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: