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The Sponsored Avatar: Examining the Present Reality and Future Possibilites of Advertising in Digital Games

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In 1997 Sony published the Jet Ski racing game Jet Moto 2. The game was a sequel to a moderately received game released a year earlier. While Jet Moto 2 won some critical praise its release was also notable because it contained one of the first instances of in-game advertising. The incorporated advertisements were for the beverage Mountain Dew. While the impact of the inclusion on Mountain Dew sales is unknown, the inclusion of the product spot helped open the door to what some predict as a coming deluge of in-game advertising. This paper examines the present reality of advertising within the space of digital games. Additionally it anticipates the future development of advertising within the interactive entertainment spaces. A future that holds possibilities as varied as actual game sponsorship, like that of television programs, product placement and brand integration within games, or cross promotional opportunities between digital games and other forms of entertainment media. Meaning that the author seeks neither to neither bury nor praise the practice, but to offer a careful and reasoned examination. Accordingly the analysis includes the perspective of advertisers, game publishers and designers, and end user consumers. As a rapidly growing medium the $10 billion world of digital gaming has drawn the interest of advertisers and marketers. A variety of studies, both academic and professional, have concluded that the attention of consumers has grown increasingly fragmented. No longer can advertisers count on consumers to sit down in front of their televisions and view network programming and its accompanying commercials. Instead, the attention that consumers once gave solely to television is now devoted to various forms of media often simultaneously. The world of digital gaming is one place where consumers are focusing their attention and, simply put, advertisers want into that space. And, like water seeping into the minutest crack, if advertisers want into the digital game space they will get in. Additionally, the rapidly growing costs of game development have led to game publishers actively seeking out advertising commitments. In 2003 game publishing giant Electronic Arts doubled its in game advertising revenue from that of the previous year. Meaning that on two sides of the advertiser—game publisher—consumer triangle there is an active pursuit of greater levels of advertising in digital games. But, what of the consumer? Informal studies indicate that while consumers are cautious of having advertising interrupt their experience they welcome it as a contributor to realism. Within game types such as adventure, racing, and sports games consumers consider and actively press game publishers to include real-world products. Hence, for NCAA Football 2004 to be as real as possible Electronic Arts included a sponsorship from Pontiac like that used during actual televised games. So, within the appropriate context the lack of advertising or brands may detract from consumer appreciation of the game. Also advertising possibilities are headed beyond simply inclusion in single-player console games like that seen in Jet Moto 2. The current and future generation of game consoles allows for online participation and the single player nature of games is evolving into a group-oriented and community driven activity. At any given time of day hundreds of thousands of individuals are involved in online games. The games played are from simple digital versions of traditional board games like chess and checkers to MMORPG’s such as The Sims Online or The World of Warcraft. While advertisements or brand integrations are not applicable to every online title the possibilities are expanding daily. More important to potential advertisers is the ability of traditional media tracking companies such as Nielsen to track consumer involvement with the brands or advertisements in the game. Also, developing technologies promise the ability to stream advertisements into online games in a manner similar to that of billboards and storefronts. Consequently this study builds upon earlier research into the impact of brand placement in digital games in that the ability to change advertisements dynamically within the game space may counter gamer frustration with a repetitive encounter with the same advertisement. The possibilities for advertising within digital games are nearly as varied as the games themselves. However, simply because advertisements or brands can be placed into games does not mean that it should be done without careful consideration by all parties involved. Consequently this paper offers specific suggestions to game publishers and developers as to what analysis should take place before making the decision to include advertising within a game. This paper touches upon a number of conference themes. Given the likely future growth of advertising and brand integration into digital games it addresses the question: What makes a good game, and what makes a game good. Also, with the economic resource needs of game developers rising the potential role of advertising within games this essay addresses the business and economic aspects of games. Finally, as brands become a more centralized aspect of games (e.g. McDonalds and Intel in The Sims Online) this paper addresses how digital games become consumer education texts. Meaning that, while not the central focus of this paper, the question of how we learn through playing digital games is addressed.
Contact: Jason Chambers, Advertising -- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
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