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In-game advertising is nothing new. From automotive giant Jeep advertising in Tomb Raider in 2007 (image below) to FarmVille based incentives from Bing this month. 

The question is; how does it work? Have companies and game providers cracked the method of getting into our psyches to get us to do what they want?

Tomb Raider_Jeep_Ad

(Image courtesy of Double Fusion)

With the global in-game advertising market set to hit the $1bn mark by next year (it's likely we’ve already surpassed this), this is turning into a big business. Social gaming has grown an army of enthusiasts prepared to spend valuable time and money on virtual rewards and companies are all queued up to capitalise on this.

So, what’s the trick?

Social games rely on our competitive nature, our response to rewards for positive behaviour and our need to share what we’re up to.

In the case of FarmVille, it’s about sucking you in and rewarding you not only for steady participation, but getting others to join in. As you get more involved in the game, it invites you to continue playing for free, but offers you the opportunity to improve your game experience by selling you additional features that are not available to free players, all the while getting you to commit to the game by setting engagement tactics that are time reliant.

For instance, once you’ve planted your crops, you need to return to the game with a specific time or your crops will wither. This tugs at the emotional and time investment you’ve put into the game in order to advance to the next level, ensuring you come back for more.


The social element allows you to invite friends to play and rewards both parties for getting involved. The game also allows you to share your activity within your Facebook news feed.

farmville invite

As your circle of friends increases, so does the likelihood that you’ll stick with the game and widen the net, thus turning you into a loyal player. Clever, really, but how else are social games getting into our heads?

As consumers, we tend to give our loyalty to brands or products that offer us value. In the case of social games, the majority of the value is in time and commitment we invest in our playtime.

Not only do we climb levels as we play, our social engagement increases. Let me put it another way,  If you spent hours on anything, regardless of financial reward (in this case, points or virtual tokens) and it was wiped out in a freak accident, you’d be miffed wouldn’t you? In other words, the time dedication = value.

How random

The way this game and others like it keep you coming back is the way it rewards you for your actions varies as you play.

Drawing parallels to a behavioural study conducted by psychologist B.F. Skinner, is it the randomness of games in terms of action and reward that makes the games so addictive?

In this study, Skinner tested action and reinforcement on rats. In the first instance, a rat was rewarded with a food pellet each time it pressed a lever (continuous reinforcement). The next series of tests involved reward after a certain number of instances. The rat presses the lever a fixed number of times before it received its reward (Interval reinforcement).

Finally, the test that yielded the best results was variable reinforcement (also Random Ratio Schedule). In other words, the rat was rewarded at random intervals when the lever was pressed. This resulted in repeat behaviour because the subject never knew what the outcome would be.

Sound familiar? By making games like FarmVille or Mafia Wars random and repetitive in nature, both in terms of available functionality and outcome, the player is always left wanting to improve their game, get to the next level, notch up the next prize and pull in new friends.

How are advertisers benefiting?

Advertisers are using our need to advance in our games by offering incentives to engage with their ads.

In the case of Bing, by clicking through their ad and watching a demo of how Bing works, you earn FarmVille Cash. This not only helps keep the gamers playing, but also offers brand exposure and potential customers.


Additional advertising opportunities exist for brands offering incentives on their products offline as well as on the game itself. Recently, Green Giant partnered with FarmVille offering shoppers FarmVille cash and product discounts with their purchases.

 green giant farmville

(Image courtesy of Inside Facebook)

There are also in game ads that expose us to branded content every time we check in, and in some cases, this a few dozen times a day or more.

So, what’s the downside?

That’s where it gets tricky. I can think of a few personal examples of where I see potential issues.

  • Gaming addiction 
    The game is designed to get you hooked, to keep you coming back again and again and thus has the potential for wasting your life online – it doesn’t allow for real “take it this week/leave it the next” unless you’re prepare to sacrifice your progress in the game.
  • Intrusion
    Although I can see how users can get into the spirit of the games by asking their friends to join in trying to get more points/cash/tokens for getting others involved, I don’t like having my news feed invaded by constant updates about virtual lost dogs and plant fertilisation. (you can block this in your settings).
  • Security
    I know I’ve been picking on FarmVille, but given the nature of social games, it’s easy to forget that you’re broadcasting not only your gaming habits, but demographic information and what you’re up to (and where) to not only your friends, but advertisers you’re engaged with.

The upshot is, there are loads of benefits to having a laugh with these games. Entertainment, social interaction, incentives, etc, but it helps to be aware of what’s going on behind the scenes.

So, before you start planting or seeds in FarmVille or pick your wardrobe on Sorority Life, think about how much time and energy you’re prepared to invest on something that may not be there tomorrow. (Remember Street Racer?)

Eliza Dashwood

Published 24 August, 2010 by Eliza Dashwood

Eliza Dashwood is Head of Digital at Feather Brooksbank and a contributor to Econsultancy. She can also be found on Twitter and LinkedIn

2 more posts from this author

Comments (3)



very interesting insight , thank you

about 6 years ago


Pete Gronland

Nice post, thanks Eliza.

I have to admit that I got sucked into playing Mafia wars for a time & was quite impressed with the monetization of their model.

"Need extra points, just fill in this survey from our partners" personally I never "fell" for this but was impressed with the set up, knowing that many would.

I don't consider "games" like Mafia Wars & Farmville to be actual games, they are more distractions from using Facebook - I would not seek out any online gaming that is so linear and two dimensional, however, I still found myself playing Mafia Wars whenever I acessed FB (so clearly it worked on me!). 

I did suddenly stop playing Mafia wars & whilst I cannot put my finger on exactly why, I do think that the intrusion you mention was the main reason. But also, after a while it really became very dull.

I do not think that these "social games" have too much of a lifespan as the model is the same for Mafia Wars, Farmville & the other pretenders. Differing subject matter but essentially the same game in terms of their playability.

As a console gamer & someone that works in digital marketing, whenever there are in console game adverts I tend to notice them & am sure they are as effective (if not more so) than product placement in movies. 

I may watch a movie several times but then I'll play a game for much longer & revisit, the subliminal advertising effect is more likely to happen whilst gaming simply due to the time spent.

about 6 years ago


Sarah Jones, Digital Officer at Self employed

Very clever way of marketing.

about 6 years ago

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