What lessons can we learn from Monopoly Here & Now that might apply to advertising in commercial videogames? Most developers are concerned with the appropriateness of brands in games, and even large publishers have shown their unwillingness to hock in-game space even at high premiums—EA canceled their plans to sell brand placement in The Sims 2 after their failed experiments with Intel and McDonald’s in The Sims Online.
Yet some developers and players also believe that branding is appropriate when it enhances realism in a game. This principle is usually cited in reference to urban and sports environments, which are littered with advertising in the real world.
In this case, realism means visual authenticity—correct appearances. But Monopoly Here & Now doesn’t include brands for the sake of appearance—just about any icon would have looked fine. Instead, it includes the brands to add contemporary social values to the game.
In addition to promotion, in-game ads and product placements also have the potential to carry the cultural payload of the brands that mark them. Such inclusion signals a design strategy different from visual authenticity—after all, it doesn’t really matter much whether billboards and sports arenas carry real ads or fake ones. Instead, brands might be used in the service of the authenticity of practice. Brands are built around values, aspirations, experiences, history, and ideas. Consumers make associations with brands when both are put together in particular contexts.
We might lament the prominence of material consumption in culture, but that prominence is also undeniable. No matter one’s opinion, games have not yet made much use of branding as a cultural concept.
I tried to use branding for social commentary in Disaffected,a videogame critique of the Kinko’s copy store that uses the chain’s brand reputation for rotten customer service in a satirical commentary. And Mollendistria’s McDonald’s Videogame uses that company’s brand reputation for massive worldwide industrialization to expose the social dangers of global fast-food. The branding in these games is unauthorized; the games critique rather than promote these companies; I’ve suggested the name anti-advergames for this type of social critique.5
Of course, unauthorized brand abuse in large commercial games might not be possible or desirable. But brands’ cultural values can still be used as a bridge between visual appearance and game mechanics. In some cases, it might be easier for a player to understand the behavior of a character, situation, or idea when aspects of that behavior can be offloaded from the simulation into a branded product or service.
Think of it this way: what can you infer about a person who drives a Mitsubishi Lancer, or wears Manolo Blahnik shoes? Arguably, this strategy used to be the primary way brands made their way into games. In Gran Turismo or Flight Simulator, specific brands of vehicles contribute to players’ expectations when they get behind the wheel or the yoke.
This doesn’t apply only to “lovemarks,” the name ad executive Kevin Roberts has given to brands people grow to love rather than just recognize (Apple, Starbucks, LEGO are examples).6 It also applies to less desirable brands that still convey social values—think of Edsel, Betamax, or Pan Am. Historical brands that have passed their prime still carry extremely complicated cultural currency. What comes to mind when you think of L.A. Gear, Hypercolor, or Ocean Pacific?
If we think of brands as markers for complex social behavior, we can also imagine recombining brands’ encapsulated social values in new contexts: the Yugo stagecoach; the Preparation H-needing blood elf. These are perhaps silly examples—and some developers might fear that they represent in-game advertising’s worst threat: advertising’s colonization of even the most incompatible games. But like the creators of Monopoly Here & Now, game designers should recognize that there might be times when advertising could actually enhance a design, not just take away from it.
You can use advertising to exploit cultural preconceptions about known items that then serve as a kind of shorthand for aspects of your game world. And that sort of attitude turns the tables on in-game advertisers, making advertising a tool in the hands of the designer, rather than one in the hands of the brand, agency, or network.
6. Kevin Roberts, Lovemarks: The Future Beyond Brands (NY: Power House Books, 2005). For a collection of lovemarks, visit Robert’s companion website at http://www.lovemarks.com.