The Third Place
Strange and wonderful video game commercials
When I was a kid, video games were largely made for — and marketed to — teenage boys. We were the ones who filled arcades on the weekend, and we were the ones who harassed our parents for the latest big release (my childhood was pretty much framed around the epic Nintendo-versus-Sega turf wars at school in the 8 and 16-bit eras).
Over the last couple of decades, the game industry has changed. Not only are games now a mainstream pursuit — a sector that turns over more money than the film industry — but as games have become more and more widely accepted, their audience has necessarily expanded. The generation who grew up in the days of the NES and Sega Master System are now in our ’30s, and the group who came before us (and who were weened on the likes of the Atari 2600 and the early years of PC gaming) are now in their ’40s and beyond. Younger generations of gamers have grown up with more choice than ever around what games they play and how they play them (take the train on any day in a big city, and you’ll find enormous numbers of people around you playing games on their phones, for example).
Games themselves have evolved radically since those early Mario and Sonic days, too. A wide spectrum of gamers and tastes are now catered for; blockbuster franchises like The Sims demonstrated that building a virtual doll house and filling it with a simulated family can be just as — if not more — compelling than blasting aliens or saving the princess. And in more recent times, some games have even broken free of many traditional mechanical constraints; in a title like Gone Home, there’s nothing to shoot, no bad buys to kill, no “levels” to clear and no final boss. Instead, the story — the narrative — is the star, and the interaction is about inhabiting a character and exploring her world through her eyes.
As I’ve watched the industry change over the years, one thing has really fascinated me: video game marketing. I have always been fascinated by video game television advertising, primarily, I think, because of its sheer weirdness.
In some ways, I’d say that today’s video game commercials are mostly pretty tame in the sense that they seem to be moving closer and closer to fairly traditional film marketing (most newly-released games are advertised through carefully-crafted trailers, for example). Maybe as video games themselves become more mainstream, their advertising follows suit? I can’t say for certain, but that’s definitely my impression.
Yet only a single console generation ago, many game commercials were bizarre. The ads that fell flat or simply confused people were even more interesting than the truly successful campaigns, at least to me. Here are just a few of my favourite video game commercials — I’ll share my thoughts about each one as I go.