GDC 2005: SGS: Advergaming by Ian Bogost

I am archiving older pieces I have written on other sites, making this the definitive home for all my work. This is one of several I am porting over from my GameDev.Net user journal. Enjoy!

(From the Serious Games Summit)

Who'd-a thunk a session on advertising in gaming, games as advertisement and so forth could be so exciting?! Ian Bogost provided a huge amount of thought-provoking material, a sampling of which I will try to present here.

First of all, what is advergaming? "A combination of gaming with advertising messages." This includes advertising as media communications in general, such as:

  • Product placement: Tony Hawk Pro Skater's use of actual brands; Tapper's use of Budweiser; Super Monkey Ball's inclusion of special Dole bananas; and The Sims having Intel-branded PCs in-game;
  • Licenses and sponsorships: Spider-Man 2, where the ambience and history of the comic book character and world serve as the template for the game environment and provide premises; Playboy: The Mansion, where it isn't so much the magazine product as the idea of running the magazine that provides context; CoCo Ichibanya (GameSpot review), which takes a popular curry house (think something socially equivalent to a McDonald's) and builds a game around the process of serving the customers coming through the door, and you have to be careful to get the ingredient mixture right as well as serve customers before they get upset and leave; and Kool-Aid Man (now that's old school!);
  • Custom Build Advergames: The plethora of Nabiscoworld games, which drive a brand through activities that are peripherally tied, at best; Jeep Mountain Madness, in which the player gains access to the game in exchange for some personal data from which Chrysler might be able to generate sales leads; Howard Dean for Iowa, which Ian developed; and America's Army; and
  • A variety of "Edge Cases," such as EverQuest II's in-game pizza ordering facility; the Pepsi-branded Nintendo DS,; and Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom.

Bogost posits that there are fundamentally two types of advertising: demonstrative advertising, which provides direct information about a product and provides the opportunity to learn something about product use - your typical Tide commercial - and associative advertising, which seeks to attach an attitude or sensibility to a product or brand ("Wear Nike; be a champion!") Associative advergames, he says, are more pervasive.

Several parties are involved in advergaming - ad agencies, web agencies, sweepstakes agencies, brand managers and game developers - and the only one that knows anything about games, the game developers, know little to nothing about advertising and how to communicate advertising concepts effectively to both the consumer and the client or representing agency. Traditional advertising is married to quantitative measures such as Nielsen ratings of how many people were watching a show and, thus, probably watching the ads between the show, but there is evidence that these metrics do not have much value. Advertising, he says, is in a crisis in that traditional television ads (which represent the bulk of ad revenues) are being usurped by time-delay habits (TiVo), the internet, video games, etc.

This represents a huge opportunity for game developers and advergames, but to take advantage of it they need to understand how to communicate effectively. "Qualitative results oriented toward intermediat goals are key."

Practice how to explain and document gameplay, especially for ad agencies that typically concern themselves with how a product/ad looks more than anything else. Align early and often, in terms of getting other parties to see your point of view and support your approach/objective. Prototypes are good and bad: good because they help explain how gameplay works, bad because they typically look like crap (see above).

Watch your IP.

Gotta run. Have another session in 2 minutes!