A Better Approach to Advertising

A Better Approach to Advertising

There are a few common reasons why advertisers want to use video games to reach consumers.

One is the belief that video games are a place to recover the waning audiences of television advertising. The highly desirable, seemingly elusive 18-34 male demographic is often, unfairly, assumed to correspond directly to video game players. What better way to retrieve these “lost” consumers than to inject billboard and video advertising into their sci-fi shooters and fantasy role-playing games?

Would an orc order pizza? Does a dystopian planet from the future need a pacer drink? In most video games, advertisements become parodies of themselves. An alternate version of this principle swaps young men for middle-aged women, and console games for casual puzzle games, where branded objects replace abstract tokens.

Another motivation is advertisers’ ongoing interest in targeting children. People assume video games are for kids (as well as young adult males). Everyone from greedy candy makers to hopeful science educators to earnest charitable organizations wants to reach kids early with messages to buy, to learn, or to become aware. What better way to speak to the kiddies than via Mario platformer look-alikes or custom virtual worlds that extend a favorite franchise?

Unfortunately, advergames and educational titles for kids underestimate the sophistication that children exhibit at play. Titles like Pokemon, Animal Crossing, or Zoo Tycoon require patience, deep knowledge and sophisticated reasoning.

Yet another reason revolves around visibility. No matter the intended audience, games get attention. These days, every musician, politician, and non-profit cause has a MySpace page, a Facebook profile and a YouTube channel. Video games offer a sure-fire way to attract new attention in a noisy world. Major press outlets will cover a game without ever playing it, so quality matters less than curiosity. In fact, an entire genre of computer-enabled games played partly in real-world environments, known as Alternate Reality Games (or ARGs), have been funded almost exclusively by advertisers as a way to garner the kind of front-page news stories money can’t buy directly.

But the features of video games that make them powerful communication tools cannot be found in their demography, or their puerility, or their peculiarity. Rather, they are located in the very way they make meaning. In games, players take on roles constrained by rules. In play, we become other people, in a different situation, and try out life in their shoes. This is a powerful idea that has the potential for both commercial and social benefit.

For a long time now, advertisers have sold desires rather than competing for needs. They have lured us into buying products that represent the lives we aspire to, but don’t actually lead. They do this by plastering our world with images of these fantasy lives in the hope that we will buy untold products and services in a vain attempt to bridge the endless chasm between lives of mundane, suburban debt and lives of lithe, hypersexed outdoorsmanship.

But video games don’t just project images – they simulate experiences. For the first time since the quaint sponsor spots of the golden age of television, we have in the video game a medium that can actually make claims about the features, functions, benefits and drawbacks of products and services. Or of public policies and causes, for that matter.

This untapped potential of games upsets the very foundation of advertising as we know it. Instead of surrounding us with images that reflect lives unlived, games can allow us to try out hypothetical lives with new products, people and ideas. To realize this potential, advertisers of both goods and viewpoints must stop blindly inserting their billboards into games or creating feeble copies of the cornerstones of video game pop culture. Instead, they must start simulating the products, public policy positions, charitable interventions and other worldly ideas in new games – games worthy of our attention.

In a video game marketplace overflowing with sports, fantasy and war, one need only look to The Sims, which recetly sold its 100 millionth unit, to see the untapped potential of games to be about real lives instead of fantasy ones.

* Editor’s Note: For more articles by Ian Bogost, please visit his blog.

About Ian Bogost
Dr. Ian Bogost is a videogame designer, critic, and researcher. He is Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC. Recent volumes include Persuasive Games and Newsgames: Journalism at Play.

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