Repeated visits to my local video rental store have led to an interesting observation: The videogame rental aisles were almost exclusively inhabited by male customers. The same mothers who stand by and wait, mostly patiently, while their sons select their favorite Batman episodes on DVD stand well away from the game aisles and call for the boys to hurry up. Women, who moments before combed the new release wall with their significant others, would tune out, pick up a magazine or wander aimlessly while the men browsed the latest available game rentals. It was almost as if a massive electro-gender-magnet were switched on. Men were attracted, women were repulsed. I even witnessed a large percentage of women bee-lining for the new release wall walk around the gaming aisles rather than through them to reach the first few bays. Not a huge trip out of their way, but a telling trip nonetheless.
I followed up these observations with a few casual conversations about games with a wide variety of rental customers. By and large, women were concerned about the violent and sexual content in games. Mothers, renting sports titles and racing games for their sons, expressed concern about games in the same worried and powerless tones as mothers faced with the topic of sexual predators. When I talked to their kids about the games they play, and why they like them, the mothers were invariably surprised that there was something to actually talk about.
It always catches me by surprise when people believe that gaming has nothing more to offer than sex and violence. Where are they getting these messages?
This particular video store has two magazine racks. One, located near the checkout line, contains glamour and teenie bopper magazines, along with music and fitness magazines. The second rack, located near the game rentals, holds Brady Game strategy guides, gaming magazines and shrink wrapped men’s magazines. Pawing through a gaming magazine, I realized where the messages of sex and violence were coming from: The industry is actively portraying gamers as a horde of energy-drink-fueled, sexually aggressive, violence-obsessed young men in the way it styles its advertising.
The screenshots used to promote games in magazines invariably show violence, which when taken out of context can easily be seen as gratuitous and unnecessarily shocking. The promotional artwork used in advertising pushes the negative image even further. Scantily clad women posed provocatively, inviting you into the lurid depths of the game. Stern, muscular men forever poised on the brink of attack, brandishing large, sexualized guns and swords. In other words, images designed to appeal to the lizard brains of these magazines’ core audience: men aged 18 to 24. In my experience, the men these images are designed to appeal to like games for the same reasons the rest of us do – the quality gameplay, the compelling characters and the engaging stories. Talk to these “libidinous” men about Shadow of the Colossus, for example, and the conversation quickly moves into the realm of the introspective as you discuss the first colossus you felt ashamed of killing. Ask them why they liked GTA, and they’ll invariably mention the underlying story, the music or the selection of cars. Even those who admit to quickly abandoning the plot tell stories of crazy motorcycle stunts and narrow escapes from the law long before they mention the various methods of killing people.
But it’s the magazine advertising campaign for the latest Hitman installment that is the quintessential example of the “boobies and bullets” depiction of games. Each advertisement depicts an airbrushed model, recently killed in a gruesome fashion. If you were basing your impressions of the game on these ads, you’d clearly be concerned about Hitman‘s social message. After an hour or so of playing the game, however, you learn that your targets are murderers, drug dealers and child pornographers. The violence is present, obviously, but it’s not centered on the brutal murders of seemingly innocent women. In fact, of the more than 20 targets in the game, fewer than five are women, and all of those are portrayed as violent and unstable, not the helpless victims portrayed in the advertising campaign.
People tell me you need to appeal to the lowest common denominator when marketing products. They tell me it’s difficult to present the more ethereal elements of a game coherently. They tell me the poor market performance of games such as Beyond Good & Evil and Psychonauts means the industry will continue to focus on visual glitz, violence and sex appeal. But I feel this approach has done us a disservice. And by “us” I mean all of us – from the developers and publishers who sweat over their game to the player who craves quality entertainment. The games we produce and enjoy are deeper, richer and more socially relevant than is being portrayed by our own marketing.
There are signs that this is slowly changing. If the 12 Steps toward responsible game marketing that John Geoghegan, Executive Director of The SILOE Research Institute, laid out at the Game Marketing Conference earlier this year are any indication, it’s clear that game marketing and promotion is taking a more serious tone.
It couldn’t come at a better time, either: The average age of a “gamer” skews older every day, and older audiences are bound to demand more mature content from not only their games, but from the way those games are marketed to consumers. The “screenshots and boobies” approach is going to have to grow up with the rest of us, or marketers will have to resolve themselves to losing the 18- to 25-year-olds they’re continually wooing every seven years.
Corvus Elrod is a storyteller and game designer who is working on bringing his
16 years experience into the digital realm. He has a habit of taking
serious things lightly and frivolous things seriously, a personal quirk which
can be witnessed on his blog, Man Bytes Blog.