Wednesday, January 03, 2007

An Advergame By Any Other Name...

Ian Bogost has published a new feature on the Burger King advergames, or "promogames" as he has termed this particular incarnation, over at Serious Games Source. He argues that we need to understand the emergence of these types of games as more promotional than ad-based, arguing:
We use the name advergames to describe video games whose primary purpose is to promote a company’s brand, products, or services through gameplay. [...] I suggest a new way to understand this intersection of advertising and videogames. I give the name promogames to video games whose primary purpose is to promote the purchase of a product or service secondary or incidental to the game itself. [...] While advergames promote the company, promogames offer an incentive to consume the company’s goods independent of the game’s representational properties.

Many of the distinctions he raises to argue his point are certainly worthy of consideration--including the observation that advergames are usually casual web-based games aimed at selling a particular product, whereas these new forms of promotional games are console-based and aimed at drawing an audience in for some immersive brand exposure. However, I'm not sure I agree that more immersive forms of branding and advertising (such as those found in the Burger King games) deserve this level of differentiation. Advertising in most media formats has been focusing on brand exposure (loyalty, goodwill, etc.) and meta-level promotional strategies for years now, and yet these ads still qualify as ads. Promotion, marketing, and advertising strategies are increasingly integrated and cross-referential--their sophistication in some contexts seem to exceed traditional definitions, and yet their basic function and surrounding political economic processes remain consistent...as do the growing implications for audiences.

I also question the uniqueness of the Burger King strategy, particularly when considered in contrast with longstanding branding/promotional traditions of cross-media synergy found within the children's "supersystem". For example, Bogost points out that while "In-game placements and advertisements have certainly graced the Xbox 360 [...], but the Burger King games are the first titles developed from the ground up for that platform as advertisement." While this may indeed be the case (although I'd argue that Viva Pinata may in fact hold this title), other consoles and formats have definitely featured a variety of promo/advergames, making the XBox 360 distinction somewhat unimpressive. The Lego Star Wars games come to mind immediately.

Bogost likens the Burger King game strategy to that applied by McDonald's Happy Meals. He explains, "Burger King used these games as a lure to draw Xbox owners into their stores to buy a Value Meal. This and this alone was the primary goal of the games. [...]In the world of marketing, this strategy is called promotion. Promotions offer an incentive to patronize a vendor, which may have little or nothing to do with the business’s products and services." Perhaps--although the branded aspects of the games themselves should not be underestimated. The fact remains that the games feature the restaurant chain's mascot (the creepy King from the television ads), but also integrate food products into the very fabric of gameplay. His later example of giving away a copy of Halo with purchase of a particular (though unrelated) product is perhaps more in tune with the "games as promotion" distinction he is trying to argue. I remain unconvinced that the game's contents are not of primary significance to Burger King's overall strategy here.

The fact that Burger King claims to have sold 2 million copies as of December 20, 2006, at first glance seems to support Bogost's claim that the primary goal of the campaign is to sell accommpanying yet somewhat unrelated products. Or does it? Considering that an average of 1 in 4 Americans visits a fast food restaurant every day, and that obesity rates in the US are now a staggering 60% , reaching the 2 million mark among a possible pool of 75 million potential customers does not seem all that extraordinary. What strikes me the most about all the hoopla around the Burger King games is the lack of supporting evidence that people really are going out of their way to buy the games--that the games really are drawing in new customers, a la Happy Meal--or that anyone is actually playing them.

The commercialization of game content, while certainly not new, is slowly but consistently reaching extreme new levels of pervasiveness and sophistication, a process that has thus far escaped governmental regulation or any coherent public awareness (the one exception being the campaign to ban junk food and fast food advergames, which I'm sure Susan Linn and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood will now turn toward the Burger King games). A more useful exercise for understanding how advergames or "promogames" operate within the larger media matrix is, I think, is to expand our definitions of advertising and other commercial practices, and to situate their new manifestations within larger socio-historical contexts. From a political economic perspective, I think it is more useful to see the Burger King games as the next evolution in "immersive advertising" rather than isolate them from their obvious origins in web-based advergames and cross-media branding initiatives. In this respect, I think that Bogost's last point is particularly apt and timely:
Games like these show us that a single perspective on advertising games is not only an inadequate way to understand the intersection of these two worlds today, but that it wasn’t even adequate twenty-five years ago. No matter one’s opinion about the relative merits or dangers of advertisers’ continued invasion of video games, we must try to understand approaches to game-based advertising in complex ways—not just as serious games developers or advertisers interested in creating new games, but also as game players interested in understanding how and why brand companies seek to persuade us to consume their products.

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