I was never very good at math. In fact, in my high school years I was forced to abandon advanced math or risk running my family into financial ruin with high-priced tutors.

Fast-forward several years later to 2007.

Who Has The Biggest Brain? was the biggest thing to hit Facebook since the newsfeed, so I decided to get in on the action. Little did I know that my mathematical ineptitude would come back to haunt me as a result.

Congratulations! You have the same brain size as a monkey! Would you like to share this information with your friends?

Um, no thanks.

My mathematical incompetence aside, social games like Playfish’s Who Has The Biggest Brain?, and Zynga’s FarmVille are revolutionizing the way people spend their time online. Instead of endlessly stalking friends or ex-lovers, people have turned to games to kill time ­– and maybe even solve a problem or two – while on their favourite social network. And brands of all stripes are starting to play along.

Last year the social gaming industry passed the $1 billion dollar mark, fueled largely by brands integrating social games into their marketing strategies. From in-game advertisements to entire games built around name-brand products, engagement through games takes on multiple forms and presents unique opportunities for marketers – on and off the computer.

Layers of integration

Brands that want to get into the gaming – er, game – need to decide on a level of integration.

Light brand integration involves the brand incorporating advertisements, or even selling branded items, within a pre-existing social game for a limited amount of time. This is most popular among Zynga’s bevy of Facebook games, from FarmVille to FrontierVille.

For example, to promote its recent DVD release last summer, the folks behind The Lincoln Lawyer secured a sponsored link on FarmVille. When the link was clicked, a pop-up window would appear with the film’s trailer playing above, along with three simple questions. By participating in the quick click-through survey, players were rewarded with two free units of “Farm Cash,” FarmVille’s virtual currency.

Medium integration is the least common, but is quickly gaining footing among marketers and game developers. This method involves brand promotion within existing games, generally through a targeted mission that deviates from the normal course of play.

These short-lived campaigns tend to coincide with the release of a film, DVD, or recording album.

Last year gamers were challenged to find Rango through a quest in Zynga’s FrontierVille, promoting the eponymous animated film in the days before its theatrical release.

Before the release of her latest album Born This Way, Lady Gaga teamed up with Zynga for GagaVille – a themed game designed to promote the album. Canadian crooner Michael Buble also showed up in CityVille around Christmas, offering players exclusive access to his new music video.

Deep brand integration presents the biggest gamble for marketers. Developing a full branded game is a major investment, and there is little guarantee of success. These games can be found through Facebook advertisements, and even traditional media like TV and magazines. They generally live on their own branded micro-sites.

One branded game that took the web by storm is Magnum Ice Cream’s Pleasure Hunt. In this interactive game, the player controls the “Magnum Woman” as she collects candies around the web.

On her journey Magnum Woman visits a number of brand “websites,” including Dove, Saab and Samsung, though these frames are actually flawless mockups of the real sites. The idea is to show that the Internet is full of pleasures to be discovered. Pleasure Hunt is truly deep brand integration at its finest.

Real-life gaming

Some brands are drawing users away from their computers by creating challenges that require real-world participation.

Facilitating these endeavors are popular apps such as Foursquare and SCVNGR that are bridging the online and offline worlds by applying game mechanics to their social location-based platforms, otherwise known as gamification.

Last March Foursquare revamped its popular check-in app, introducing a more extensive points system aimed at “putting some fun back into the game element of the service” by creating better stakes for active users.

Now, players and merchants alike are cashing in on the game by offering discounts and promotions to users who frequently check-in at their locations, leave favourable comments, or drive traffic through their social networks.

While Foursquare is not exclusively for game play (it is first and foremost a social networking platform and crowd-sourced review service), SCVNGR is “a game about doing challenges at places,” according to the app’s website.

Players can earn points towards online and real-life rewards – that is, badges and discounts – by participating in photo and check-in challenges at SCVGNR-registered businesses and institutions, such as restaurants, stores and museums.

For its Happiness in Numbers game, Coca-Cola teamed up with SCVNGR to engage teens through mobile-based challenges at various sponsored locations – malls, amusement parks, and concert venues – around the United States. Players can compete in photo-taking and check-in contests to earn points towards free gift cards and Coca-Cola swag.

Also flexing its geo-location software muscle is Nike with its Tag game feature for the NIKE+ GPS iPhone app. From the app’s home screen, runners can invite friends via email or through their social networks to join them in this high-tech version of the schoolyard favourite.

Each willing participant must run (with their iPhone in tow) within three days of the invitation to avoid being “it.” Through GPS tracking, ‘it’ is determined by who ran the slowest, the shortest distance, or came in last out of the pack.

Gaming for good

Some brands have taken the cause marketing approach by investing in branded games that support charitable organizations.

Since 2008, GamesThatGive has created custom, for-charity Facebook games for major brands, including Pepsi, Quaker and MasterCard.

Khaki kingpin, Dockers, enlisted GamesThatGive to develop a Facebook game benefitting Respect!, an anti-violence organization. For every minute played, Dockers donates up to 10 cents to the cause. To incentivize players, a message reading “Reach level 3 and you’ll receive a special offer” appears when you first start the game. There is also a prompt for players to invite friends and share their scores – a move that increases both brand exposure and money raised.

While it’s still early days for social gaming, 2011 was an undisputed gold rush for the industry. As applications for social gaming continue to expand – from improving math skills to selling albums – no matter the level and means of integration, brands should take the whole gaming game seriously. Social gaming is more than a buzzword; it’s a business opportunity.

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