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A Brief History of Advergaming

by Rachael Katz

Once upon a time, when video games were still young and awkward, a couple of consumer food brands with gutsy PR departments decided to have a go at the virtual playground. They partnered up with video game moguls like Capcom, Sega, and Nintendo to develop new games starring their bizarre spokescreatures like the jazzy, anthropomorphic California Raisins and Chester Cheetah. Despite their shoddy quality, snack food sidescrollers and platformers including The Grape Escape and Chester Cheetah: Too Cool to Fool ostensibly increased their products’ sales.

Occasionally brands sought the same end by villainizing competitors: Coke’s ludicrous Pepsi Invaders concluded with the words ‘COKE WINS’ triumphantly written in lights across the 8-bit sky. From this first crop, young gamers learned to love these products via a metamorphosis into brands’ cartoonish personalities. Kids automatically aligned with each respective product against the evils of its home universe, making a choice for that brand in the real world a fairly certain conclusion. A campy premise and a younger target demographic were enough to launch a video game that existed solely for the brand.

Since the prehistoric days of advergaming, the transparent strategy of monopolizing the game world through an embodied mascot has mostly been ditched for a more savvy attempt at realistic product placement—with a few exceptions including Burger King’s Sneak King for Xbox 360, wherein players surprise hungry people with hamburgers as The King himself.

 Video games offer particularly lush marketing opportunities because they allow us to exist as agents in the digital beyond, a fantasy realm we’ve merely glimpsed through other media. Many gamers inhabit these projected realities as if they are preferable parallel universes, and so the branded products they use there are not only authentic but a part of a desired alternative. Even for those who dabble in these simulated spaces, the experience of consumerism is very real. A commercial may ask us to imagine ourselves rinsing with Listerine or devouring a toaster strudel by signifying an actor as our experiential proxy, but in video game, we identify with brands as ourselves—even if we, in that moment, happen to be a baseball player or a legion of dwarves. In fact, it could even be argued that we enact more control over our consumer identities as we make choices that our in-game selves pursue immediately and confidently. We are in that sense, perfect customers.

So, it would stand to reason that advergaming would change over time to cater to our revolving needs as active consumers. The shift towards product placement as the primary form of advertising in video games in the late 1990s followed a shift from adolescence to adulthood, or a coming-of-age in the gaming domain, both in average player age and the industry’s self-image. Another, more general maturational shift occurred as well: through the ‘90s consumers became more aware, if not more critical, of branding tactics. Companies wanting to advertise to the target demographic—primarily male, aged 18-35—now had to slip their sunglasses (a crossover conquest for Ray-Ban in the Men in Black game) and Pizza Huts (in Sega’s unforgettable Crazy Taxi) into realistic gaming worlds. By 2001, when Dole stickers appeared on every banana in Super Monkey Ball, agencies could convincingly make the argument that such brand placement made the banana itself more realistic—never mind the plastic monkeys or abstracted terrain. Realism, of course, being what game players desire before all else.

That realism, or rather interactivity, was after all what set the game apart from other forms of digital media. In-game advertising as an aesthetic enterprise followed the transition that the games themselves were making into comprehensive simulations of real-world activities and characters. Even when the animation in video games was not intended to be filmic, the feel of the game or interactive element was to be as real (read: holistic) as possible. So when Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza and Enter the Matrix dropped in 2002 and 2003, they became two major crossover opportunities for cell phone companies—Motorola and Samsung respectively—that already had product placement deals with film franchises

Perhaps the most extensive way product placement has accompanied gaming’s evolution into experiential realism involves products already ubiquitous in our daily lives. Such pervasive items beg us to visually anticipate them as they exist for us intact, brand and all, in the game. So when we see Zippo lighters (Die Hard, 2002) or Energizer batteries (Alan Wake, 2010) in a game world, we synthesize the virtual space more readily rather than recognize the brand’s infiltration of it. It appears we prefer that simulation of realism, even if it includes an overbearing smear of banner branding, to an antiquated interface without labels. Such an overt signification of our consumerhood might seem to harken back to old two-dimensional platforms—as if a label actually contributes to our experience of dimensionality.

Thus, some game developers even place products for free. What this kind of interpolative product placement does for the brand is similarly constructed: if self-identified gamers in the United States play a minimum of fourteen hours of games per week, then during perhaps the few moments of their daily lives in which they are not directly interacting with brands (eating, shopping, etc.), they are now experiencing the same brands in a virtual world. Gamers use products instead of watching products as they’re used by a third-party intermediary: active simulation rather than passive observation. In doing so, they take the role of the advertiser and the consumer. For branding agencies, this is the golden combination.

In niche markets like racing or motorsports games, this assumption of real-world brand loyalty comes standard, with car companies contributing not only to the realism but the desirability of a particular item. Because lifelike representations of rugged as well as luxury brands assimilate so fluidly into this gaming experience, it has in some cases appeared that the relationship with product design can now operate in reverse. Despite the skepticism of Halo enthusiasts, GM denied in 2008 that the HX concept compact SUV was in any way inspired by the Warthog all-terrain vehicle from the game.

Even when this kind of product placement is applied beneath a layer of heavy irony—which, being postmodern consumers, we appreciate—it still accomplishes the point of interaction with the brand. In the first-person shooter Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, players pick through a supposed 1970s-era jungle in search of Doritos and Mountain Dew, coming upon branded cans of soda like some airdropped offering from the peace operatives at Pepsi Corporate. Creator Hideo Kojima, when asked about his decision, claimed that he simply wanted to surprise players.

Kojima’s model more closely resembles this post-product-placement-era branding ideology that aspires to saturation rather than realism. The hyperbolic brand-driven game represents the newest and most shameless kind of advergaming. But—and herein is the contemporary moment—there is a shamelessness we forgive because we are able to conceive of ourselves as complicit in it. Advergaming as it exists now relies on our fascination with in-game branding as a visible, even gaudy, device. In advergames, instead of the brands accompanying traditional genre-based storylines, they inhabit or replace them altogether.

With this new set of rules, we’ve come full circle: games are again created for the sake of the brand, just as in the mascot days. But it’s different than when we were Chester Cheetah swaggering through neon cutout landscapes. Brands can offer a sponsorship to a particular developer, such as Adidas’s partnership with Deca Sports, or set up games on their home websites, like Coke Zero’s absurd It’s Possible, in which players simply complete three dates with three girls in one night (any guesses on the target demographic for that one?). Most major food and beverage brands (of varying quality) now have at least one online game featuring their products in an array of scenarios. More and more companies now create apps for Android and iPhone—Chobani has created an elaborate app called Champlify that among other yogurt-related antics, enables you to see augmented 3-D versions of yogurt-lid graphics only by using your smartphone.

Several recent games go so far as to make the searching out and identification of brand names its central task, including Fashion Finder: Secrets of Fashion, in which 150 fashion brands participated, and Brandmania: Hidden Objects, an app created for the iPad, which sends players to different cities around the world to identify major brand logos “hidden” in realistic scenery. These kinds of games ask us to train a critical eye on a scene while simultaneously reinforcing every brand image they represent.

The height of this participatory advergaming might just be Friskies’s air-hockey-style game that allows players to go head-to-head with their cats, a game in which not only players but their cats are playing with an iPad in support of the Friskies brand. Friskies also developed three games that are designed for a cat to play without its owner—yes, games for lonely cats with iPads. Of course, this new kind of interface still requires our buy-in, but it’s amazing what we’ve given brands license to do. It’s kinky, kind of.