Written in November 2021 for my MSc New Media Design at Tilburg University.
In 2012, “Dumb Ways to Die” (DWTD), a popular animated YouTube music video went viral and inspired the creation of a mobile game of the same name. As most did, I was inclined to try this game, which had reached the top of the charts and was free to download (Algie & Mead, 2019). It was easy to navigate, intuitive, and interactive. Despite it being fun and entertaining, I knew there was a message that went deeper than what met the eye. At first, I thought the game advocated against dangerous behaviors but later realized the animated music video and the game app were created as part of a rail safety campaign. It was surprising to learn that it was a public service announcement and that Metro Train Melbourne (in Australia) commissioned this safety message. The mini-games involved in “Dumb Ways to Die”, the mobile game, exposed all kinds of “dumb deaths” and were not all about the railway. Today, I learned that the campaign received much appreciation such as awards from different festivals and millions of downloads. The brand became hugely successful by doing spin-off game apps, short animated films, and by selling merchandise. The concept was greatly successful, but I was left to question the effectiveness of the campaign: “How does the mobile game “Dumb Ways to Die” have an impact on my unsafe behavior?”
A new sort of campaign
McCann Agency, the advertising company in charge of creating DWTD, decided in 2012 to create a new style of public service campaign by not adopting an advertising model but a content model. Indeed, Australian citizens are faced regularly with traditional rail safety messages and may become desensitized to them, even ignoring them. With his team, John Mescall, executive creative director at McCann Melbourne, decided on a new way to go. He stated that they were determined to create quality content, as good as the music people buy on iTunes or the games they pay for on the AppStore (Ngothuytrang, 2017). This level of exigency resulted in a very successful campaign that would resonate with a young and skeptical audience.
The non-threatening, non-authoritarian method of conveying the message contributed to its success. The target audience (the 18–29-year-olds) don’t want to be told what to do and they don’t want to be lectured. The team from McCann found a fun persuasive way to try to change people’s views on rail safety. They created a trendy, viral music video that would get stuck in people’s heads, so they can ask what it is about before they even realize they are already enjoying it. They used dark humor to deliver a serious message without being gruesome and to make the discussion about death approachable, although it is usually considered taboo.
In May 2013, Metro Train Melbourne released the DWTD game. It presents a series of mini-games of “dumb” ways to die, rail accidents being the dumbest ways. They are in fast succession and become more rapid and more difficult as you play. As part of the content creation of the campaign, the mobile game DWTD was explicitly created as a serious game. Susi et al. (2007) said it best, that a serious game is created for “purposes other than mere entertainment”, here it is to convey a rail safety message. It is a simulation of real-world events and tries to act as an influence on the player’s thoughts and actions (Mitgutsh & Alvarado, 2012). The objective of this serious game is to reduce the unsafe behavior of railway passengers.
Context of creation
I must acknowledge the fact that the campaign was created in 2012 for an Australian audience. I suspect they also intended to have a worldwide impact due to many references to North America (grizzly bears, moose, rattlesnakes, psycho killers). Nevertheless, in 2012, I was only 14 years old and was living in Europe. Therefore, I was not the target audience. Today, the mobile game has evolved. I imagine the initial budget of 200 000 Australian dollars had been consumed and that’s why there are ads in the game now. The use of smartphones is different in 2021 than it has been in 2012. The popularity of mobile games was also nothing alike. In 2012, it was the rise of the best mobile games of all time (Jones, 2021): Temple Run (2011), Subway Surfers (2012), Candy Crush (2012), Angry Birds (2009), and many more. The difference in context may affect my perspective on the game.
My personal view
Around nine years ago, I learned about the mobile game DWTD because it went viral. Like many others, the viral music got stuck in my head and I asked my brother to play the game on his phone after school while we were waiting for our mom to come. One of the objectives of Metro Train Melbourne was to create implicit motivation for the users to play the game and the trend helped that. I wanted to play the game spontaneously, even though there are no special rewards except the customization of the characters. The music and the visuals are attractive, the characters are funny, and the story is simple. I must avoid getting my characters killed by “dumb” deaths. I get encouraging messages with extra points when I do good (“because you’re special”, “DUUUDE” or “points for style”) and I lose points when it’s not good enough. I easily understand each death and why it is dangerous. Sometimes I would even learn new things like I should not grab my bread from the toaster with a fork.
The mobile game DWTD allows the development of skills and knowledge by observation learning (Bandura, 2008). Over a long period of time and repeated games, I learned with trial-and-error experience. I believe it can later cause an increase in my active attention over these “dumb” deaths in real life. Attention can be sharpened by prior knowledge and it’s exactly what the game tries to do. If I can remember the situations from the game, I can avoid reproducing them.
The developers of the game probably reflected for a long time on the desired outcome of consumer behavior. I believe the campaign should (e.g., in accordance with the AIDA model from Rawal, 2013) attract people’s attention through the music video, raise interest through the mobile game, create desire with the magnitude of the trend and its viral aspect, to finally hope it would result in action in real life. All these steps are well-orchestrated so it would indeed create a change in unsafe behavior.
The choice of the word “dumb” is not trivial. The word plays a role in the motivation to change behavior. It is used as a subjective norm. Al-Swidi (2014) defines it as if ‘it reveals the beliefs of individuals about how they would be viewed by their reference groups if they perform a certain behavior’. The emphasis on the word “dumb” makes people feel social pressure not to be judged as stupid (Algie & Mead, 2019). Our emotion tricks us into behaving safely around trains to avoid social judgment.
The problem with Dumb Ways to Die
One of the problems of the game is the entertaining aspect. It can overpower the main message of the campaign. Because players usually play games to take a break from the real world, they might not want to think beyond the mere diverting narration of the game. I believe the mini-games can be too subtle for casual players.
Another problem is that, like every popular content, mobile games have a life span. As evidence, DWTD has not been in the top 10 downloaded mobile games in a long time (Chapple, 2021). From what I remember, the game is almost the same. There was no evolution which might be repetitive for frequent players. The main song which was a hit in 2012 is now outdated and redundant. There is also no progression in the game. There is no explicit motivation to play the game every day. I believe unlocking customization is not enough of a reward to continue playing after a few years.
A consequence of this lifespan is that players are not reminded of the safety message because they don’t play the game anymore. Without recurrent reminders, people tend to forget and return to former behaviors (Hodent, 2017), in this case, to unsafe behaviors.
The uncertainty of the outcome of the campaign
The results of the DWTD campaign are unclear, even more so for the impact of the mobile game. We have many numbers relating to the viral aspect of the campaign: the number of downloads in total (340 million), the downloads per week (1 million), the number of games played (6.5 billion times), and the number of people who pledge on their website to be safe around trains (129 million). However, these numbers, given by the website Dumb Ways to Die itself, are not supported by scientific results of the decrease in unsafe behavior around trains or in general. I can assume the campaign was somewhat impactful because it received many awards from many different institutions, but I found no evidence to verify the claim.
In the case study submitted to The Communications Council’s Australian Effie Awards in 2014, which we don’t have access to, McCann reveals they are “confident a correlation between an improvement in accident figures and the campaign existed” (Ward, 2015). One of the objective Metro Train Melbourne have set was “to see a 10% reduction of near misses and accidents at level crossings and station platforms over 12 months” (Ward, 2015). In February 2013, Metro Train’s general manager of corporate relations and business development, Leah Waymark, said about this objective that “the campaign had seen a 20 percent drop in “dumb behavior” on train platforms in the Melbourne area in the two months directly after the launch of the safety video, with incidences of near-misses at stations also down 20 percent against the annual average” (Ward, 2015). However, the mobile game was not even out at the time of this claim.
It is hard to know if all the merit goes to the campaign. There might have been confounding variables that might have affected the results if any.
To the question “How does the mobile game “Dumb Ways to Die” have an impact on my unsafe behavior?”, I believe the game has aroused questioning as most advertisements do but has not stimulated a behavior change in me. Today, the “trend” has passed, and the message is not as impactful as it could have been. Furthermore, I am not part of the target audience. I believe that if I was experiencing the whole package, seeing the posters in the streets, coming across the viral music video, downloading the mobile game, seeing the news of the success of DWTD on national television, living in Melbourne in 2012 as a young adult, the influence on my unsafe behavior might have been more significant. Even though I have good memories of the game, for me, DWTD was just another game among so many others.
Algie J., & Mead N. (2019). Fun Ways to Engage with Rail Safety Through the Dumb Ways to Die Social Marketing Campaign. In: Basil D., Diaz-Meneses G., Basil M. (Ed.), Social Marketing in Action: Cases from Around the World. Springer Texts in Business and Economics (pp. 93–110). Springer International Publishing.
Al-Swidi, A., Mohammed Rafiul Huque, S., Haroon Hafeez, M., & Noor Mohd Shariff, M. (2014). The role of subjective norms in theory of planned behavior in the context of organic food consumption. British Food Journal, 116(10), 1561–1580. https://doi.org/10.1108/bfj-05-2013-0105
Chapple, C. (2021, October 14). Top Mobile Games Worldwide for September 2021 by Downloads. Sensor Tower Blog. https://sensortower.com/blog/top-mobile-games-worldwide-september-2021-by-downloads
Dumb Ways to Die. (2012, November 15). Dumb Ways to Die [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJNR2EpS0jw
Hodent, C. (2017). The Gamer’s Brain: How Neuroscience and UX Can Impact Video Game Design (1st ed.). CRC Press.
Metro Trains Melbourne. (n.d.). Home. Dumb Ways to Die. Retrieved October 8, 2021, from https://www.dumbwaystodie.com/
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Ngothuytrang (2017, July 9). Case Study: Metro Trains’ Dumb Ways to Die. Insight to Action. https://insightmarketingblog.wordpress.com/2017/07/09/case-study-metro-trains-dumb-ways-to-die/
Jones, E. (2021, October 6). The 26 Best Mobile Games of All Time. One37pm. https://www.one37pm.com/gaming/consoles/best-mobile-games-ios-android-all-time
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Ward, M. (2015, January 30). Has Dumb Ways to Die been effective? Mumbrella. https://mumbrella.com.au/dumb-ways-die-stopped-dumb-behaviour-around-trains-270751