For some children, watching “Dora the Explorer” on television is becoming passé. Now, they want to be Dora.
Tapping into this desire, media companies are increasingly offering online games – called casual games – and treating them as new programming, not just as online additions to their television lineups.
Besides building brands, one of the big lures in casual games is the opportunity to attract advertising, including advertising from food companies that have gradually agreed to limit the nature and volume of television advertisements for children. But those agreements have not always extended to the Internet.
Viacom, the parent company of Nickelodeon and MTV, may be moving the most aggressively. On Monday, Nickelodeon is expected to announce the first of 600 original and exclusive games for its network of Web sites as part of a $100 million investment in game development.
The term “casual,” used to contrast with the action-packed console games popularized by Sony and Microsoft, belies the fact that users devote hours to the games. Studies show that one-third of Internet users play online games at least once a week. Millions of children and teenagers play games on sites like Girlsgogame.com, GamesGames.com, Addicting Games, Miniclip Games and Disney.com.
A recent study by Grunwald Associates found that young people are often driven to online games by television shows and frequently interact with both mediums at the same time.
“Sitting and watching ‘Dora’ DVDs is quite different from playing Dora in a game,” said Michael Cai, an analyst for Parks Associates, whose 3-year-old daughter is a fan of the preschool brand. “It’s definitely more engaging – and the brand affiliation is stronger – in an interactive setting.”
The amount of revenue that can be earned from casual games is still unclear. Companies are trying “try before you buy” models, integrated advertising and micro-transactions, where players can purchase items and levels within games. Advertisers have shown interest in inserting their products into games.
Last year on Shockwave, a game site acquired by MTV Networks, players struggling with the jigsaw puzzle game could press the “easy button” sponsored by Staples, the office supply company, to see a hint. Last year on Nick.com Arcade, the game site for Nickelodeon viewers, a custom game promoted “Bee Movie” for Paramount Pictures.
Across the company’s game sites, sponsored and pay-to-play games are always labeled as advertisements. Still, they cause consternation from some who worry that children are already smothered by advertising.