Inside Episode and Project Makeover’s toxic advertising push to boost engagement – Screen Shot
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Inside Episode and Project Makeover’s toxic advertising push to boost engagement

Social media platforms are eavesdropping on us! See how that statement failed to raise your eyebrows in 2021? It’s common knowledge now that if you talk, think or even dream about something, chances are they’ll translate into advertisements on Instagram and Snapchat. In my case, all of my Amazon searches magically transform into suggestive ads on my mum’s Facebook feed. Given how we share a Prime account, I wasn’t really surprised—merely horrified to see her casually scroll past an ad featuring a Gojo Satoru body pillow.

But the advertisements I’m here to talk about today are more rigorous, misleading and concerningly incognito—leveraging the shock factor to reel in engagement and downloads. Even if we don’t share common interests and search histories, I bet these would’ve popped up everywhere for you too. I mean, they’re practically impossible to avoid on Snapchat and seem to redirect one to Google Play or the App Store, no matter where you click or swipe on the screen.

To jog your memory, here’s a detailed excerpt of one of the ads: “It’s a fashion emergency!” the screen flashes as a girl with glasses and dishevelled hair stands rather uncomfortably in her untidy pyjamas. A perfectly-manicured hand then pops up from the corner, emulating your choices of giving the client—who also has blackheads, pimples, exaggerated bunny teeth, a beard and 12-inch long nose hair—a “makeover.” Quick! You have to shave that stubble, conceal her pimples, trim her nostrils and fix her teeth. But alas, instead of choosing dental braces, you decide to pluck her bunny teeth off altogether. “Help the girl,” a call to action (CTA) reads and fades out into the abyss.

If you still have trouble remembering, I’ve got you covered. Given how there are hundreds of these ads doing the rounds across platforms, here’s another one: “My husband said my hormones are too strong,” a girl, standing with her legs crossed in a pink dressing room with LED vanity mirrors, meekly admits. Did I mention that her body is blanketed in thick, bushy hair triggered by her “strong hormones?” Homegirl literally looks like she’s wearing an exaggerated brown alpaca onesie. A beard, moustache and unibrow are also among features that need “fixing.”

“Can you do me a makeover?” a broken caption reads as the hand pops up again. You choose to shave her body down to a two-piece bikini before white light blinds the screen and you’re left staring at a sparkly human with toned abs—coupled with a ‘wow’ sound effect. The “makeover” is an instant confidence booster for the girl as she moans to show her appreciation. The shock factor, however, doesn’t end there as the hand chooses to shave her head, smack on a mohawk and put her in an awful dress. “Play again,” the CTA flashes.

In both the ads, the animated narrative fades to reveal the title of a questionable game. Enter Project Makeover in all of its relentless glory. With the amount of unpacking we’re about to do, you’ll realise that the previous instances barely scratch the surface of the app’s grand, toxic scheme of things.

A controversial success story

Debuting on 16 November 2020, Project Makeover is a casual mobile game published by Bubblegum Games LLC, which is housed under Magic Tavern. Merely four days after its release, the game topped charts with almost 5 million downloads. Although the metrics dropped to 3 million the following month and holiday season, downloads doubled and peaked at 6.5 million in January 2021. As of 31 August 2021, the mobile game amassed a whopping total of 100 million downloads with little to no signs of slowing.

According to a report by Udonis, US-based gamers are the main driver of revenue for Project Makeover. Germany, Japan, Australia, France and South Korea are other significant avenues of income. With players spending up to 10 hours a day on the app, the roots of Project Makeover’s success can be linked to a number of factors—including the interface’s usability and accessibility. However, a major source of user acquisition for the game is often traced back to the persistent strategies of its relentless advertising team.

Data from MobileAction, an optimisation and marketing tool for the App Store, revealed how a huge chunk of Project Makeover ads are placed on Facebook—with Instagram, Messenger and YouTube following close behind. In terms of the format for such advertisements, 69 per cent are video creatives, 14 per cent are image ads, 2 per cent are playable ads and 13 per cent are HTML ads. A quick scroll through #projectmakeover on Tumblr will also prove how the platform is not alienated in the push either.

Now, let’s jump onto the ads in question. Yes, I’m talking about the 69 per cent of video creatives that the app mobilises across social media platforms. Girls are wearing bikinis on mountain hikes and Fortnite dancing at their own weddings. But that’s just the hilarious and nonsensical side of such clickbaits. Things get complicated when the advertising strategies decide to leverage beauty ideals and internalised misogyny in an attempt at boosting engagement.

Your client is in her pyjamas, long overdue for a bath and a haircut. Beauty salons are not on her itinerary either—so she’s only gotten vaxxed and not waxed. Sounds like the 2020 you, doesn’t it? Now imagine toxic green mist emanating from your body as house flies start nesting in your hair. Oh, and your boyfriend is knocking at your door, so you’re on a 30-second hotseat too. “Makeup or take a bath?” two options greet you as the ad conveniently chooses the former. You give your client a makeover yet her partner faints when she goes out to meet him.

Another one—I swear there are way too many ads I feel the need to mention here—features a girl with a patchy haircut. Bald in the front, party in the back, if you will. With dark circles, haphazardly-applied lipstick and literal grease on her face, the client asks you for a makeover when she spots a dude who is apparently “too hot” for her. The graphic stench is in the mix too. Boom, your attention is successfully captured. You decide to stick around and watch as a hand pastes mud on her head to cover up the bald patch while lazily waxing her face. You know the outcome at this point, the boy gasps and runs away before she even approaches him.

What in the inception?

So, what is it about dishevelled girls with unibrows and bowling pin dresses placed in toxic social encounters that guarantee engagement?

Failure-based creative strategies. Made to incite excitement and translate into surefire downloads, such advertisements depict how bad someone can be at a game to encourage viewers to try and do better. In this case, failed makeovers repackaged into an ugly duckling tale seems to work wonders for user acquisition. A client, who the game decides needs a makeover, ends up looking even worse than she did before. “They did her so wrong, she deserves better,” you then think to yourself. And voilà, that’s exactly what the advertisement wants you to think. Couple this with humiliation and shock appeal, and you’ve got the golden goose strategy for engagement metrics.

Heck, it got me riled up enough to download the game and write this article if you really think about it. And that’s exactly where the catch is. A big, deceptive and hazardous catch, to be specific. A catch so concerning that’ll make you question why the game markets itself as “appropriate for kids aged 4 and over” on the App Store—if you haven’t already.

If you download the 243 megabyte-worth game onto your phone, you’ll witness a live demo of the term ‘capitalist deception’. The app is nothing like it advertises. And I would like to add the synonyms nothing, nada and zero to emphasise my description. There are no goblin green ladies stomping their feet when you make a bad choice. In fact, there are no bad choices in the first place. This is because Project Makeover is literally a match-3 puzzle game.

Similar to Candy Crush Saga, Project Makeover is a puzzle game with narrative fiction and storytelling elements. It goes something like this: a makeover agency, backed with the mission of “helping people bring out their inner beauty,” is being sabotaged by a Cruella de Vil-looking director—conveniently named Greta Von Deta—who “makes people feel bad about themselves.” Are you sure you’re not talking about your advertising team here, Project Makeover? Anyways, that’s where you bring in the drama as the new director replacing Greta. You and your team head over to different locations where your “clients” reside to give them complete makeovers—down to their apartment and garage decor.

Don’t get me wrong here, you can choose the clothes, shoes, makeup and furnishing for your clients and their spaces but you need coins for these makeovers. That’s where the match-3 puzzle comes in. You swap and match tiles of similar shapes to remove them from the screen and eventually earn cash. Although you play to win, gradual mastery of the game encourages you to stay. And that’s how some users end up spending 10 hours on the app like I mentioned before.

“The challenge lies in how to perfectly integrate people, hairstyle, makeup, clothes, decoration, main story, background story, social and match-3 experiences,” Magic Tavern’s CEO Charlie Gu once said in an interview with GameLook. “If you are not careful, it will become a hodgepodge of four different things that casual players will not accept.”

Now onto the clients in question. Spoiler alert: they look nothing like the characters depicted in the ads. There are no bald patches, houseflies, toxic boyfriends and embarrassing social encounters. For most of its part, it’s just like any other makeover mobile game out there. Plus, it justifies the entire concept of makeovers as something one deserves rather than a necessity. Except, of course, Greta Von Deta butting in at times:

Although certain elements—like the stylist removing a client’s reading glasses to make her look “prettier” and covering another one’s tattoos to look “cleaner”—does contribute to a harmful perception of beauty, the game does not go to shocking lengths like its advertisements.

Nevertheless, the impact of such misleading content and ideologies are concerning, given how Project Makeover’s demographic on Google Play—where the content rating is marked “appropriate for everyone,” by the way—consists of 86 per cent females. In terms of their age groups, Udonis noted that 41 per cent of players fall in the 25 to 34 bracket, while 26 per cent of them are younger than 25. The fact that the game’s player archetypes majorly involve impressionable thinkers and expressionists does not help its case either.

… Meanwhile

These statistics also remind me of another interactive story game that’s been making (questionable) buzz among the same demographic: Episode – Choose Your Story. Don’t be shy now, I bet you would have downloaded the game at least once to know what the hype is all about. Developed by Pocket Gems, Episode is a storytelling network and platform that features interactive chronicles one can add to their library and play. Remember those wild advertisements where you find your boyfriend cheating and you’re presented with two choices to either “Slap him” or “Join him”? If so, congratulations, you’ve been initiated to Episode already.

The app embodies a deadly combination between Wattpad and Choose Your Own Adventure. It gives users the autonomy to build and control a character’s life choices to, thereby, experience narratives that are not their own. A perfect escape for the current times, indeed. But remember how I described it as Wattpad’s secret love child? Underage sex, pregnancies and discrimination are infused into several stories on the platform. Some of them even glorify adultery and encourage reckless decisions and arrogance. “Seeing is believing,” you say? Here are some screen grabs of my encounters with the game:

Gearing its aesthetics towards teenage girls, Episode is essentially a platform with user-generated stories. Meaning, anyone—even those as young as 13—can publish their own interactive storylines with a simple drag and drop creation mode within the app. A no-brainer scripting engine is also available on its website. In short, expertise is out of the equation and a creator can leverage the platform as a side hustle to make money via its Writer Payments programme.

Cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Janine M Cooper, however, highlighted the absence of content regulation on the platform—despite housing more than 12 million creators. “One story regarding sexual consent raised uproar with users, who were concerned at the poor moral message of a young female character being ‘blind drunk’ and not consenting to a sexual liaison with an older male character,” Cooper wrote in a column for The Conversation. “Yet, the story was not removed and the author did little to address the backlash.”

Then there’s the entire premise of using in-game social pressure to encourage players to pay for microtransactions. Simply put, you’ll have to wager gems to make a morally-right decision in some scenarios. Reckless and impulsive decisions, on the other hand, are free of all costs. Materialistic costs, at least. It goes without saying how this feature can potentially translate and shape real-life decisions in the minds of impressionable 13 year-olds. In the stories I played, several decisions that were crucial for both the plot and character development were monetised in an appeasing golden colour. The ones that defeated the entire purpose of the story were alternatively doused in a boring blue.

All of that being said, the success of both these apps proves how inappropriate shock appeal works as concerning narratives manage to fly under the radar. Made with cinematic scenes rather than actual gameplay footage, Project Makeover’s video creatives are literally false advertising targeted largely at the next generation. Sure, the app’s goal is to broaden its audience and appeal to all sorts of gamers, but there’s a fine line between grabbing a viewer’s attention and offensively enticing them into engagement.

In fact, this deception can result in poor user retention and bad reviews as viewers download the game with an initial impression—only to be presented with an entirely different one. Things further spiral out of hand when competitors decide to jump on the golden goose strategy to sponge off the success of these mobile games. Imagine such toxic ads popping up on every other platform you visit in 2021. In that case, my last straw will be YouTube’s unskippable ads. And it seems we’re en route to that doomsday as we speak.

As sex ed classes become obsolete among teenagers, video games might just be the way forward

The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on 11 March, 2020. It was the day after Activision released its free-to-play battle royale game Call Of Duty: Warzone and a little over a week before Nintendo released Animal Crossing: New Horizons. One year later, these two games have essentially reshaped our lives over the pandemic, providing comforts of escapism and helping build socially-distanced friendships via multiplayer. But what if such gamification models could redefine today’s digital-first education system, particularly for those subjects which require ‘interactive tools’ for better understanding? What if contemporary sex education was meant to be taught through video games?

The challenging shift to online sex education

In an era where mornings have become synonymous with Zoom links and clean backgrounds for students, schools are increasingly prioritising what gets taught online. As subjects like physics and physical education go online, much of the curriculum is getting lost in translation from the real to the virtual world. And sex education is no exception.

“There’s already lots of cultural stigma around something like saying the word ‘penis’ in a room full of people who are under 18,” said Karen Rayne, the executive director of UNHUSHED, a non-profit that offers sex education for schools with the aims to remove the stigma surrounding them. In an interview with US News, she illustrated the challenges of teaching homebound teenagers and college students who are “attending classes from their childhood bedrooms” about the birds and the bees.

Not long after the pandemic hit, Rayne, who also teaches human sexuality at the University of Texas at Austin, created a manifesto outlining 10 tips for teaching online sex ed. These tips include being mindful of students’ developmental stages, expecting some awkwardness and looping in parents.

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Despite her efforts, however, she admitted that some students were in fact being left behind in classes. “After so many months online, we were beginning to lose some kids in a way that I wasn’t really concerned about in March or April (2020),” she said. “It might be that for some kids, sex ed is not where they need to spend their limited online learning hours.”

A paper published by Leslie Kantor, chair of the Department of Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers University School of Public Health, further spelled out why teaching reproductive health during a pandemic is critical and how schools should prioritise the same. “Even when in-person schooling resumes, missed sex education is unlikely to be made up, given the modest attention it received prior to the pandemic,” the paper concluded, which has essentially hatched a sense of urgency at the educational forefront.

As teachers scramble to come up with innovative ways to “translate what we learned about effective, in-person sex education into the digital environment,” some sex education game developers think this could be their moment.

The science behind gamified sex education

Gamification can be summed up as the use of game design elements like avatars, scores, leaderboards and virtual rewards in non-game contexts such as apps for learning a skill or tracking one’s progress. With the growing use of computer-based therapy in mental health and promising results seen in the use of gamification in psychotherapy, the push to gamify sex education is part of a broader movement—deploying video games to target health issues ranging from depression to tobacco use.

So how does game design and principles help tackle a social stigma? Three major factors come into play here: interactivity, privacy and familiarity. Interactivity is a huge influence on a person’s learning capacity, especially in a digital age saturated with online lectures and note-taking. What this means in terms of sex education is that these games could essentially offer a way to interact with the subject at hand without getting ‘down and dirty’.

“Putting a condom on a banana, that’s like a stereotype of sex education, right? But that’s what everyone remembers,” said Nina Freeman, the developer behind the acclaimed sex education game how do you Do It? “It’s the thing that you’re actually doing. You’re basically performing the act of putting a condom on a penis—it is performative.” In an interview with Mashable, the developer equated the act of putting a condom on a banana to a game-like experience and how in that sense such games could be a very effective way of conveying information.

Freeman’s approach to game design involves role-plays and simulations which gives players a different perspective on the whole sex education front. “I think player/character embodiment is really powerful and games are uniquely better than other media at having people get into character, almost like they’re in a play,” she said. “Games are really good at that because they’re actively having the player pull information instead of pushing it on them.”

Another example of interactivity in gamified sex education is the smartphone app Tap That where players are responsible for taking care of different characters navigating their sexual relationships. If one of them has an STI, the players have to diagnose and determine how to cure or treat it. Virtual condoms are also offered in player toolkits to prevent the infections from spreading. “Sex should be a positive experience, so why shouldn’t sex ed be too?” a video explaining the game reads.

This brings us to the next two factors pushing these video games into the mainstream: privacy and familiarity. Such games have the potential to filter out all of the awkwardness surrounding the topic. It gives players the ability to learn about sex and sexuality from the privacy of their homes in a way that they’re familiar and comfortable with.

“Having students engage with the world in a way they’re more familiar with and feel more comfortable doing makes a difference when you’re trying to get them to talk about issues that are really sensitive or maybe their parents haven’t talked to them about,” Freeman mentioned. “I think giving them more of a private space to explore some of this stuff is definitely helpful.” The added privacy also fosters a safe space for players. One where they can reflect on their own sexuality and explore their feelings without being judged.

A comprehensive way forward

In a recent report by Censuswide, the agency surveyed 500 teachers who used video games in their classrooms over the pandemic. 89 per cent of them highlighted the fact that the tool has proved beneficial for engaging students with their subjects. 69 per cent stated that their students are more likely to do their homework when gaming is involved. And 68 per cent swore that gaming would become an important resource in education moving forward.

As comprehensive sex education becomes essential for today’s ‘digital native’ youthwith means of sexting, online dating and VR sex literally available at their fingertips—video games along with the transferrable skills they offer might just help safeguard education in the COVID-19 generation and beyond.