Op-Ed

Op-Ed
Games and Advertising: The Next Generation

Michael Zenke | 23 May 2007 18:00
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We hear it all the time today: "Games are more expensive to make than ever." You have to pay the bills somehow, and games don't maintain themselves, you know. This is all well and good, but the result is we have to put up with yet another urban eyesore: ads. Ads everywhere, from Counter-Strike to Planetside, from Anarchy Online to ... every EA game released in the last three years. Streamed into game worlds by enterprising companies, some say they make a game more realistic. Others swear up and down that they're a violation of privacy, an anathema to everything they believe in.

Most gamers, though, just don't care. After the initial outcry against yet another intrusion into our pastime, it seems as though the furor against in-game advertising has died down. That's generally for good reason. Despite initial fears that streaming ads would be digital eyesores interrupting our play time, most in-game ads are fairly tasteful. Even the ads streamed by conglomerates like Massive and IGA Worldwide have proven fairly tame.

Gaming reactionaries still have plenty to be worried about, though. As with every other advertising medium, games are being added to the repertoire of fast-thinking, trend-savvy marketers eager to capture that viral something that seems to be the it thing nowadays. Whether they're marketing games directly or simply using a game as a medium to get their message across, the acceptance of gaming as a part of mainstream American culture is now allowing gamers access to the full range of acceptance. On the one hand, we can talk about WoW in public without getting thrown out of a restaurant. On the other, we have to figure out if videos on YouTube aren't subtle marketing.

Certainly viral videos are the most straightforward example of this. Microsoft seems particularly enamored with this tactic, and just this year alone we've seen them for the new Gears of War maps, Halo 3, Mass Effect, and the 360-exclusive Splinter Cell. These types of media are usually lead-ins to the more mainstream broadcast/cable television campaign, but can also be used as kickoffs for less traditional marketing.

Alternate reality games are the hot thing in marketing right now, as well, with the interesting meta element that games are being used to promote games, along with non-gaming products. If a major film release can prompt the creation of a real-world game experience, it only makes sense that games would, too. I Love Bees is usually cited as the most high-profile early ARG marketing device, and it's unsurprising that a less intense version of the game has been put into play for the upcoming launch of Halo 3. Of all the different methods marketers are trying to generate interest in a product, I expect ARGs to be one of the most enduring. Watching a viral video will have someone engaged for as long as the video is running. He might mention it to a friend, but there's no investment there. As young people used to being around and thinking about games get older, the willingness to play will be more prevalent in older generations, and campaigns of this nature will become even more effective.

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Advertising campaigns are essentially laying claim to part of the real world, demanding to be interacted with by real-world participants. In virtual spaces, companies are stepping up the marketing of brands, companies and ideas by literally staking out their own territory. Major companies and brands are throwing up buildings in Second Life with gusto, eager to reach that oh-so-hip and oh-so-overhyped user base. These companies are paying good money to folks who work in the game world, so they can navigate the red tape of Linden's land and have a good-looking building created. So far, the corporate interest has been mostly just about getting the name in-game, but there are exceptions. The clothing store chain American Apparel has opened a branch in the game, allowing players to buy digital versions of their real merchandise.

More dramatically, Starwood, the international hotel chain, has created a digital version of its aloft hotel. Not slated to be opened until next year, the company created the virtual version not only to drum up interest in the project but as a literal beta test for the space. SL residents were invited to comment on the space's design and interior flow. Closed for renovations, the space just reopened on May 9 with a dramatically changed interior. The official site for the project states that these changes are not only to the digital version of the building, "they will also be reflected in the 'real-life' aloft hotels." If a multi-million dollar corporation changing the design of a flagship product based on the input of Second Life users isn't a sign of the changing times, I don't know what is.

Those changes have even reached beyond the strange byways of the internet to mainstream media. In order to gauge the popularity of gaming in today's culture, look no further than movies and popular television shows. Used as a dual-purpose weapon, games on TV and in movies not only popularize the game itself but make the game's vehicle seem cooler. South Park's World of Warcraft episode is probably the best known example of this, but games are showing up everywhere as producers, directors and executives try to capture the interest of jaded younger generations.

According to other popular media, games are everywhere now. Television shows are beginning to use real in-game effects (as opposed to the generic boops and bleeps of the '90s) to indicate what someone is playing. The movie "Reign Over Me" featured Shadow of Colossus as a plot point in the story. The drama Numb3rs used in-game footage to get across a metaphor for one of the show's math-based puzzles. In the most blatant advertising move yet, Heroes featured a short sequence from the still in-development title Heavenly Sword, as played by one of the show's protagonists.

The cost of making games is soaring, to be sure, and certainly advertising pays some of the bill. The real question is: Does all this marketing actually have any effect on the people playing these games? Is someone really more likely to run out and buy a PS3 because he saw Nikki playing Heavenly Sword on Heroes? Is an obscure web-based puzzle likely to make Halo 3 more enriching for your average frat-boy? Where does the real game stop, and the meta game begin?

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