In a fiery opinion piece, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander examines how the jaw-dropping debacle around Hitman: Absolution's Hire Hitman app illuminates some wider problems with the role of marketing in the game industry.
This week, the #1ReasonWhy campaign provided a poignant and much-needed platform for women to talk about why they don't feel comfortable in the games industry. Obviously it's the perfect time for a Facebook advergame that encourages you to bully your friends about their breast size.
Wait, what? Are you serious?
Hire Hitman, a Facebook app designed to do some viral marketing for Hitman: Absolution in the wake of its mixed critical reception, was live for only an hour before an apologetic Square Enix pulled it.
But for that brief window, you could help the company sell its game by making death threats to your friends based on their body size, for having hairy legs, their awful make-up or their "tiny penis." How appropriate for the age of cyber-bullying and teen suicide!
The outrage from the community is no over-reaction, and if you don't understand what the fuss is about, you're not paying attention. Don't tell anyone to lighten up. Of course human beings have a sense of humor, and among friends that know and trust one another, all kinds of teasing can be okay in a safe context. Today Cliff Bleszinski told his fans he likes to see his new wife blow on Nintendo cartridges; he's a person who's open about his personal life. That's his business (and mostly yields warnings about how blowing actually degrades the cartridge's pins).
But this campaign isn't about how you want to behave in public or how you play with your friends and loved ones. It's what the video game industry -- specifically marketing -- thinks of you. There's some scary stuff here.
Game companies don't know their players. According to Rock Paper Shotgun's report (they've also got some screenshots and "choice" quotes from the app), the app's the work of an Emmy Award-winning ad agency called Ralph. One of the world's biggest game publishers assumes an outside agency knows the audience for a game it spent millions making better than it does.
They think gamers are all dickish young men. If Hitman: Absolution's stripper-nun shtick, "cheap gay jokes and lazy misogyny" wasn't a tip-off, this cake-icing proves that the company either doesn't know or doesn't care what constitutes a "mature" game -- communications breakdown? Market research failure? Either way, you don't have to have some swanky communications degree to infer what kind of consumer would be attracted to a game based on this kind of visibility campaign on Facebook. It's evident what kind of community you are actively encouraging.
They feel no social responsibility. Gamers and devs have been crying out to make room for a more inclusive, grown-up game industry. Marketing is aware of its power to dictate what is cool to consumers of all ages, and that they'd exploit that is as old as the ad industry itself. But this sort of thing shows no sensitivity to what our industry in specific and its audience seems to want and need right now -- since there are obviously better ways to sell video games, clearly no one cares about whether they're encouraging young people to think mocking girls' small breasts is "edgy" and "cool."
We can have a heartfelt discussion on respect for women in the industry that gains global media attention, and this company is totally cool with throwing it back into our faces to sell something.
They don't respect their developers. Was it that no one on the Absolution team itself spoke up about this? Was no one consulted, or is that devs' feelings about their work and who their audience is don't matter? If I'd worked years of my life on something and someone told me they wanted to market it this way, I'd feel kicked in the teeth. Does the company really think the game is so bad that it needs to go all-out creepster on the marketing side to get attention?
Did Absolution's developers genuinely want their product to be seen as childish and offensive? Maybe, since IO did make the previous eye-roller 'let's kill stripper-nuns' ad itself. They seemed bewildered by the reaction -- which means marketing failed in its job of helping them target. In either case, if I were an adult making games, I certainly wouldn't want the result of all my hard work to be that people think of me as some rude child.
All of this spells a major problem in our marketing: a combination of tone-deaf cluelessness and an utter disrespect for games and the people who make and play them. It's especially outrageous now, as marketers are in a unique position to help shape the dialog and the reception around games. Broader audiences actually care and are listening now, so why are they still marketing to the mainstream like it's 2002?
Every barrier to commercial games reaching the heights most of us only dream about comes down to marketing. Diverse protagonists? Won't sell, they tell us. Games with meaningful stories? Won't sell, supposedly. People criticize the writing and character craft of modern games, but when I talk to narrative designers privately, they talk wistfully about all the groundbreaking stuff that got cut because marketing said it wouldn't sell.
Marketing can sell sexism and hatred, but it can't sell anything good? Is that what we're to believe?
The unfortunate conclusion we're forced to draw is that many marketers working in the traditional commercial space -- at big publishers and at the trendy ad agencies they farm their work out to -- don't understand games, they don't care about them, and they don't care about us. They share none of our interest in seeing the medium continue to thrive and grow at a crucial turning point for console retail.
Marketers, if you don't care about video games as a medium, go sell something else. Don't insult us anymore.