With New Game, Shark Week Campaign Evolves Into Killer App

Deadly Combo of Mobile and Cutting-Edge Tech Transforms Series Into More Than a Collection of TV Shows

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What it is about Shark Week? The Discovery staple just celebrated its 20th anniversary and enjoyed some of its highest ratings ever.
Shark Week celebrates its 20th anniversary with an immersive game called Sharkrunners.
Shark Week celebrates its 20th anniversary with an immersive game called Sharkrunners.

The series always does a fine job of arousing our terror of being consumed by a superior predator while reminding us that sharks are really just trying to get by in a hostile world. That schizophrenic mandate was underlined most excellently when, on an SW show with the restrained title of "Top Five Eaten Alive," we saw shark expert Erich Ritter wading knee-deep in bull sharks, to prove that they really don't like people meat, only to have one of the misunderstood fellows make pulled pork out of his calf muscle.

Sure, there are harder things to sell than primal fear, but the channel has had a deft hand with the marketing of the franchise and has successfully made Shark Week a cultural event.

This year Discovery brought people and sharks together in a new way with an immersive, "persistent play" game called Sharkrunners, which casts players as marine biologists instead of their usual role of human chum.

The online/mobile/oceangoing game allows users to create their own vessels, choose an affiliation with one of three marine-research organizations, and track flesh-and-cartilage sharks off the West Coast. That's right, real sharks swimming around with GPS devices on their fins -- telemetry data provide the sharks' real-world locations on the game-play map.

Players plot courses for their boats online, and when they encounter a shark, they receive an e-mail or SMS alert. At that point, it's time to swing into action -- the alert tells you you've got a set amount of time to dispatch your crew to collect data on the shark. Players rack up a series of accomplishments and there are no prizes, per se -- it's all about squalus-stats glory.

The game is a creation of New York-based Area/Code, founded in 2005 by ex-digital creative Kevin Slavin and game designer Frank Lantz. Over the company's history, its games have employed a compelling blend of mobile, GPS and online technology and design.

You'll remember these guys from the award-winning ConQwest game for Qwest Wireless, a real-world treasure hunt that had school kids stalking and then scanning game items with phone cameras, while a website tracked player locations and game status. More recently the company worked with A&E to promote its launch of "The Sopranos." In that campaign, players collected tokens by taking pictures of outdoor posters and assembled them in an online game board. When the show aired, tokens animated when the corresponding person or item appeared and points were scored. The company is working on its own game -- a pirate-themed, location-based PC title that uses Wi-Fi positioning-system technology (a Nintendo DS version of the game is in the works as well).

Sharkrunners, though, may be the biggest breakthrough to date (it's welcomed 200,000 unique viewers since it launched right before Shark Week). With it, we go from intense engagement to an interruption-based model with a slice of a fin (when that shark comes calling, you gotta move).

Not everyone has the instant emotional voltage of sharks to work with, but the campaign is illustrative of a deadly combination of mobile and other cutting-edge technologies, design, entertainment and a compelling, brand-specific, real-world element. In the process, Shark Week becomes something more than a series of TV shows that makes viewers refuse to go swimming for the rest of the summer.

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Teressa Iezzi is the editor of Creativity magazine and Creativity-Online.com. E-mail her at tiezzi@crain.com.
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