I started playing videogames when there was no such thing as videogames for kids. One of my earliest memories of playing a videogame was when my mom worked in a racquetball club and gym. During summers, I’d spend the first several hours of the day upstairs, where there was a snack bar, a big screen TV, and a two-player Space Invaders table. I’d sit there and watch my mom’s boss play from nine in the morning until around noon. He was a chain-smoking man whose glasses were tinged the same shade of yellow as his fingers. He was the man who introduced me to profanity. When he was playing, he’d grunt as he jammed the joystick as far to the extremes as possible, as if denting the side of the joystick housing would give him that little extra edge. He would then start furiously slapping the red button. He had the singular look of a feral dog ripping apart a meal of gristle and bone. I’d sit and watch him kill an entire pack of cigarettes, extinguishing them in the last swallow of gin in a coffee cup.
My goal was to behave well enough to earn a meager three quarters so I could spend the next 30 minutes playing that game. Looking back now, as repulsive a scene as that should have been, it was bliss. As a kid, I ignored context, I didn’t care about image. I only knew desire. I wanted to play that game. That simple myopic quest overshadowed the reek of booze and smoke. That hideous, anti-social, creature hunched over the controls and screaming at invading aliens was the example of the perfect blend of man and machine. As a kid, I never felt like I was a target of marketing, I just knew that I wanted things. I wanted certain things more than I wanted other things that were in all respects identical, but were not the things I wanted. Marketers, like the grown-up version of me, know this and we try to put that desire in kids. When it comes to marketing videogames to kids, the tactics don’t change; only the intentions do.
The Demographics and Business of Kids’ Games
Videogames for kids is a massive business that often goes ignored by the core gaming audience, but frequently explored and exploited by major game studios. The biggest example of that is probably Ubisoft. While it’s making Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, it’s also making Imagine Animal Doctor Care Center. Selling videogames for kids is a multi-billion dollar industry. Nintendo sold over 30 million Wiis in the US in 2009, and 26% of all Wii gamers are under twelve years old. This is the largest percentage demographic in the Wii’s hardware base. These Wii numbers are dwarfed by the reach of the Nintendo DS series of portable consoles. With over 50 million units in the US and 125 million units worldwide, the DS has nearly reached saturation levels for Nintendo and enjoys a very similar distribution in age. When it comes to hardware reach, Nintendo’s found the perfect platform to engage kids and young gamers.
According to an ESA report, of the nearly 300 million games sold last year, 57% of those were rated “Early Childhood (EC),” “Everyone (E)” or “Everyone 10+ (E10+)”. In 2008, the family entertainment videogame sales doubled to the point where 9 family games were purchased every second. According to a Price Waterhouse & Coopers report, in 2011 the business of videogames for children should reach over 48 billion dollars. This staggering number will probably be altered by the continued sluggish growth of the economy and tightened spending habits by consumers on non-essential goods, but still represents a significant portion of the entire videogame industry.
Marketing to Kids, the Difference Between Targeting and Exposure
I’ve always pictured groups like the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood as a gathering of Helen Lovejoys, flitting from place to place finding corporate evil in everything they see. While I admire the principle of protecting children from manipulative marketing, their habit of cherry picking data and putting every instance of marketing and children as an “EMERGENCY!” is infuriating. For groups like this, when every word on the page is bold, nothing stands out. They fail to see the distinction between targeting children for marketing and children being exposed to marketing. There’s a clear distinction between those events.
When a child is targeted to receive a marketing message, it’s overt. After an episode of Dora the Explorer, there’s a bit that encourages the child to “get the coloring book, the puzzle and the videogame”. Commercials on the cartoon network bleat to their audiences to buy cereal, shoes, videogames and non-toxic calorie substances that resemble food. These ads have been tested, screened and measured for response. The magazines for kids also have similar ads in them. Again, these are planned media purchases that specifically target kids. Even on Nickelodeon’s website, there are three dynamic ads located right in the periphery along the path of a scanning eye.
While marketers directly target kids with their message, the purchasing power is, statistically speaking, with the mother of the family. The purchasing pathway usually starts with an ad that creates the desire in the child. The child then informs the mother that they want the new Thomas the Tank Engine videogame. The mother then scans the information on that game and makes a decision. Another pathway to videogame purchases is that the mother knows their child wants a new game. She scans the children’s section at a department store, filters out a few games that look interesting, looks at the back for a description, and then makes a purchase.
Overt marketing is about creating an awareness of the videogame, then communicating value to the purchaser. It’s the opposite of subliminal and when marketers look at measurements like response rates and increased purchases after ad exposures, they mainly work when the value of the videogame is communicated to the parent and they’re able to make an informed decision.
The second part of the equation is exposure marketing. This is when a product isn’t explicitly targeted to children, but children sometimes get in the way of that marketing. Just recently, I was made aware of this as I was shopping with my 5 year old son at Target. He’s gotten to the point where he loves anything Star Wars, making his geek dad very proud. He was in the middle of telling me that he wanted to find a Darth Vader action figure. We were looking through the display, when he noticed the next section. Adjacent to the Star Wars action figures were the Halo Reach action figures. He asked me which “Star Wars guys” they were. I responded that they weren’t Star Wars, but characters in the videogame Halo, “one of the games that daddy plays”. I noticed that the proximity and the thematic similarities between those two action figures could be considered a form of marketing to kids via exposure.
This kind of marketing could be exploitive. My five year old knows that I play grown up games that he’s not ready to play yet. Since he’s five, he’s only discovering the difference between fantasy and reality. Just the other night, he told me that his Lego robot had ten thousand guns. As a responsible parent, I responded to his “ten thousand gun robot” by telling him, “Superman and Batman are good guys, and they don’t need guns. They need strength and smarts”. My son responded, “Han Solo’s a good guy and he uses a gun”. My logic shattered in his eyes, I moved on and decided not to teach him about the moral ambiguities of smugglers. He’s starting to see the separation of fantasy and reality, but he’s not there yet. Therefore, I don’t let him play games right now that involve killing or shooting yet. Meanwhile, as he’s looking at these terribly cool Halo action figures, he told me, “Someday, I’ll be able to play Halo too”. While this type of branding by proximity didn’t directly target kids, I noticed that the display created a curiosity and a new familiarity with the Halo franchise, which is rated “M”.
Another example of this is purely accidental. When I’m picking up a new game at any retail location, the game Disney/ Pixar’s Cars is nestled between Call of Duty and Castlevania. It’s these kinds of exposures to brands and games that can cause a desire in kids because of the active and attractive package design.
Do Game Companies Market Violent Video Games to Kids?
In 2007, the FTC released the report Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children to Congress. The study found that videogame companies did not specifically target children under 17 to advertising for M-rated videogames. Another finding was that for television shows that are popular with teen and young audiences, commercials for M-rated games have diminished. On the web, it’s a different story. In nearly 45% of the sites that have a large under-17 audience, they still show ads for M-rated games. I’m sure that some would see that last statistic as hard evidence that videogame companies are marketing violent videogames to kids.
As a marketer who’s controlled online advertising for hundreds of clients, a differentiation needs to be made. If I were to contact The Escapist and purchase placement for my ads, that’s what’s called a “media buy”. While the details of media buys vary, it’s an arrangement between a site and an advertiser to show ads. If I were placing media for Epic Games’ Bulletstorm, the last place I would arrange a media buy would be on the Cartoon Network site. I’d be all over Adult Swim’s site, but not Cartoon Network’s.
Another, more common way ads are served is through an advertising portal like Google’s Adwords. There I can set up a banner campaign, set the general categories like “games” and let the ads fly to sites I’ve never even heard of. Websites make an arrangement through Google to show those ads and those ads are displayed with no effort. While both the publisher and the advertiser can filter our particular sites, ads and companies, it’s not a perfect system. Without constant monitoring, it’s very easy for an M-rated game to get advertised on a site popular with kids. Fortunately, from my experience, most advertisers and professional publishers actively monitor the ads and filter our ones that are not appropriate for their audience.
With all that said, the evidence shows that when a M-rated game is marketed to an audience under 17 years old, it’s rarely a targeted campaign. Do marketers target children for violent games? Generally, no. Are children under 17 exposed to marketing for M-rated games? Frequently, yes. Remember EA’s Dante’s Inferno ad during the Super Bowl? As one of the most highly watched TV events, a large portion of that viewing audience was under 17; consequently, they were exposed to the marketing of a M-rated game. Was that audience targeted? Absolutely not.
With the adoption of the ESRB, associations like the EMA, (Entertainment Merchants Association) and The ECA (Entertainment Consumers Association) work hard to educate parents and consumers about the content of the games. Game marketers, developers and publishers understand that marketing a violent videogame to kids would not only be a PR disaster, it would invite investigations and it would hurt sales. When we hear consumer groups clamoring about marketing games to kids, they’re usually talking about the exposure of games to kids. World of Warcraft Mountain Dew can be found at grocery stores. Fast food stores promote movies and videogames. To claim that kids are being targeted to buy violent videogames reveals a distinct misunderstanding and misinterpretation of marketing. While the distinction can be fuzzy, generally when marketing a videogame in a place where all age groups visit, saying they’re marketing videogames to kids is like saying they’re marketing to bald guys.
What Can We, As the Game Purchasing Public, Do?
As a father and as a marketer, I understand that marketing is manipulation. To lessen the influence of marketing on kids, avoid channels that heavily use child-targeted marketing. Using a DVR to fast forward commercials is a great way to stick to the content of the show and not the marketing. Keep educated on the ESRB ratings and use the game purchasing event to display good consumer behavior. Teach kids about comparison shopping. Lastly, use the resources and information provided to you by groups like The Entertainment Consumers Association, (The ECA).
I recounted my own experience with videogames as a child because I remember how badly I wanted to play that game. The desire didn’t come from direct marketing, it came from exposure. Exposure can be a powerful motivator to influence a child, especially when it’s in a media form as innovative and creative as videogames. These kinds of issues, especially as the average age of gamers increases, become more meaningful to us as we start to have families of our own. Understanding and identifying these pressures, whether they come from marketing or whether they come from videogames just being cool , can create teachable moments that can make kids become better equipped to make good consumer decisions.