The games industry has an image problem, and they don't seem to care. I've been following this story over at Game Girl Advance, which describes a rather horrible article at HeraldNet which claims that games are training kids to be killers. The GGA piece goes on to describe the reponse over at Penny-Arcade, which is to band together and get some games and toys for charity (Code Name: Child's Play), in the true spirit of the Holidays, and give them to children at the Seattle Children's Hospital. Kudos, Gabe & crew - What a wonderfully thoughtful thing to do this time of year.
So all of this was floating around the back of my head, when I sat on my couch and saw the first Holiday ads from the gaming companies. Ho-Ho-Boom.
The first one I saw was very tongue in cheek, and wasn't for any game in particular. Its a Sony ad, and all through it it has some Holiday carol (I think it was "Let it Snow" but I'm not 100% sure) playing. Set to the music are scenes of random carnage from various video games: people whacking people with swords, blowing up command posts, firing machine guns, etc. Nothing really particularly gruesome, but all of it violent. Now, I don't *personally* have a problem with this ad, I thought the juxtaposition of Peace on Earth and Soul Caliber II was kind of humorous - but I am ready to admit I am not the standard gamer. Are these ads targeted at gamers, or at people likely to buy games as gifts (ie parents) ? These ads would be perfectly suited to, say, adult swim. The middle of network TV, not as much.
But that was the first one. The second ad put me over the top. It was for Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six. And this one had 'Let Freedom Ring' playing through the whole thing, with scenes of what may very well have been real soldiers at the start of it fading into game characters at the end. It is now appropriate to use national patriotic tunes? That song is connected with the winning of the War of Liberty, and was reused recently in several pieces on Sept. 11th. Now its being used to market a game... HINT: If I want to see real soldiers, I can flip it over to CNN. Doesn't anyone remember that we are over there RIGHT NOW, that our men and women are very much still in harms way? It doesn't feel like the right time to cheapen that marketing a video game. Seems like the time for a nice generic add 'Get the bestselling Rainbow Six at a low low holiday price at your local XXX store'.
Now lets get one thing straight before you all go off flaming me (and I know you will anyway):
1. Do game companies have the right to make these games? Yes. I fully support the right of anyone to make any game about any content. Welcome to Freedom of Speech. I will defend anyone's right to say anything.
2. Do these companies have the right to market them how they choose? Yes, they do. Its their call, they bought the airtime, paid for the billboards, and so long as they aren't expressly promoting the sale of M rated games to minors, they again have the right to do whatever they want.
3. Shouldn't they be making less violent games? (See number 1).
But that doesn't make it a good idea. The fact is that it just isn't timely. Its the Holidays! Peace on Earth and all that. Granted that may not be forefront on everyone's mind as they fight for shopping carts at Target, but at home on the couch this is the time that most of us were taught to pray for Peace and Love. Its a little contradictory to see holiday ads with carnage and mayhem.
The final ad I saw on Thanksgiving was the one (to my mind) that got it right. Again the holiday jingle, again the lights and snowflakes. But this time just a simple 'Happy Holidays' message from Nintendo, with a silver Game Boy Advance. Simple, and probably less memorable, but to my mind better.
Maybe I just don't understand marketing and these other ads are ridiculously more effecticve. It is a forgone conclusion that the Holidays will sell a bazillioin games, the question is always how many zillion and which games do it. Perhaps these ads are just harmless, mindless fun. But what it seems like is that the gaming companies are thumbing their nose at the whole 'violence in games' issue, that they just don't give a damn, and that they think its all kind of funny. Do they have the right to say this? Sure they do. But I'm not convinced that is the best strategy, particularly at this time of year.