June 2, 2011
D2D Lures Traffic to Video Games
The secret to D2D’s success in luring players to its financial video games starts with the $150,000 it spends to design each game with MIT researchers and an award-winning Web designer.
But the Boston non-profit puts just as much emphasis – and an undisclosed amount of funding from The Wal-Mart Foundation – into distributing the games.
D2D has used an e-mail blitz to 100,000 community college students in Indiana and hosted game competitions in city neighborhoods in Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, New York, and Maryland. It partners with large employers, financial companies, state governments, and the military – organizations it recruits to promote the games to its employees, clients, or members. New products aimed at distribution include Spanish-language games and apps for the iPad and Droid.
D2D’s five games have attracted a combined total of 160,000 unique visits since the first and most popular one, Celebrity Calamity, came out two years ago. That’s not quite in league with, say, Disney, which has had 750,000 visitors to its Great Piggy Bank Adventure and an Epcot exhibit in Orlando backing it up, according to T. Rowe Price, the mutual fund company that collaborated with Disney on the game.
But D2D’s executive director, Timothy Flacke, said the Disney comparison isn’t really fair. “To reach nearly 160,000 people – I don’t think there’s a non-profit doing financial education that’s doing that,” he said.
The organization faces the same challenge of any organization trying to boost and maintain its Web traffic. The biggest spike in D2D players occurred in October, when Farm Blitz and Bite Club were sent via e-mail and displayed on the student blackboard at Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana. Some 20,000 students played over a period of two weeks. Current traffic today is about 400 unique visits – an industry standard that measures first-time visits to a website – per day.
In another marketing tactic, D2D is now capitalizing on income-tax season. It is working with tax preparers in low-income neighborhoods to promote Refund Rush in two cities, Boston and Philadelphia. Refund Rush players help tax filers decide whether to save their refunds in a 401(k) or pay off debt. The game is part of D2D’s larger effort to promote a new federal policy that allows taxpayers to deposit part or all of their refunds directly into U.S. savings bonds.
D2D experiments with prizes to see if the incentive will encourage more players. In Massachusetts, the winner of a tournament for state employees who played Bite Club and Farm Blitz received an iPad; second and third place got U.S. savings bonds. At Fort Hood in Texas, flyers and online materials were distributed to encourage military service members to play at home in their free time. D2D held a one-month online tournament and gave away a $500 U.S. savings bond to the winner.
There’s a lot of competition on the Web, so online financial games have to be fun, or they’ll flop. D2D hired FableVision, a Boston e-learning firm, to help create easy-to-play games that highlight a single financial concept. MIT’s Education Arcade, where scholars and computer-game designers create and test games, helped ensure the games were effective in teaching each concept.
In Farm Blitz, for example, rabbits eating vegetables in the garden represent the destructive force of compound interest on a credit card. If left unchecked, the rabbits multiply and devour a player’s cash crops. In Groove Nation, players learn to budget for their team in a dance competition. In Bite Club, the game challenges players, “Even when you live forever, it’s never too early to start saving for retirement.”
The video games are funded primarily by the Financial Literacy Center at Rand Corp., Dartmouth College, and Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania.
D2D’s goal, said Flacke, is “to take something that is good for you and turn it into something that is attractive to you.” Nick Maynard, director of innovation, called this “putting a lot of chocolate on the broccoli” in a Rand presentation.