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A couple of years ago, when my kids first got old enough to handle chores, but were young enough to hate every moment of it (that much has not changed, by the way), my wife discovered a cool website called Chore Wars. The concept of it is pretty simple: you create a fantasy swords & sorcery character for yourself, and you gain experience points for that character by doing certain chores around the house. We set the chores and the XP. Picking up your laundry might be worth 10 XP. Cleaning the litter box might be worth 50 XP. And so on. When you got enough XP, you leveled up, and unlocked all kinds of rewards, such as a few bucks or a trip to the movies. The system worked really well, and my wife and I played along. It was effective because it was fun. We had turned our household drudge work into a game.

Gamification is one of the hottest trends in designing any kind of user experience these days because when you get right down to it, we all like playing games. There is a part of our monkey brains that just likes the sense of challenge, victory and reward built into a good game, and if we can impart those qualities to things we see as work, then our work becomes play and we work harder. Or at least, a little less resentfully. Or, we work on things we might not ordinarily work on.

One great example of this is from the French nautical outfitters, Guy Cotton, whose ad agency, CLM BBDO took on the task of getting people to be more responsible about wearing their life jackets when they went out boating. But how? You can wag your finger at people forever, but that isn’t really going to get the results you want. So CLM BBDO wrote what might be the most disturbing video game ever produced: Sortie en Mer. You can click the link and play it for yourself, but if you’d rather not (and I can understand why) the game is a video of you on a yacht, in which your knucklehead friend accidentally knocks you overboard and then can’t figure out how to double back and retrieve you. You must scroll your mouse upwards in real time, over and over, to keep your head above water. There is no winning here. Eventually, you will tire and you will drown, which is, of course, why it’s so important to wear a life jacket. Playing the game is an exercise in horror mixed with the certainty that maybe everybody else will drown in a few minutes but surely you will do better. You won’t. And that’s the point.

Another example of what you can accomplish with gamification is MMOWGLI, or Massive Multiplayer Online WarGame Leveraging the Internet. The U.S. Navy developed this as a kind of online wargame civilians could play, in which you take a side in the maritime battle against Somali pirates. The game is all about the logistics of shipping around the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, and the inevitable pirate attacks that will occur. Players can either take the side of the pirates or that of the Navy, and in so doing, embark on a highly detailed, highly advanced journey that really forces you to bring your A game. The point of it wasn’t to raise awareness; it was to give the Navy good ideas on how to fight the pirates, and how to think like a pirate. The Pentagon used similar methods to predict terrorist attacks after 9/11, and it proved highly effective, but the public wasn’t ready to gamify terror and so they had to shut it down.

Of course, none of this even touches the runaway success of America’s Army, a first-person shooter game not that different from many other realistic war games on the market these days, except that America’s Army was produced by the Army itself, and has been hailed as its most effective recruiting tool in recent years. They developed it for $6 million (a pittance in modern game development standards) and the website costs all of $4,000 to maintain yearly. 

These kinds of games might seem strange, but the truth is, you can approach anything this way and get people to engage more fruitfully. This is true of life insurance, as well. Northwestern Mutual, for example, has a cool little game called the Longevity Game. It is essentially a dressed-up longevity calculator, but NWM manages to package it all in an attractive set of graphics so that, as you determine your longevity, you also build yourself as a fictional character. Where this works to Northwestern Mutual’s advantage is in the game’s result screen, which segues easily into a discussion about financial longevity without beating your over the head with it. Plenty of insurers are trying to get folks to realize that they need to plan better for long retirements. This one looks like it works pretty well. It got me to hit the link, at any rate. According to Northwestern Mutual, I’m going to live to 92. Beat that!

Another life insurer that has turned to gamification is Axa, which, in 2011, launched Pass It On!, a kind of 3D version of the board game LIFE, in which you move through all kinds of life decisions and are given the opportunity to do the right thing when it comes to buying protection for your family and saving for retirement. Axa sweetened the pot by making the game a kind of sweepstakes where the more you played, the more chances you had to win a hefty cash prize, as well as funnel votes to one of three charitable causes. The whole thing was a pretty substantial effort to get consumers excited about buying life insurance. It does not appear to be running any longer, but here’s a video of what it was all about.

And that brings me to the point of this article. Gamification is good. Gamification works. And as yet another Life Insurance Awareness month comes to a close, I call on the life insurance world to really embrace this and use it to build awareness and to get folks to think about life insurance in a meaningful way, and not just one month out of the year, either. Instead of building nice, short-duration games, why not build something that can be played over and over again, something that has staying power? The key here is to resist the urge to turn this into blatant advertising. Savvy consumers can spot that coming from a million miles away. We live in an age where people are perfectly content to pay good money to play games that simulate farming, but they can’t stand to be preached at while they do it. So how do we cross this gap?

Oregon Trail.

Oregon Trail computer game cover

Awww, yeah. You remember this bad boy, don’t you? If you don’t, then you have missed out on one of the great moments in video game history. Oregon Trail has gone through multiple editions over the decades, but at its heart, it is a simulation game of what it took to get a wagon train of people from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon in the 1840s. Along the way, you encounter hunger, bad weather, injury, sickness and death. Lots of death. “You have died from dysentery” is an end-game line seen so often that it has even inspired gamer t-shirts with the saying printed across the front. The game was initially developed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a state-funded group that developed educational software for schools. The simple, engrossing gameplay of Oregon Trail made it a smash hit with kids, though, and soon the game became a commercial breakout. In fact, it is still played today, often by the kids of the game’s first players. There is even a free version of it online.

Oregon Trail was notable for being one of the first games that really spared no punches with the player. You watched family members sicken and die. You watched yourself sicken and die. And a big part of it all was sheer luck. You could buy the right supplies, hunt well, travel conservatively, and a flash flood could still take you out when you were 99 percent of the way to your destination. The game taught youngsters that life is uncertain and often brutal in what it takes from you. And yet, this never turned kids off from it. It just made them appreciate all the more what they had to lose.

The life insurance industry needs to build its own version of Oregon Trail, and next Life Insurance Awareness Month, it should promote the daylights out of it to schools and the public. The game itself could be a simple “regular life” simulator where you build a character starting out fresh from high school or college, and have them get a job, maybe get married, maybe buy a house and have kids, and deal with all of the potential challenges and opportunities that arise from every one of those major life decisions. All along the way, as you get more invested in your character, you will have opportunities to insure that character. Maybe your agent will call on you once a year, but if you want, you can reach out and get better life or health coverage whenever you like. Like any other game, you can save your progress as often as you wish, only in this, it costs your character money, so you need to be smart about it. Ultimately, you need to guide your character to retirement, and what he or she has set up will determine your final score. Better not hope you made it to 70 with nothing in savings.

My daughter is a freshman in high school, and one of the courses she has to take is Financial Literacy. Can you imagine what kind of impact it would make if we could get kids to play a game like this, to fall in love with it, and to decide for themselves that life insurance isn’t a nice-to-have, but a must-have? The game industry is cashing in right now on a wave of games that are all about simulating real life, and making games out of the mundane. There is even a goat simulator game out now that … um … lets you be a goat. Who walks around and breaks things. That’s all it does. And people love it. Video games have become something more than mere entertainment. They have become a way for us to ask ourselves what we find compelling in life, and that’s a question that a discussion about life insurance is uniquely suited to answer.

Games that point out the good things life insurance does are all well and good, but frankly, what is the great challenge of selling life insurance? It’s not convincing people that life insurance is a helpful thing. People know that and yet are still easily bored or turned off when forced into a discussion about it. No, the great challenge of selling is to get people to accept their mortality in a way that makes them want to prepare for that inevitable end, and to build a legacy for those they love. Everybody knows this already. But they haven’t flipped that switch in their head that prompts them to action. Making a game out of it could flip that switch, and keep it flipped, for millions of people.

I know it sounds crazy, but the industry has been running the same ad campaigns for years and life insurance ownership is still in a deep trench. This is a context-breaking problem. It needs a context-breaking solution. And a great life insurance video game could be that solution. Ready, Player One?

You have died of dysentery