Five Ways Associations Can Use Online Games

Bring buzz and "stickiness" to member retention, public outreach, and conference marketing with online games.

The Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute at the University of Minnesota needed a way to interest high school and college students in civil engineering. The solution, an online game called Gridlock Buster, has reached more than 1.2 million plays worldwide in six months, spreading the organization's message and information about the engineering and traffic-control occupation.

Could your association harness the power of online gaming? Here are five possibilities to consider:

1. Gain social media muscle. Games generate group discussion on social media sites and create the urge to check one's account. For example, players of Farmville, one of the most popular games on Facebook, entice friends to help them gain points and increase the size of their farms.

Good to Game?

E-learning expert Jon Aleckson recommends the following resources for associations considering the move into online games:

Changing the Game by David Edery and Ethan Mollick. Compelling success stories, including the story of how the U.S. Army used the game America's Army to reach its recruiting targets.

The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games by Clark Aldrich. Detailed information from an industry expert, including general pricing guidelines for various levels of game development. Also visit his blog at

LinkedIn groups. Search for "serious games" on LinkedIn and join the "Serious Games Group" or others associated with using games in your marketing strategy.

Academic resources. The Games, Learning, and Society group at or Karl Knapp's Kapp Notes blog at are both good resources on the academic study of games and gaming.

Kongregate. Experiment with games yourself or study your children playing one at

2. Build community through problem solving. A game that involves tackling a problem common to your industry could both generate buzz and give members an opportunity to create real solutions as a community. For example, the game Foldit challenges users to identify the optimal shape of a protein by "folding" and manipulating the structure. Players collaborate and generate new understandings for disease treatments.

3. Enhance search engine optimization. "Casual" games (games with simple rules and no requirements for long-term commitment) can drive traffic to your association's website. Free game sites such as Kongregate post casual games daily, with a global community of users rating and commenting on games. Game developers and sponsors can place logos and website links in the game.

As a caveat, not all traffic is good traffic. Be prepared for an influx of people clicking through to your game who may not be your target audience. Consider having a new game featured on your website but not on your homepage at its launch.

4. Promote the value of certification or credentialing. Games and simulations allow players to immerse themselves in learning. Academics are encouraged by games like The Sims or Civilization, which provide opportunities for learning by being and doing instead of reading or listening. The "flight simulator" model of gaming can be used to infuse your credentialing program or certification process with hands-on learning.

5. Encourage event attendance. One of the techniques discussed above can generate enough buzz to make an impact on attendance and draw a new crowd. In addition to casual games, you can also consider "serious games" that do more than quiz members on facts and basic information. But to be successful such a serious game needs to follow genre guidelines and demonstrate addictive attributes in user testing and with a focus group before release.

Bonus idea: Take it on the road. Once you have a popular game, consider a mobile or phone version. Start small, building only one level of the game, then reinvest in successive versions if successful. For example, you could start with a website and an Adobe Flash casual game version (Flash programming generally keeps game-development costs at the lower end of the cost continuum) and then move to iPhone and Android versions.

Jon Aleckson is a principal of the nonprofit website His blog, Managing Elearning, is available at He will be speaking on February 12 on "Using eLearning Games to Recruit, Engage, and Educate Members" at the ASAE & The Center Technology Conference. His college-age children are confirmed Farmville addicts. Email: jonaleck [email protected]