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How to gamify a
country and playfully
disrupt tourism marketing

Published on WARC.

The allure of experiencing the wonders of the world from the comforts of home has been a pipe-dream since the creation of the stereoscope back in the 1850s. Worldly aristocrats would return from their travels with black and white images inserted into a clunky wooden viewfinder that would project a 3D image – in their heyday, it was touted as a 'virtual tourism experience'. It was almost as if they could capture a piece of their travels to share with friends and family forever.

The distant dream of ‘virtual travel’ has enticed us for centuries. But it sparks a bigger question, how can you genuinely experience the cultures of the world from the comfort of your own home country?

With most international borders closed due to the pandemic, we’ve seen a sharp rise in domestic and regional tourism, tapping into the nationalistic nostalgia of a trip in your homeland. The feel-good factor in boosting the local economy is backed by a feeling of safety and security.

But people still yearn for a more abrupt form of escapism, so naturally we’ve also seen a massive push for digital tourism experiences, which bring the world closer to home. From Airbnb cultural experiences to Iceland’s scream your way out of lockdown challenge, we’ve seen tourism brands try to hit the sweet spot of cultural authenticity delivered digitally.

Kia Kaha (Stay Strong)

We recently faced this exact challenge for Tourism New Zealand. As the #1 outbound destination for Aussie travellers, we had a very real responsibility to keep travellers connected to our people and place while international borders remained closed.

Pre-COVID, we also faced a unique challenge. New Zealand was facing increasing pressure from up-and-coming ‘trending’ destinations such as Japan, Iceland and the USA – and the locally trending options like South Australia and Tasmania, which were quickly rising on travellers’ preference lists. We had to defend our #1 position and keep New Zealand top of mind.

But in a time of overused COVID clichés, we chose to do something bold and disruptive to stay connected with travellers. Kia kaha is a common expression in te reo (the indigenous Maori language of Aotearoa [New Zealand]) meaning “to be strong, get stuck in, keep going”. So, we took the path less travelled to find a unique audience truth. After all, it's in our nature to break away from traditional travel conventions – standing with courage in the face of adversity is a core value of Tourism New Zealand.

In response, we created PLAY NZ, a gameplay walkthrough of the real world, where you can experience the best of New Zealand in the style of a video game. Inviting the world to PLAY NZ online for now and visit in-real-life (IRL) later.


With borders closed, we invited the world to PLAY NZ online, through a playful gaming-like release and 180-degree video content from all over New Zealand. Throughout this journey, we learned a few things:

1) Target a mindset, not an audience

In the world of travel marketing, we all too often focus on a type of traveller or a specific audience, rather than a mindset or reason for travel. Every research report identifies the growing universe of gamers as an opportunity, gaming was already the biggest digital entertainment channel in Australia pre-COVID and we saw gaming skyrocket by over 75% during lockdown. Gaming in isolation became an escape while helping people connect with others, people were finding creative ways to incorporate play into their everyday interactions and entertainment. Making the notion of ‘play time’ universally embraced and encouraged.

Beyond the growing size of this audience, our research also showed us that gamers have a lot in common with travellers, despite the outdated stereotypes we often place on them. Gaming and travel go hand-in-hand, both are about exploration, wonder and adventure. Gamers and travellers also have a very similar mindset. They thrive off challenges, shared experiences, and learning new things – everything travel can offer. Above all else, we found one common mindset, the desire to escape to new worlds.


2) Champion your culture

The globalisation of travel means we often focus on the common denominator or most understandable icons of culture. But for PLAY NZ we wanted to dive into the rich heritage and deep-rooted mythology of Māori culture that spans from the beginning of time to the present day. We leaned into the native te reo language and worked with a cultural advisor to blend the world of Māori culture with the world of gaming. We chose to create an entirely new gaming visual language and gaming user interface, which struck a fine balance of delivering to existing gaming tropes while representing New Zealand's unique culture authentically.

From ‘aroha’ (compassion and empathy) and ‘kaha’ (energy and strength) points after each quest, to educational loading screens, we embedded New Zealand’s strong principles of culture into the narrative.

For example, when our gamer Loserfruit, is asked to choose a new realm she is soon confronted by Tāne the kaitiaki (guardian). He doesn’t let her pass until she promises to care for the forest. The kaitiaki invites everyone who visits to take the Tiaki Promise to care for New Zealand.



3) Encourage play and allow for local remixing

Our work was guided by the core brand truth of 100% Pure New Zealand: feel the embrace of our place. We wanted our audience to feel our warm welcome regardless of where they were in the world. Being very close neighbours, we set out to build on the camaraderie and rivalry between Australians and New Zealanders across the film, leaning on local colloquialisms and in-jokes that allowed the audience to pick up on the gags and play along.

Throughout the film, we hid Easter eggs for gamers and non-gamers to pick up on and re-watch. We also littered the website with additional Easter eggs that encouraged people to play further.

As tourism bodies shift their focus from place to ‘people and place’ it's a challenge to share your people and culture in a genuine way while connecting on a mass scale. By leaning into the warmth, humour, and charm of Kiwis, we allowed Aussies to join in and learn more about our close companions, while feeling our welcome.


4) Focus on the medium, not the length

We chose to use the gaming walkthrough format because that’s the #1 category of gaming video content, and some gamers spend more time watching gaming walkthroughs than actually playing themselves.

Sharing a nine-minute film was a huge risk for us and it’s something that Tourism New Zealand had never done in its history. From the very beginning we were focused on creating an engaging story that addressed the consumer in their context – this form of storytelling allowed us to share in-depth experiences while showcasing the stunning backdrop of New Zealand.

Our average view through rate is already higher than our previous campaigns across the main walkthrough film, proving that natural formats and long-form content can cut through.

We also chose to launch the campaign live, via streaming platform Twitch. Our gaming influencer, Loserfruit, led the stream and shared a live walkthrough of her experience of the ‘game’ and her memories of visiting New Zealand pre-COVID. Addressing the consumer in their context and authentically using the platform they engage with naturally helped us cut through with this notoriously ruthless audience.


 5) Focus on the experience, not just the tech

Throughout the journey, we had multiple opportunities to create a real game or a 2020 stereoscope like Google Cardboard. Instead, we opted to make the gaming walkthrough experience as genuine and as realistic as possible by merging the real world with an open-world role-playing game. We made the story and experience engaging on all platforms. No matter what you used to watch it.

So, on reflection, maybe it wasn’t the stereoscope’s job to make a realistic tourism experience at all. Maybe it was always just a vessel for a good story, and an opportunity to share a collection of life-enhancing thoughts and stories from faraway cultures.

As we dip in and out of lockdown for some time to come, tourism boards and marketers will have to push themselves to create new story telling devices, which go deeper than the traditional film approach.

Sharing their people and place in new ways will take a leap of faith, but so far, it has paid off for us.

This might just be the golden era of travelling from home.

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