It was a great day for gamers when Ian Bogost appeared on The Colbert Report recently to promote his latest book, Persuasive Games. Finally, someone’s willing to make videogames look good on national television, and it’s a guy who flaunts his Mii character when he guest edits on Kotaku. He’s a game developer, academic, author and defender of the medium. In other words, he’s “one of us.”
So as you can imagine, the reaction to Bogost’s appearance was overwhelmingly positive on the gamers’ side of the fence. I share their enthusiasm for his work, but I can’t shake a Colbertian “gut” feeling about one of the topics in his book. Anti-advergames, which Bogost defines as games that protest a product or service, don’t work.
Unlike games that promote consumption, anti-advergames offer a message that doesn’t jive with the company line. In most cases, they’re free games that are playable on the developers’ websites. While I appreciate the riffs on ad culture and branding, I’m not convinced they can turn players away from the products these games protest or away from consumerism in general.
Few anti-advergames are actually out there. The news articles I’ve read tout the genre as an emerging trend, but offer few examples. Bogost’s favorite works are Disaffected!, his studio’s own criticism of FedEx Kinko’s, and McDonald’s Videogame, a simulation of the fast food company’s questionable business practices, by Molleindustria. Both games expose the companies’ inner workings by putting the player behind the counter, and in McDonalds’ case, the factory and the South American farmland.
In Disaffected, you’re a godlike invisible hand – or maybe a manager – who guides doltish employees around the workplace. They’re slow, they’re rude and they misplace things, but you’ve got to work through it and satisfy enough customers to get through each day. Unfortunately, Disaffected rewards deft management with more business. After playing the game for a while, I became quite good at bossing around my pool of idiots. Bogost says the game makes us question underlying labor issues, but I found that a quality supervisor overrides those concerns.
McDonald’s Videogame is closer to the mark. In order to succeed, players must destroy rainforests to raise feed, boost cows with hormones, fire slow employees and mask it all with public relations and marketing. It’s hard enough to cut a profit the dirty way, but not employing those strategies makes it impossible.
By all measures, McDonald’s Videogame is a good anti-advergame. Players witness the restaurant’s misdeeds through a set of rules, offering an explanation of the problem unlike any other medium. But honestly, it hasn’t quelled my desire for the $1 McChicken sandwich.
I’m not alone, either. “I’m sure [there’s] a political message in there but anytime I play it I just get a craving for burgers,” said one commenter at Edge magazine’s blog. Another commenter at the blog We Make Money Not Art said it works well as viral ad for McDonald’s. Even Patrick Dugan, who interviewed Molleindustria developer Paulo Pedercini for Gamasutra, admitted to desiring fast food after playing the game for an hour. Was this an intended side effect?
Subversion of advertising, known sometimes as anti-advertising, adbusting, culture jamming or just subvertising, is a decades-old practice. The Billboard Liberation Front “improves” road signage with slogans such as “Think Doomed” instead of Apple’s “Think Different.” Adbusters supplements its magazine with parodies of popular ads. Ji Lee’s Bubble Project encourages people to stick speech bubbles on street ads to be filled in later with “off-message” ideas.
I’m skeptical that anti-advertising of any kind can prevent consumption. In fact, people raise their defense mechanisms when products they know and use are called into question. Ayse Binay wrote her doctoral dissertation for the University of Texas at Austin on the effects of subvertising, and her research supports this theory.
Binay showed her test subjects advertisements for Absolut Vodka, famous for likening the distinctive bottle shape with a funky idea and pairing it with a catchy slogan. “Absolut 69,” for example, shows two bottles next to each other, one pointing up and one pointing down. Binay also showed her subjects subversive parodies designed by Adbusters. The “Absolut Impotence” ad features a slumping bottle and comes with a brief warning about the obstacles to drunken sex.
Tests found that product loyalists don’t change their brand attitudes after seeing attempts to subvert them, while those who are hostile to the brand are not really influenced by the anti-ads either. But the really interesting stuff happens in the middle. Those who didn’t come with preconceived ideas about Absolut felt positive about both the actual ads and their subversive counterparts. At the end of the day, their views of the product were more favorable, no matter what they saw.
“Even though the ultimate goal of Absolut subvertisements may be to challenge the cultural norms about drinking or to dismiss the value of brand arbitrage … the subvertisements seem to be unintentionally and unexpectedly working in favor of the Absolut brand,” Binay concluded.
Bogost said in an interview that he’s not interested in using anti-advergames or advergames to change people’s brand loyalties. He’d rather use games to create ads with high “social value.”
Most ads these days sell an image or an intangible feeling that people associate with a product. In Persuasive Games, Bogost referred to the Coca-Cola polar bears of years past. Consumers can associate the bears’ carefree attitude with the enjoyment of drinking Coke, though the ads say nothing about the drink itself.
Bogost accused advertising of manufacturing wants and needs instead of explaining how products fit into someone’s existing lifestyle. The solution, he argued, is more demonstrative advertising as it was a few decades ago.
“Traditional advertising, it used to be like this,” Bogost told me. “If you look at the golden age of television – and advertisers today would argue that this is just because it was unsophisticated – what people did was they tried to say, ‘Oh, here’s my soap, or my dishwasher, and here’s what it does and why it will make your life better.'”
Videogames can return to the old ways of advertising, Bogost said, because they can use procedure and logic to demonstrate a product’s usefulness. Anti-advergames function similarly, allowing the player to interact with a troubled environment. It’s a noble goal, but does it work?
Typically, advergames are measured in game plays. Rob Small, CEO of Miniclip, a website that hosts games with and without commercial branding, said he guarantees 5 million game plays for his advertising clients, who pay Miniclip to develop and host a game. Roughly 15 percent of players also click-through to that company’s website or watch the trailer if the game is promoting a movie, Small said.
In Persuasive Games, Bogost said eyeballs and twitching fingers aren’t enough. To know the real effects of anti-advergames, there has to be discussion. People have to mull a game over, he said, and their thought process on internet chat rooms and forums is evidence that it’s happening. What’s troubling, however, is Bogost’s disregard for the player’s ultimate conclusion.
“It might mean, you know, I’ve had some sort of intangible change in my attitude about a topic like my relationship with the fast food industry and I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with that,” he said in an interview, “but I’m going to noodle it and it may come back to me later, so there’s a spectrum, certainly, of possible responses.”
That answer leaves me wanting a little more. I can’t get away from the mindset that anti-advergames should discourage someone from buying a product. Bogost told me we shouldn’t think in such black-and-white terms, but I disagree. Advertising isn’t like politics – another chapter of his book – where you can become a little more liberal or conservative. When it comes to eating at McDonald’s or making copies at Kinko’s, you either buy the product or you don’t. Even if the player doesn’t come to that conclusion immediately, we should at least expect a decision somewhere down the line. From the anti-advergames that are out there, I just don’t see that happening.
Hope isn’t lost for the genre, but there are a few things that must change. First, anti-advergames need clear messages, not ambiguous attacks on the way a company works. This idea comes right from marketers that Binay, the doctoral candidate, interviewed for her thesis. “If you want to change their message, then you can’t just sit out there and say, ‘No they’re wrong,'” one advertiser said. “You’ve got to give people something else.”
Consider, for example, the Neistat brothers’ campaign in 2003 against the short life of iPod batteries. In a video posted to ipodsdirtysecret.com, Casey Neistat’s customer service call to Apple plays while he cuts a stencil with the words “iPod’s unreplaceable battery lasts only 18 months.” He then prints the message onto iPod ads all over lower Manhattan. The visitor counter at ipodsdirtysecret.com shows more than 2.2 million hits, and major media outlets flocked to the story.
The video was successful because the message was clear: Potential iPod owners should consider the gadget’s short battery life before buying, and those who are already screwed should protest. The next year, several owners actually filed a class-action lawsuit against Apple. The company settled, ran replacement programs and offered $99 replacement batteries and $59 extended warranties. Best of all, the video was a procedural representation of what happened to Neistat and what he and others can do about it. Sounds like videogame fodder to me.
There’s another point to glean from that video. The Neistat brothers chose the right battle against a hot product. McDonald’s, by contrast, has seen the same arguments dragged out countless times in all media forms and in court. And who really needs a videogame to demonstrate why FedEx Kinko’s sucks?
If games can raise issues that are clear, edgy and new, distribution should be easy. Maybe I run in the wrong circles, but I haven’t met a single person outside the gaming community who knows what an anti-advergame is or has played any of its kind. The iPod video was so clever it distributed itself virally, but videogames, I think, will have to work a little harder.
Bogost said he’s looking at commercial avenues, which I support if he can make it happen, but these games could also learn something from adbusting’s confrontational style. People need exposure to anti-advergames without knowing what they’re getting and without coming armed with preconceptions.
Molleindustria, for example, could design a web ad that looks like McDonald’s sponsored it and get sympathizers to donate the ad space. As I type this, colbertnation.com is linking to Aqua Teen Hunger Force Zombie Ninja Pro-Am, the videogame. Maybe they can make room.
Jared Newman is a freelance contributor to The Escapist. Visit his blog at www.jarednewman.com/blog.