Nickelodeon, the popular kids cable network, wanted to draw more attention to the launch of its "Jimmy Neutron" series last year. So during the summer it partnered with Quaker Oats, among others, to create the "Jimmy Neutron Gotta Blast" online racing game.

To play, kids needed a code from inside a cereal box to access Nick's Web site and build their own rocket. To sweeten the offer, Nick promised that some of the rockets would be chosen at random to race on-air.

Kids called it fun. In marketing, it's called an advergame, the marriage of advertising to computer games. In Nickelodeon's summer-long promotion, more than a half-million people played its game, and the series launch was the highest-rated in the network's history. That's not a bad payoff for a modest investment.

Advergames can reinforce a brand image, build a database of information about its users, directly target the market they want to hit -- all very inexpensively when compared to what it costs to advertise in other media. That's one of the reasons they've taken off since being introduced in the late 1990s.

In creating advergames, marketers have jumped on a hot consumer trend: electronic gaming. Last year revenue from the electronic gaming industry ($10.3 billion, according to the NPD Group) was bigger than movie ticket revenue ($9.37 billion, reports Exhibitor Relations).

Forrester Research, which studies the use of new technologies, projects that advergaming alone will be a billion-dollar-a-year industry by 2005.

"Marketers want to go where the audience is playing," said Keith Ferrazzi, CEO of Ya-Ya Media, an advergame producer.

Everyone is a target for advergames. The fastest-growing segment of the market is women ages 35 to 49 playing at work, according to media strategist Matthew Ringel, who with colleague Jane Chen coined the term "advergame" a couple of years ago. Chrysler and Jeep have designed games for the women's market. And that is one of the selling points of advergames -- they can be sharply tailored to the audience the advertiser wants to reach.

"There's a lot of experimention going on right now," said Forrester Research principal analyst Charlene Li. "Television commercials are a much more emotional kind of marketing, but people skip the commercials with their TiVo, they walk out of the room and miss the 30 seconds, there are so many channels. It's very hard to penetrate.

"With games, they are absolutely absorbed in the games. With research, you can find out the type of people who are playing, and they're paying attention. There is very little evidence that people playing games are multitasking. And that's what marketers are interested in -- capturing their attention."

Gaming is so big that it is now being tracked by at least two competing companies -- Nielsen/NetRatings and Comscore Media Metrix.

Carolyn Clark, a senior NetRatings analyst, said that the company just started tracking games but that in the last few months Candystand.com, a LifeSaver candy game, is consistently getting more than 1 million unique visitors each month.

Candystand fulfills the first promise of advergames -- brand awareness.

"You can engage people in your brand for 15 to 20 minutes," said Ya-Ya's Ferrazzi. "And there's greater retention when it's interactive. Your cost per minute is also significantly lower than it is for a broadcast ad. Plus you reach the youth demographic."

Comscore Media Metrix's research shows that 59 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 who go online head to game sites. It's 62 percent for young men 18 to 24. For women the biggest group of game players is between the ages of 45 and 54. And that, analysts conclude, is an important indicator that games are going beyond kids.

Through advergames, companies can collect a database of personal information that allows them to "build a dialogue" with adult consumers. What that means is you register to play a higher level of the game, or you fill out a survey, or you enter your score in a sweepstakes -- and they get your age, your location and your e-mail address. They know where you live. The "dialogue" consists of sending consumers advertising e-mails.

By federal law, advertisers are not allowed to collect information from kids younger than 13. But there's no prohibition against collecting information from their parents. If a child is playing advergames on the Hot Wheels site and wants to register for its Birthday Club, his parents must provide name, address, e-mail address and birth dates -- for both parent and child.

Advergames also have the advantage of spreading by what one marketer called "word of mouse." You like a game, so you e-mail it to a friend. They might get the game, or a link to the game site -- always with an ad. At virtually no cost to the marketer, the consumer is doing the work for them.

In the trade, it's called "viral marketing."

A Game for Every Market When Mattel launched "My Scene" Barbie in November, the television commercials focused only on the dolls -- no cute little girls playing with them. This is Barbie with a bare belly and cell phone, Barbie aimed at older girls, ages 7 to 12, the ones already instant-messaging.

In the first ad, Barbie is in a cab yakking on her cell. A cute guy flags the cab down as she gets out. But -- OH, NO! She realizes as the cab pulls away that her prize possession, her very lifeline -- her cell phone -- is still in it.

"To Be Continued," ends the television ad.

But it's continued only on myscene.com. This is a "webisode" of the commercial, explains Cynthia Rapp, vice president of consumer products, creative, for Barbie. When a girl goes to myscene.com, as 1 million or so have done each month since the campaign began, they can view the second of what will be 12 "webisodes."

"This is the most integrated product and advertising campaign we have done," said Patrick Shandrick, a senior marketing manager at Mattel.

The campaign is new enough that there are no final numbers, but said Rapp, "All indications are that we are hitting the target" for sales.

And the girls do their part through viral marketing. They can send e-cards to friends online. Girls also follow the three friends in their "blogs," or Web logs, journals that have new entries all the time.

The flip side of the very girl-oriented myscene.com is americasarmy.com, the recruiting site of the U.S. Army. Visitors -- 90 percent of whom are male -- play a realistic shoot-'em-up game that the Army hopes will get them to think about enlisting.

Since it went online July 4, nearly 800,000 visitors have logged 6 million hours of play, according to the game's creator, Col. Casey Wardynski, director of the Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis. Site traffic is heaviest on school holidays and after school hours, Wardynski said.

The game was created, he said, because recruiting was so expensive. "We're hoping with game technology we can get the cost way down." The goal is modest -- all the Army needs is 200 recruits in 12 months to break even, and according to Wardynski, it's on target to meet that goal.

But the Army is also planting seeds for the future. "Some of the kids who play it are four years away from joining," he said. "They are 15, 16, 17. We want to put the Army in the set of things they are thinking about."

Aaron Stahl, 16, a junior at Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School, found out about America's Army on another Web site and plays one to three hours every day. "I was amazed by how good it is," Stahl said. "But I'm not really going to fall for it. I'm not any more interested in joining the Army than I was before I played it. They try to get you to think the Army is cool. They try to get you to think you go on missions and blow up terrorists. That's far from reality."

But Stahl is still playing.

How Advergames Grew Dan Ferguson and his business partner Mike Bielinski started a small Internet marketing company in the late '90s.

"We noticed people passing things around on e-mail," Ferguson said, "jokes and that kind of thing." So in order to get the word out about their company, they created a game about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky called "Good Willie Hunting." It had all the characters from the ongoing scandal. At the end of what was one of the earliest advergames was an ad for their company saying, "We do Web sites. Give us a call."

Their shop grew from five people to 40 in one year. "For two to three weeks our phones were ringing off the hook," Ferguson said.

Now they do advergames for, among many others, Nokia and M&Ms. The latter used a Blockdot advergame called "Flip the Mix" to announce its new color last year. In six months, the game was played 8 million times, on average between 45 and 60 minutes. Blockdot also creates a Christmas game, a very subtle ad for itself. In 2001 that was Elf Balls, which became one of the top online games of the year, played 18 million times.

Advergames can be made for much less money than it takes to produce a game for a PC or a console. While a PC game that might have 80 hours of play could take three years and $5 million to create, an advergame might take three to five months and cost between $20,000 and $250,000. Of course, its play time might be an hour or less -- not great for a game, but pretty good for an advertisement.

Companies easily tailor advergames to their objective.

Nickelodeon network's Web site, Nick.com, is ranked the No. 1 site for kids ages 2 to 14 by NetRatings, with more than 2 million unique visitors each week. Nick's research shows that 65 percent of those who visit the site head for the games, according to Jason Root, vice president and executive producer of Nick Online. In March, there will be a new SpongeBob SquarePants game to promote a major "SpongeBob" event called "The Lost Episode," with digital trading cards and points that can be turned into "e-collectibles," virtual giveaways that cost almost nothing.

Nike, with its advergames, has an even longer-term goal, said Dave Madden, whose company created Scorpion K.O., a soccer advergame for Nike. It's trying to increase interest in sports that will pay off in equipment sales.

"They show you skills and how to practice soccer," said Madden, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Wild Tangent. The subtext, of course, is buy Nike products.

Where Games Go Next This is only the beginning.

"Where we see the growth," said Wild Tangent's Madden, "is not in stand-alone advergames, but in tying into larger global marketing campaigns that integrate television and print and even events all around the game concept."

Ya-Ya Media's Ferrazzi said his company is getting involved in product placement in games, just as movies have sold product placement for years. And Jeep bought into the Tony Hawk skateboard games. McDonald's and Intel both bought placements in the new Sims Online game. The Sims, which features a virtual family you create and manage, is the top-selling computer game franchise ever.

It's "very exciting" what Sims producer Electronic Arts "can do for Intel and McDonald's," said Forrester analyst Li. "They can tell [advertisers] who are the people turning on the Intel computers, who the people are who are eating the McDonald's food. It's a really interesting way to go out and test a product. I can envision a time where instead of saying, 'Let's go market-test a product,' they say, 'Let's go Sims-test a product.' "

Matthew Ringel is president of Games Media Properties, a joint venture of the William Morris Agency and Ya-Ya that is designed to help companies reach consumers around "the video game lifestyle."

His company is planning events such as a People's Choice Game Awards and a touring games festival -- like Lollapalooza with games, competitions, votes for best game music, sexiest game character. Coming soon to a parking lot near you is a movable fest that will be known as a Gamesriot, where your kids -- and maybe even you -- will gather with other gamers. One advertiser, to be named shortly, will sponsor the tour.

"There's a gold rush with games," Ringel said. "We're making the picks and shovels."

Mattel's "My Scene" Barbie "webisodes" and M&M's "Flip the Mix" game are drawing repeat visitors to each company's Web site.Nike's "Scorpion K.O." game is programmed for fun, but also to entice players into buying the company's equipment. The growth of advergame popularity can be attributed, says one marketer, to "word of mouse."Nickelodeon's "Jimmy Neutron Gotta Blast" game last year helped the network score its best ratings ever for the launch of a new series.The ad campaign for Mattel's "My Scene" Barbie begins with a conventional TV spot, but it continues only online. One million surfers have gone to the Web site monthly to watch the "webisodes."