The Hero’s Journey in Gamification and Marketing

Marketing has seen applications of every sort of theory: psychology, operations research, anthropology – you name it.  A number of marketers have mentioned Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as a way of framing advertising.

A hero’s journey has a number of common elements:

  1. The common day
  2. A distress call to adventure
  3. A victim
  4. The hero is singled out as ‘the one’ who can help
  5. There may be initial reluctance
  6. They enter a world of supernatural wonder
  7. Help from a wise mentor
  8. Gods or supernatural benevolent beings assist (or interfere)
  9. Tasks and battles
  10. Trials – the unanticipated; accident; treachery; treason
  11. Transformation of the hero
  12. Return with a Boon to share with others

The logical question arising is “Who is to be the hero?”.  Examination of the heroic role and the history of advertising reveals a number of good answers to this. Advertisers soon learned to promote the buyer as the hero. In this role the product becomes not the hero but the hero’s empowering tool.

The subject matter, such as math, science, product or service, can take many roles. It can be the hero, the hero’s empowering tool, or the prize/boon.

Even the dark side can be used. Sometimes a game portrays maths or science as the trial or obstacle to be overcome. Whether that is a good way to retain future interest in these subjects is a matter for caution.

Folklore gives us any number of precedents for these joint roles: Jason and the Golden Fleece, Percival and the Holy Grail, King Arthur and his sword Excalibur, Aladdin and the Genie, Thor and his Hammer. On TV we had The Lone Ranger and his horse Silver, Sergeant Preston and dog King, Captain Nelson and Jeannie, Knight Rider and his car KITT. There were often human ‘sidekicks’ like Tonto or Batman’s Robin. All these had a secondary but distinctive contribution empowering the hero.

In service industries the empowering tool will be a person. So the canny marketer is careful that the credibility and potency of the potential buyer is not threatened by contrast with the service provider as hero. Sometimes the buyers, particularly females, were cast in the Damsel in Distress role. But commonly the buyer is portrayed as the potential hero, like Aladdin, who only needs to rub the magic lamp to summon the empowering tool.  Indeed, many ads actually portrayed the Magic Lamp.

Taking the common example of a pest control product:

  1. the hero is a householder at home doing something routine in the kitchen or bathroom.
  2. The householder is called to action when the villain pest arrives
  3. it menaces the victims, commonly the children or those about to eat.
  4. The buyer realises action must be taken
  5. They don’t know where to turn
  6. A wonder product appears
  7. A scientist, elder or helpful neighbour explains and endorses the product
  8. The product is “brought to you by …[sponsor] ”  “from the makers of …”
  9. A battle ensues
  10. Progress reversed temporarily as a cat or child spills something
  11. The householder beams with pride as they have become a hero
  12. The meal is served, the kids go off to school and they all live happily ever after

Applications of this eventually became so formulaic as to become a cliché. As advertisers saw the coming demise of ‘the 30 second grab’ in the digital era of recorded broadcasts, fast forwards, mute buttons and eventually the Internet, there was often no time for such a sequence within the limited grabs now available.

The next cliché to appear attempted to harness game enthusiasm to hold attention and loyalty. This blending of advertising and gaming was termed “advergaming” and it became a repertoire staple.  Ad companies began placing advertisements within commercial video games and hired game developers to craft online game experiences based around their products.

The game industry became so big in its own right that it marketed physical merchandise like action figures and board games to promote its products.

For the purposes of my www.openlearning.com Gamification course, it is sufficient for the marketer to substitute the marketing roles they intend for games in place of the educational examples I’ve offered. The marketer’s goal is not so much ‘learning’ as ‘change’. The marketer has more in common with the therapist in harnessing gamification psychological processes to get the client, whether patient or buyer, to take some action, perhaps obtain something, and apply it. The therapist is very much in a service industry like financial planners, insurance agents, lawyers and many others. So their applications of Gamification and the hero’s journey will have similar role allocations.

The main thing to bear in mind is that it is not usually going to be the vendor, therapist or teacher who is to be portrayed and remembered as the hero. A brand recognition goal might be for the product to be remembered as co-hero , like Tonto or Jeannie or as an impersonal empowering  entity like the Magic Lamp.  Traditional sponsorship and public relations had the perceived ‘arms’ length’ independent role. In traditional analogy this benevolent benefactor role would correspond to the ‘god’ ‘supernatural being’ or ‘mentor’ role –ie- “brought to you by …. [sponsor]”.

In summary, roles and actions in the digital era may follow patterns in traditional market activity. Human nature responds to the same needs and the same practical products solutions will be needed to satisfy these needs. Gamification is but another application of these principles.

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