Gaming has made serious inroads towards mainstream acceptance, but there are still huge obstacles to overcome if consoles are ever to earn their spot alongside DVD players and bookcases in our living rooms. Gaming is expensive, confusing, and misunderstood, but worse than that, gaming suffers from a serious lack of face time with Joe and Jane average. Short of misleading reports on Fox News and the occasional spot on The Today Show, gaming is about as much a part of the average non-gaming person’s life as monster trucks are of mine. I genuinely believe that more people would be making the effort to play games if they simply knew more about them, but they don’t even know what they should be asking about or where to start. There’s no easy solution to filling that information gap, but I think we should start with an old standby: the TV commercial.
It’s entirely possible that you, being a particularly savvy ‘netizen, don’t watch traditional TV anymore, but it’s still how the vast majority of the American populace entertains itself on a nightly basis. There’s a reason that commercials in popular shows cost a mint – because they’re seen by millions and millions of average consumers just looking for new things to make them happy. The idea of launching a major motion picture without first carefully orchestrating a TV ad campaign is laughable, so why aren’t we doing the same thing for videogames? The immediate answer is, of course, money. Though ads for games like Mirror’s Edge, Uncharted 2, and Street Fighter IV have run recently, they’ve been relegated to cable channels like Comedy Central and MTV – networks the target audience is likely to be watching. Only titles that are virtually guaranteed to break the bank, like GTA IV or Wii Fit stand a chance of being aired somewhere more prominent. And by “prominent,” I mean “with more viewers, and therefore more expensive ad slots.”
Games only have so much marketing budget to go around, and rather than dropping a huge chunk of change on a TV ad, it makes far more sense to spend it on full-page spreads in EGM or on banners on a gaming site like this one, because that’s where people already predisposed to buy games are likely to see them. I get it. But I’m convinced that there’s an audience out there that isn’t buying games not because they have no interest in playing, but simply because they’re unaware of the kinds of experiences they can be having. If they don’t think games are still something for losers or kids, they think they’re all about killing aliens, killing hookers, or killing alien hookers.
What got me started on this particular line of thinking was the dismal box art for Heavy Rain, a complex, mature, psychologically intriguing game about tracking down a serial killer. I’m very much looking forward to playing it, but only because I have the benefit of already knowing a lot about it. The gaming dabbler – the type of person who might enjoy Heavy Rain if they knew enough to give it a chance – would probably have little more to go on than the box art and the game’s title, assuming they even saw the game in a store.
Now think about what might happen if an ad for Heavy Rain highlighting the game’s Origami Killer ran during a prime time crime drama like, say, CSI or Criminal Minds. The people watching those shows are already interested in following clues to catch bad guys, and might find Heavy Rain‘s dark and brooding cinematic style appealing. Well, some of them might, anyway. There are still pretty huge hurdles to clear, such as convincing them that experiencing a mystery is going to be as fun as watching one, and that digital characters can be as compelling as flesh-and-blood ones. Even if you can sell them on that idea, there’s still gaming’s overall complexity and expense standing in the way. I’m not naïve enough to think that a single TV spot is suddenly going to turn legions of viewers into game-buyers overnight, but it might get them asking questions, looking up information online, or turning down a different aisle the next time they’re in Best Buy.
The game-playing segment of the public may be growing, but the vast majority of it isn’t particularly well-informed about this wild new entertainment frontier it’s just entered. The public knows games deeper than Pac-Man exist, of course, but unless they’ve actually put time into playing them recently, they’re probably completely unaware of the kind of experiences they can provide. Max Payne as a movie they get, because they have contextual knowledge for movies, but the idea of how someone would play Max Payne is foreign to them. They don’t know that they could be sharing in Max’s pain, helping him exact revenge, they are unaware of the beauty and satisfaction of using bullet time to dispatch a room full of thugs. By giving them a shove in the right direction, we might eventually get them to look beyond the obvious gaming choices, and more unusual titles will have a better chance to flourish.
Or at least we’ll have something more fun to watch than Snuggie adverts.
Susan Arendt kills the occasional alien hooker.