'Mad Men: The Game' lets users create own narrative

In a new viral video, “Mad Men’s” Betty Draper is shown wielding a shotgun outside the offices of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. But there’s a twist: You get to decide — should she shoot the birds … or her ex, Don?

The scene isn’t from the Emmy-winning AMC drama; it’s part of a stylized, interactive videogame found on YouTube. “Mad Men: The Game” debuted in late March and quickly racked up more than 1 million hits. But just how does a viral video become a game?

Credit the developers at YouTube, who devised the so-called “annotation add-on” in 2008. With annotations, content creators can superimpose text on their videos, linking to a website, an image or another video. In a growing number of cases, the latter choice leads to a modern-day choose-your-own-adventure series, game or learning tool.

“Mad Men: The Game” was created by production team the Fine Brothers (Benny and Rafi Fine), who have spun similar Internet content for “Saved by the Bell” and “American Idol” — all independent of the TV shows. The Fines say they are covered by the fair use doctrine, which protects parody; Lionsgate TV, NBC and reps for “Idol” had no comment.

Original content for the Web is hard to make stick, but there’s something compelling and unusual about these story-videos. “People are growing up with an engaged way of interacting with their media,” says Benny Fine.

The Fines aren’t alone in creating this type of content (indeed, they collaborate with Levi Buffum who generated the animation and music for the videos). Australian comic John Robertson, for instance, features “The Dark Room,” a surreal narrative led by a sinister floating head who berates participants’ every decision.

“You find out what it’s about as you play it,” Robertson say. “You have to go into it with a sense that you’re going to get abused and I’m going to hurt you slightly. I call it the game you deserve.”

Such interactive adventures can be time-consuming to play (Robertson has filmed around 100 short videos, and tells of one player who spent eight hours with the game in one sitting) and also time-consuming to make (which may account for their scarcity). But that may begin to change now that they’ve proven able to rack up hits — “Dark Room” pulled in nearly 300,000 views in its first month; “Saved by the Bell” is nearing 3 million — with audiences who linger for extended periods.

There is revenue to be had, too. The Fine Brothers launched the scripted, interactive “MyMusicShow” on YouTube on April 15, and are already able to support themselves and a staff of 12 with their production company and a YouTube premium channel.

Meanwhile, Robertson’s content has been picked up by PIAS’s YouTube channel the Comedy Station, and he’s being paid by the site to add extra streams to his game on a weekly basis. He notes that his own YouTube channel, ThatsMrRobertson, has nearly 4 million views, up from 700,000 pre-”Dark Room.”

All of this is a happy, if not entirely unplanned, accident, says YouTube senior project manager Dror Shimshowitz. “We’re never too prescriptive about how our community of video creators should use our tools,” he says, referring to the add-ons, annotations and other innovations YouTube creates to enhance its users’ experience. “We just want to give them a set of building blocks to use their creative talents.”

Content creators are happy to comply: “All anyone wants to do is make immersive entertainment that holds the attention of the viewer,” Robertson says.

And find someone to pay for it.

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