Although it will take time for it become apparent, this is a Round Table entry on the topic of advertising in games.
For as long as I can recall, I've been designing games. When I was nine years old, I adapted arcade games like Joust to the playground and invented new games which were played using the tramlines painted on the tarmac for tennis and other sports. However, it took me some time before I came to the realisation that I could actually get paid a decent wage for my skills. Mostly, this was because until the mid-nineties, I was focused on the economic ghetto of boardgames and tabletop role-playing games and had not really considered video games as a career option. Then, I stumbled upon an ad in a national newspaper while I was foraging for gainful employment, and suddenly I was making money from designing games instead of losing it.
I don't think that it's literally the case that I will design games for food - although if you throw in some shelter I might bite. The point is that despite my childhood belief that I would end up working as a scientist, I instead have ended up working as a professional game designer. And it feels right - I've found a craft. There are few more gratifying things in life than discovering a perfect fit between one's skills and desires and an economic niche.
A question I face from time to time is where the boundaries of my ethics coincide with my job. Or, to put it another way, what wouldn't I do for money?
It turns out that I'm not that motivated by money. Despite the cultural hysteria that erroneously conflates money with happiness, in my life I have found that the endless pursuit of money is a treadmill with little to offer but Sisyphean toil. Most people I know who are on very high incomes lack the time to do anything with the money. Not to mention the real trap of higher earnings: one's cost of living rises to match one's income - which means no matter how much money you earn, your lifestyle will alter to become correspondingly more expensive and you will end up no happier than you were to begin with. I have met millionaires and I have met Africans living in poverty. The Africans are, on the whole, considerably happier.
A corporation offers its employees a Faustian contract. Work for me, and I will give you riches beyond measure. The small print is that the corporation will take from you your time - and money without time is all but worthless. Although it must be said, when one is supporting a family, the rules of the game become somewhat different.
Despite this, I am not against corporations - although we need to be vigilant and ensure that the corporations serve us and not the other way around. In particular, a corporation by the very nature of its scale is capable of wondrous things. It's hard to imagine that we would have agreed global media standards (such as DVDs), or gaming consoles, or airplanes without large-scale economic entities to make such fanciful propositions viable. Imagine the political tensions inside the alliance required to make such things happen if all economic activity was organised into small scale groups!
Advertising serves two basic roles for a company or corporation: it can create awareness of a product or service, or it can manufacture demand for a product or service. The former seems an essential element in commerce - if you cannot make people aware of what you are selling, how will anyone buy it? The latter is more questionable. For instance, if advertising makes our children believe that they must possess brand name clothing and shoes, the social effects of that advertising can include either familial tension or extended poverty. I find this hard to justify.
As far as I know, the notion of product placement is a comparatively recent one. The basic idea is simple: the producers of some form of media accepts money from a corporation in return for the prominent placement of their merchandise. The idea is that people see the brand, and it becomes legitimatised through association. I've never seen a study that proved that the method works, but it's plausible that it does. We are imitative beings, and never as smart as we think. In particular, our media stars wield great influence, and people imitate their actions and behaviour for psychological reasons as deep as our tribal roots.
We more or less accept product placement in TV and films - although there are calls for such deals to be made public, which strikes me as a necessary step. We would be less keen for product placement in art, I presume. The Mona Lisa with eyebrows by Max Factor.
But commercial games are not art, but entertainment. Yes, some games achieve artistic goals, just as some films achieve artistic goals despite being commercially motivated. But money is provided to make games so that the game can make money. The play we get out of a game is the service for which we have paid our money, such is the contract of sale between the player and the shop. (And, as a note, the only legal right you have as a player is to take the game back to the store if it is not of merchantable value). Upper market games are just too expensive to be art - no angel investor is ready to stump up the cash for a multi-million dollar arthouse game (although if you are such an angel, by all means get in touch with me!)
In this light, advertising in games is to a certain extent inevitable. Development costs in the upper market are rising, and the money has to come from somewhere. Even the most ingenious design isn't going to grow the potential audience for any given game by a great margin, and most upper market games are actually rather poorly designed. Accepting advertising in games is therefore a means to reduce the risk of development.
Why should you care about risk? Only because the escalating risk of game development means that people in the games industry lack any reasonable job security. I would like to think that no matter how cynical you are, you still believe that the people who make the games you enjoy deserve some basic peace of mind. This is hard to achieve when you work for ten companies in a row which go bankrupt before they release their first game.
More than this, advertising in games can lend authenticity. In the context of games of mimicry (a highly significant aspect of play), the absence of real world products can reduce the sense of immersion. The appeal of the Gran Turismo series is enhanced by the authenticity of its cars - in effect, a form of product placement. Although there's nothing wrong with the comedy brands of the Grand Theft Auto universe (I particularly like Gash), the game world could be made to feel more authentic by including real brands. This has the added benefit that we can then abuse those brands inside the game world - I look forward to my first opportunity to crash a truck into a virtual McDonalds!
I also believe that product placement in games will prove less effective than product placement in movies and on TV. Millions of susceptible individuals might emulate what they see a movie star doing - but in a game, it is you who is acting. The context is very different. Still, it will serve to provide that first role of advertising - awareness of what the company in question is selling.
One of the games on my design horizon will be funded in whole or part by advertising. The game will be set in a particular city, and therefore the inclusion of real world elements seems quite beneficial to the mimicry of the game - the fact that this inclusion will also provide development costs is an added benefit.
I would draw the line at advertising something about which I have moral qualms - I would never work on a game that mindlessly glamourised a nation's army, for instance, although I might work on a game that explored the complex issues of deploying military forces as peacekeeping forces, and I would gladly work on a game that glamourised the value of using the military for disaster relief - something that I hope will eventually become one of the key reasons for nations to invest in their military.
In this regard, as in all things, the key is to ensure that our moral compass is in clear perspective. We should neither work on, nor purchase, a game which violates our moral or ethical principles - whatever they might be. Our most basic defense against corporations is economic boycott: you may feel that as individual you wield no influence, but refusing to purchase from a particular company is voting with your wallet, and it does work. Just look at South Africa.
But when I say that advertising in games is inevitable, this is not the same as saying that it will be universal. There will always be games which make their way to market without advertising, and it's hard (for example) to imagine your fantasy heroine purchasing Ye Small Coke from a traveling merchant.
I believe, as a person who has found his craft, that it is better to make something than to make nothing. If advertising means something gets made that otherwise would not, then as long as what is being made meets somebody's play needs, I believe it's worthwhile. But I am mindful that in accepting advertising, I am walking on a dangerous boundary. I must ensure that I draw the line at anything that violates my ethics or morals. I think I'm up to the task - but if I'm not, I hope that you will call me on it.
My usual disclaimer applies to the opening image: no violation of copyright is intended. I don't know who to credit for it, but I will happily do so if told, or take it down if asked.