There's a reason you and I love to play video games. It's the same reason we love watching action movies and reading the newspaper and listening to talk radio. It's the true reason for why we watch professional sports, including the Super Bowl.
I'm talking about advertising.
On the rare occasion I'm not being bombarded with logos, slogans, jingles and billboard ads—or basically any moment when I realize it's been longer than two minutes since I've purchased something from an online retailer, big box store, franchise restaurant chain or international beverage company—I just get depressed. I panic. I get this dreadful feeling like my life has no purpose, that I have no purpose. Then I'll check my computer or I'll turn on the radio. Or I'll look up at the frighteningly calm blue sky and—to my relief—see a sponsored blimp flying by, and I'll remember my place in this world as some mega corporation's valued consumer.
I had one of these life-saving moments yesterday while playing Alan Wake on the Xbox 360 [pick yours up today!]. My character Alan had woken up in some kind of therapy lodge for troubled artists (crazy individuals who create things for life-fulfilling purposes). Out of the blue this nice rustic lodge started turning into something out of a Stephen King novel [available from Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.]. Poltergeist objects started chasing me through the halls, and this dark howling presence was taking over. The orchestral score was swirling at high crescendo as my character fled into a small room with a suspended television set. Curious, I turned on the television. And this happened...
I've seen some blatant product placement in video games, but this has got to be the most bizarre example I have ever encountered. Two commercials, sixty seconds long, one for Mustang Drift and another for Verizon.
How did this happen? How much money did Verizon pay to have this commercial inserted in the middle of the game? Did Ford pay more money to have their commercial come on before the Verizon commercial?
What's even more incredible is the game gives the player a “Boob Tube” gamerscore achievement for turning on this particular television set. An achievement for watching a third-party product advertisement! I say “this particular television set” because there are several others throughout the game. Some TVs turn on automatically and show short segments of the game's paranoid character in an isolated writing study and narrating to the camera, and it's part of the psychological mystery of the game. There also are a few other TV sets the player can manually turn on, and these sets air short film clips from a fictional TV series called Night Springs, a clear parody of The Twilight Zone. They're clever little diversions that bring some humorous comic relief to a high-action thriller of a game. That's what makes this mid-game advertisement so jarring. It's unexpected and initially confusing, and then it's over. The player realizes it was just a generic advertisement. There's nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. One might say it's an out-of-game or real life advertisement, and yet it's playing on that virtual in-game TV screen!
Product placement is kind of a funny topic. It's been in film for decades, made notably famous in 1982's E.T. and the young Elliott character's predilection for Reese's Pieces candy. It's become an omnipresent trend in blockbusters ever since, but not without some backlash. There are people on the side of director Michael Bay, perhaps the king of Hollywood product placement, who argues that brand bombardment is a reflection of reality. Then there are critics more on the side of David Lynch, who describes product placement as having a putrefying effect on the filming environment.
At any rate, it should come as no surprise product placement has become an embedded practice in our precious video games medium as well. Where there's a large enough audience, there are corporate sponsors willing to pony up for a piece of the space, be it physical or virtual. Some video games are barely more than product advertisements to begin with. Anyone else remember the comic book ads for Yo! Noid on the Nintendo?
The first in-game advertisement I can remember was, oddly enough, in King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne. It was an Easter Egg trailer for the same developer Sierra OnLine's Space Quest game. Midway through the game King Graham comes upon a screen where there is a large rock with a conspicuous hole. This being a King's Quest game, the astute player will be curious and—much like an Alan Wake player switching on the TV set—type “look in hole.” A humorous diversion commences.
The first time I really remember seeing blatant third-party product placement, however, happened several years later. It occurred in the Nintendo 64 version of Rush 2: Extreme Racing USA. The racing genre has probably always been among the most prone to potential product placement, simply because players enjoy the simulative aspect of being able to drive replica cars from name-brand auto manufacturers. The use of auto brands fits pretty comfortably and inconspicuously into the virtual universe of the game. It makes a certain amount of sense (as a counter example, the Nintendo 64 also had Beetle Adventure Racing!, which was a bit more conspicuous and came out shortly after initial production of the Volkswagen New Beetle). But it wasn't the car brands in Rush 2 that I noticed. It was the collectible Mountain Dew can icons scattered around the various tracks. This was obviously some paid soda-company placement, one of many examples of Mountain Dew cashing in on the “extreme” sports and lifestyle marketing blitz that permeated so much of youth pop culture during the late 1990s.
A couple years later I played Crazy Taxi for the Sega Dreamcast. In addition to the licensed music soundtrack (a feature that was becoming more and more commonplace for CD-based games) the game featured full-on product advertising for Pizza Hut, KFC, Tower Records, FILA and Levi's. This was more noticeable than ever as the advertising wove directly into the fabric of the central game-playing experience. Whereas some in-game taxi passengers had to get to some generic destination like the church or the sports stadium, others would spout out something like, “I need to get to the Levi's store!” I remember thinking this was pretty cool at the time. Not only did it lend the game environment a more familiar-to-life quality, it was just novel seeing an actual Pizza Hut restaurant rendered with such high-resolution (at the time) detail in a virtual open environment.
Since then the practice has become quite a bit more commonplace. Splinter Cell games from Ubisoft had players interacting with virtual Sony Ericsson phones (not to mention zip-lining past giant Axe deodorant billboards, among other things). The titular character of Alan Wake uses Energizer batteries, drives a Ford automobile and has Verizon cellphone service. There are many examples to be found.
I'm not going to necessarily take some high and righteous stand against in-game advertising and its affront on the artistic integrity of the medium. Well, all right, maybe I sort of am. The thing is I don't work in the games industry. It's not really my call. It's the game developers and publishers that have to make their own decisions both about the business and the artistic integrity (or lack thereof) of their individual projects. I've had a hard time tracking down concrete numbers for the amount of revenue generated from the practice of in-game advertising, but one group previously estimated the amount to be about $370 million in 2006 and growing to $2 billion by this year. I would imagine much of the current growth of the in-game advertising market has to do with social and mobile gaming, in addition to console games.
I will say that some games have been able to make great artistic statements about consumer culture through the parody of corporate branding. I've already alluded to the Space Quest series so I might as well do it again. The third game in the old adventure game series introduced a fictional space-age fast food franchise called Monolith Burger where the player character has to stop and fulfill some quest-triggering tasks. The experience at the burger joint involves waiting in line and ordering from a huge menu of products, then sitting at a window-side booth and eating the meal. If the player eats too much the character will later have to stop and vomit before re-boarding the docked spaceship. Developer Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV makes mind-boggling use of corporate parody through fake Internet ads, fake company billboards and all kinds of parodied franchises, including fast food restaurants. I'm not sure there is anything funnier than walking into a virtual GTA IV Burger Shot joint restaurant and having the customer service kid behind the counter greet the player with … well, watch this video (profanity).
Let's face it. Grand Theft Auto games would not be what they are if they had to kowtow to demands of corporate sponsors. Financial independence means creative independence. This sort of parody has a way of holding a mirror up to society and thus exposing its foibles and absurdities. Corporate product placement in games, I would argue, has more of a numbing, normalizing effect, further acclimating the masses to the ubiquity of public relations in every facet of our daily lives.
There's an interesting niche of post-modern philosophy and rhetorical criticism called hyperreality. Hyperreality deals with the concept of the human consciousness and its hypothetical inability to distinguish reality from simulated reality. Mass media and technology play a huge role in this discussion. For example, say a child grows up in a suburban home watching television shows that portray other suburban homes of similar décor and substance. A critical-minded child might grow up to question which came first, the so-called “real-life” suburban home or the simulated suburban reality depicted through the television—sort of a chicken/egg scenario. Does the TV living room look like the real-life living room or is the real-life living room made to look like the TV living room? What exactly is imitating what? Which is the copy? What is authentic? That's probably a poor description, but hopefully it points to something worth thinking about.
Sometimes I shudder at the conditioning effect of ubiquitous trends, be it in technology, advertising—you name it. Isn't our culture saturated enough with crazy consumerist mindsets and false implanted needs for certain goods and services? Did anyone happen to notice how many outraged Wall Street occupiers went around equipped with Apple iPhones and their high-cost service plans? I don't mean to judge, but are smart phones the new entitlement (just like bubble-priced, debt-mounting houses and college tuitions during the 2000s)? It seems to me the human race has precious few battlegrounds left to fight off the perception, if not the reality, of mega-corporate dominance. Why continue to normalize this practice if we can help it? How far removed are we from the world of Network, where everything we do—whether we acknowledge it or not—is for the glory of Dow Chemical, Starbucks and NBC Universal and their subsidiaries?
Or, as David Lynch asks, "What kind of a world is this?"
Final Disclaimer: I did not spend money to play Alan Wake. I'm borrowing it from a friend. (I'm not sure if that makes me a bad person.)