IBM recently launched CityOne, a serious game that poses the kinds of questions about water, power, finance, and retail that city planners face daily. It's a powerful tool for a B2B company like IBM to market its products and services in a way that engages the customer more deeply, making the company's value proposition more clear and compelling. 

IBM has been making a serious investment in serious games for quite a while. Here's a short interview with IBM's serious games program manager Phaedra Boinodiris, in which she lists some of the business applications of serious games. Here's a brief overview of the work IBM has done with USC to incorporate a serious game about business process management (BPM) into the USC business school's curriculum.

The BPM game, INNOV8, demonstrated that a serious game can translate a dry and complex subject like BPM into something more interesting and vivid. It appeals to human psychology in a way that even the best white paper can't. Humans are visual creatures, so it's often more effective to show us a principle in action rather than talk about it. A serious game like INNOV8 pushes other buttons in our brains, too. For example, there's a higher probability that someone will finish playing a game than reading a white paper. If the game succeeds at keeping your attention, you want to see it through its conclusion.

CityOne has many of the same goals, but much bigger ambitions. The game presents you with challenges, such as improving water quality without drastically increasing water costs. It gives you a few recommended options, and then lets you decide which one to take. In much the same way that games like Civilization or Farmville make you want to know what happens next, CityOne shows you the consequences of your choices, including the next set of challenges that your previous choices have set up. Scoring the results pokes the nerve that makes us want to do better next turn, which means the game has succeeded in holding your attention.

However, serious games do a lot more than just grab your attention. The game also explains where a company's products and services fit into the machinery of the real world. ("With Moving Part X from Vendor Y, you'll see approximately Z% more efficiency.") Someone might quibble with the details, but if they're quibbling, they're engaged. And if they're engaged, you're communicating your value proposition more effectively than any ROI calculator.

This different way of communicating value removes the need for the vendor to gratuitously shove its corporate face into the picture. If you play CityOne, you'll face situations in which IBM's potential role is obvious, without needing to insert a spinning, pulsating IBM logo to make the point. Shown here are the options for improving capital investments that keep the energy grid humming. Hmmmm, not too hard to see at one place where IBM may play a part. (Incidentally, Cisco's MyPlanNet performed a similar function, showing the contribution of past Cisco products to the last 25 years of networking and communications – and by extension, the value of future Cisco products.)

The current realities of B2B marketing make it even more important for vendors to find tools like serious games that can communicate value more effectively through indirect channels of communication. As Forrester's regular surveys have shown repeatedly, business buyers are increasingly self-reliant in their evaluation and purchase of a technology. They're not waiting for a salesperson to come to them; these buyers are mounting their own investigations, during which they may find you, and may find you appealing. Or not. 

If someone were to design a computer game depicting the life of a B2B marketer, it would not be a "God game" like Starcraft or Civilization that gives you direct control over events. Today, B2B marketing feels a lot more like The Sims, in which you can influence outcomes in the larger world, but not dictate them. Given the new rules of the B2B marketing game, any tool that makes it easier for potential customers to understand you is a major force multiplier. That's just one reason for taking serious games seriously.

[If you're not familiar with serious games, they have a lot more applications than just B2B marketing. Here's an example of how a different kind of serious game can improve the innovation process, and here's an application of these same tools to politics. And here's a link to one of my own research documents that explains several common uses of serious games.]