful games is, in fact, the narrative of the story upon which any game (digital and non) is based )⁠. We built a coherent and engaging story that contextualises economic abuse in a specific locale (Scotland in this case) and we thought of adding an additional layer: specific and detailed information about support networks that are available to victims in Scotland (where we are based and where we already work with financial institutions!). Such networks are made of organisations -some well known while others lesser known – that may not be recognised or associated with economic abuse and might become an impasse for the player during the game.

The narrative of the game and the role that organisations as factors in steering the story has then be put in the context of social and digital media as platforms to distribute digital games and as infomediaries.

Chart 1.HelpMandy! structure. Available at it.chio/amarcord95

Game Narrative : the story  The design of the game followed the suggestions and recommendations of two survivors-turned-advocates of economic abuse. These steps were necessary to create a credible final version of the game, which included a credible story and adopt what the authors have defined a “stop-continue” multi-choice narrative. The latter responds to the need to bring the player to make decisions on behalf of Mandy, from assigning a gender to the character to deciding what the character would need, to gain (or re-gain) their economic independence.  In order to maximise the player’s central role in the decision-making process, certain situations were offered as to how to help Mandy navigate a potentially risky relationship. While some situations were very straight-forward and aimed at understanding the bias of the player (i.e. Mandy’s gender) some others were more difficult (i.e. the control Mandy’s partner has over Mandy’s finances and whether this control could lead to an economically unequal relationship). These decisions were to be taken based on a “problem” that the player meets at every stage of the game and each decision taken by the player leads to an outcome, which is either positive for Mandy or is instead counterproductive and could lead Mandy to either economic dependency or bankruptcy.

The results: The game was tested amongst a selection of 32 respondents (17 female; 13 male; 2 prefer not to say) of ages between 18 and 55 (avg age: 33.9; sd 10.33, min 18; max 55; median 35). These were all volunteers that were part of t he University of Stirling.No financial compensation was offered. It was a small dataset but what we brought in was a new dimension: awareness for those that may (hopefully not but they might one day) become victims.

What did they say? The majority of people thought Mandy was a woman because of the problem with money. A respondent explains “Because when I picture someone struggling with many responsibilities I imagine a woman” (ID:007674). In the game Mandy struggles with money.

Independently of whether respondents chose Mandy to be a woman or a man, all respondents agreed that there is virtually no information about economic abuse. (Chart 2)

Chart 2: Answers to question: “do you think there is enough information about economic abuse and its multiple manifestations?”

This information is lacking for anyone, independently of their own gender (chart 3)

Chart 3: answer to question “do you think there is enough information about economic abuse?” by gender

When asked whether a game could have increased their own knowledge and will to know and learn about economic abuse, the majority answered that although their willingness to learn would improve, they wouldn’t independently go look for information.


Programmatic Marketing: A possibility

The distribution of a serious game through programmatic marketing techniques requires a clear content plan which includes a number of ads (a) in order to be effectively distributed over a given time (t) across multiple platforms (p). On social media platforms, featured and sponsored posts must be built to be engaging for the audience on the platform while also ushering to the technical and policy requirements of the platforms. In order to minimise the number of ads produced (a) across the platforms (p), the advertising platform Facebook for Business was chosen (Tab.2). This choice was driven by two main factors:

1. Instagram and Facebook are largely used in Scotland, with Instagram being mostly used by younger target audiences (18-24 and 25-30) and Facebook used by more mature audiences (40+).

2. The advertising platform allows to upload a number of ads keeping the technical specificities required for the ads to a minimum. Unlike Twitter or Google, Facebook for Business helps create gifs or short videos of images (carousel) from within the platform, keeping the content production to the minimum.

We chose programmatic ads because we wanted to test the role of serendipitous discovery of information and build a statistically sound model that could assist organisations design their personas. Serendipity is nothing but the act of ‘stumbling’ upon information one was not actually looking for! All we wanted to test was the feasibility of accidentally discovering information about economic abuse and gain more information and insights about economic abuse and the support available in scotland through the game Help Mandy!. We really just wanted to see:

  1. How many people would be interested in knowing more about economic abuse by playing a game
  2. Who these people are
  3. What kind of information would lead them to go from scrolling to clicking and from clicking to playing and learning.

Rather big questions given that all we know at the moment is that economic abuse is pretty much ignored by everyone in Scotland and that we can only target 18-65 on the bidding platforms we usually work with.

n order to answer questions 1 and 3, we created a total of six (6) different posts and clustered in: factual ads (main theme: “economic abuse is violence, find out more playing this game” ->click to Help Mandy!) and ludic ads (main theme: “is this abuse? test your knowledge of economic abuse. Help Mandy! “-> click to HelpMandy!). Each cluster comprised of a gif, a carousel (collage of images to make a story that a user can tap on from their screens and is prompted to different messages), and a still image. One ad from each cluster was chosen for A/B Testing in order to understand how to best distribute a serious game about economic abuse in Scotland; in order to avoid skewed results (the authors anticipated that ludic ads may attract more interest than factual ads), one gif for the factual ads was chosen for the A/B testing, and a plain picture ad was chosen to test the ads from the ludic cluster. The results highlighted an overall positive response to the positive, ludic ad across all target audiences while the negative ad seemed to mainly appeal to younger (25-35) audience.

We had very high clicks (245 in a seven day window and £35 allocated) CPC: £.15

What did we learn?

  1. Ludic ads -> these tend to be clicked more by 35+
  2. Younger audiences used Instagram and clicked on what we called “negative ads” or ads that invite the audience to test their knowledge by informing them already about the negative impact that economic abuse can have on someone’s life.
  3. role of serendipitous discovery of information: we were able to test,through the CTR that the role of serendipity deserves more attention. If you are not looking for information, you may stumble across something that can change your perception or your own understanding of a specific topic.

We are currently revamping the game in order to improve the story following the feedback from our volunteers and we will then create a specific project on this website. The results weren’t enough for us to create a statistically relevant model but we are now analysing the data to design an fractional factorial design.Any ideas and/or feedback (or request to collaborate) much appreciated 🙂

A special thanks for our students: Clara, Amy, Aidan, Lorraine, Ruairi, Alvaro , Amy and Gonzalo!

For more info on the game and to know more about the articles we are writing to discussed the findings:

Let’s talk about #DownSyndrome

I have been working on a research project. The PI approached me because she needed someone that could do some digital story-telling. So, here I am trying to figure out how to put a rather specific research question into a compelling communication project. Something people would want to know about.

The project is about dementia in people with learning and cognitive disabilities, specifically Down Syndrome. A massive topic I would say. Dementia: hot topic; Down syndrome: complex topic.

A first step to understand how to communicate is to understand what is that will be communicated. So I started researching dementia AND, separately, Down Syndrome. I wanted to understand the sentiment, the tone, the feelings towards each of them. What campaigns have been run to raise awareness on dementia? Are there campaigns to support or raise awarenes on Down Syndrome? What are the tones?

Firstly I approached colleagues in the Film and Media Section of my department to know if there is any literature on the stereotyping of the person with Down Syndrome and if they had ever read anything about a sitcom (cannot recall the name now!). Then I thought of turning to what I m most interested in: social media. Twitter is the fastest and easiest avenue of research and I undertook some sentiment analysis of the campaign #DownSyndrome. I randomly selected over 2000 tweets to perform an initial sentiment and frequency analysis. And here came the surprise.

What have I noticed? 70% of the tweets were very positive. Overwhelming correct? Sure. Then I went into the remaining 30ish %. There emerged a little sarcasm (see the picture).Picture1


The sarcasm couldn’t really be analysed with the code so I have looked a bit closer to the tweets I had downloaded. There emerged a completely different matter. The sarcasm was not directed toward the campaign or the person with Down Syndrome; not toward other people that had used the # or the issue altogether. A quarrel between those that had associated the #DownSyndrome to the #proLife and those that had, instead, associated the #DownSyndrome to the #proChoice. The tweet that unleashed the angry tweets was a link to this video.

The discussions therefore moved from the person with Down Syndrome (actor) to a much more complex issue: the right to choose whether or not a person with Down Syndrome shall come to this world; the right of the mother, the right of the child. And the tweets were rather hard core, accusing one another…losing completely sight of the issue at stake: the awareness campaign.

Of course, the positive tweets also offer very interesting insights; following upon Van Gameren-Oosterom research on the stereotyping of the person with Down Syndrome, the positive tweets certainly meant good but tended to portray a positive, smiling child, when the reality might be a bit different.

Therefore, a series of questions arise. Are we stereotyping a segment of the population that has never really been the centre of much media research? Are we using one issue (in this case an awareness campaign) to bring forward other battles (i.e. prochoice or prolife discourses)? If so, what are the scenarios that we must consider when communicating to the world that given the life expectancy of people with Down Syndrome has now reached (and exceeds at times) the 70 years of age and this under-researched segment of the population will need to be made aware of the issue of dementia?


CJ “RE-Classification” Project

In 2006 geographer Keith Yearman launched the “Juarez Declassification” Project aimed at showcasing the attempts to make the issues of feminicidios disappear from national and international agendas. The project contained cables from US and Canadian Embassies with regards to the “bodies found dumped” in deserted areas in the city. The project was dismissed and abandoned.  There have been other attempts to merge computation, statistical evidence and the issue of feminicidios in CJ; an example could be the project “Lucy Project” a Phd project that tried to gather information on the missing girls in Ciudad Juarez and offer a platform that could be used to report and denounce women disappearances and murders in the city. Machine learning and computation met again with Ciudad Juarez with various attempts to link the presence of gang graffiti in the city and the drug routes. All of these have been either abandoned or have lacked in-depth understanding of the city and its inhabitants.

The idea of the “CJ RE-classification project” is not to reinvent the wheel but to archive what has been done, over the years, to denounce, report and put an end to the forced disappearances and violent murders of women -and girls as young as six years old- in the city. The aim is to gather evidence: if it is not possible to know how many, at least it is possible to know how much effort has been put into the making and breaking of feminicidios. If in fact on the one side mothers march to know who is taking responsibility, on the other academics and researchers have accused feminicidios to be “myth”.

Rather than dismiss the various positions and privilege one view or truth over another, the idea of the project is to put everything in one place an understand the narrative, the breadth and depth of the issue and the ways in which the issue has been narrated (either to make it a “myth” or a major problem the city has been dealing with for over two decades).

After two years of building the database and structuring the information scattered online with regards to feminicidios in Ciudad Juarez, it has finally been possible to create a Google form directly linked to a SQL database (no chance to access the DB from the form though so info is safely stored). The form allows to upload documents such as pictures, videos and even audio files (for podcasts that are not already shared online). These will be identified with a unique ID and will enrich the already rich database. The layout is very basic but it does the job.

Screenshot 2017-08-30 08.55.27

What is the purpose of the database? It was born as a way to record and analyse the image narrative around feminicidios in CJ. Little by little it turned into a necessary archive of information and multi-media material that could record, in one place, the scattered information on feminicidios in Ciudad Juarez. Thanks to the contribution of various activists and friends, it is growing and it has come to include academic papers, conference proceedings, university projects (such as google maps that visualise the number of bodies found in specific locations or years), podcasts, and much more.

The internet offers a rather rich repository of images and audio visual material, “clues” (Eco, 1984) that can inform on the efforts that activists, feminists and families of murdered and missing women in Ciudad Juarez have put in making the issue of female homicides and disappearances visible.

Why a database if the Internet already offers a lot of information? Because no machine learning algorithm will be able to cluster and make sense of the complex narrative associated with the issue and offer some statistical significance to a problem that has never been quantified and has always remained a very local and localised tragedy.

Anybody can submit the form and contribute to the database, which already comprises of over 5,000 between academic papers, pictures of protests, newspapers articles (mainly online newspapers), videos and a couple of podcasts. But we can always do more!

Screenshot 2017-08-30 09.03.24
Image correlation analysis


To contribute information and keep on enriching the database, please fill in the FORM.

Emerging connections: the affinity map

Last night the ENAC (broadly speaking, the Faculty  of Architecture at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Lausanne) had the pleasure to reflect on their own collaborative networks. Through the realisation of a bespoke project named “affinity map” realised by my friend and colleague Dario Rodighiero , the ENAC had a first touch-and-feel of how their policies of collaboration and mutual support have (or have not!) worked.

Dario’s main objective is to “make the invisible visible”. In times where data and big data pressure businesses and academic alike, Dario’s tool is inspiring; it has certainly forced each component of the map to reflect on their own work and behaviour. We can picture some relieved faces of lecturers and researchers (“yes! I have loads of connections!”) and some others a bit more ashamed. The affinity map is based on the process of gathering and meticulous organisation and display (visualisation) of ‘messy data’, coming from people’s work. The map is much closer to reality than the shiny world of Data Science wants us to believe for we deal quotidie with messy data.



The affinity map showcased last night makes us rethink:

  1. Governance
  2. Performativity


One way or another, we tend to be under pressure; we need to collaborate. Before, colaboration would very much be interpreted as weekly meetings with the team at work, monthly meetings with the division and perhaps Christmas parties with the company/institution. Now, collaboration is becoming part of KPIs and most certainly, there is no project and no institution that doesn’t strive for the best possible results through collaboration. We are being asked to collaborate to win prizes, collaboratively review RFPs, submit inter-disciplinary and collaborative research proposals to increase our chances to win etc… Yes, we are under  pressure, and changing the habit of ‘pretending to collaborate’ to a habit of ‘true collaboration’ is tough.  There is very little knowledge on how to monitor collaboration. Dario’s visualisation, hopefully, will become a useful tool to understand the full extent of collaboration and, also, understand how it also translates into efficiency and competitive advantage. It might sound scary but, willingly or not, we have embraced business logics of efficiency, exposure and global reach.



How can data perform a new reality? This question is far from clear. However, what we see in this very quick and simple video isn’t only the translation of some very complex data into a nice dataviz project; it is also a whole new way of understanding the working of a small world, a lab, an institution or a company. The lack of collaboration or the wealth of networks of collaborations are translated into an algorithm that codifies the institutions’  ‘willingness’ to collaborate. The tool is performed through data; the academics’ were forced to look reflexively into their own practices. The affinity map certainly raises tough questions and it certainly brings up possible discussions on the discursive formation of collaboration and can have unknown -disciplinary- consequences (more policies?).

Networks of academics, their works and their networks of supervisions is a fascinating matter that opens the door to reflections over the impact of such a tool on universities’ research and teaching frameworks and policies, on governance and, most certainly, on the ethics of transposing collaboration and inter-disciplinarity into an eye-catching visualisation. All in all, a pretty awesome job