Videogame advertisements from the 1980’s to 2010.

This document entails the analysis and study of retro videogame ads both in print and in video from the 1980s to the past decade of 2010.  Starting with a brief background of the subject, this research proposal expands on the history and why understanding where these videogame ads came from and how they have adapted within their time is important to market researchers. Questions are established and through a content analysis, resolution to the shifting trends and traits of these selected videogame ads will be found.

Understanding how videogame ads have evolved in the studied 30 years is an essential principle and will build a foundation for further research studies in advertising, marketing, and even public relations related fields.  

Introduction

Videogames, since their creation they have stirred the masses and created a unique sense of accomplishment with audiences.  With their engaging atmosphere and constant evolution of visual appeal it’s no wonder why videogames have become such a popular activity.  Whether it’s to experience a winning touchdown at the super bowl, go-cart racing in outer space, battling invading aliens, or being the chosen one destined to save a captured princess, videogames, unlike other mediums of entertainment such as television, offer audiences a chance to not only observe the life around them, but to interact and become part of the world they are experiencing.  It is here through this medium, this dynamic and responsive “window to other worlds” that give way to videogames having such a huge fanfare.  Every year, various private and public conventions meet to establish new and exciting directions for videogames, and every year these events grow in number and popularity.  The purpose of this research proposal is simple, perform a content analysis on retro-videogame ads, whether they are print or video, from the 1980’s to the past decade ending 2010.  Considered by my collective research to be an extraordinary 30 years for videogames, it is important to study this era because through understanding where videogames and their ads have come from, we can better understand the types of players that exist today and what will be effective advertising campaigns.  Through a brief analysis of the said 30 years we will better understand why this time period is so important. In the literature review, we’ll explore the trends and what data has been collected thus far. From there, research questions will be established and ending with the methodology of a content analysis, the means to answer to these questions.

Background and Evolving Trends

Growing up on videogames, contrary to the stereotype, has helped me evolve into a (generally), happy, and healthy individual. I grew up in what is considered the 3rd generation of home-based videogame consoles.  The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), was brought to the United States in 1985), two years after its launch in its native Japan in 1983.  The NES was my first experience with this interactive entertainment and since then, I have collected a selective number of home videogame consoles for my own.  However, I have never started to question my interest in collecting my select group of consoles until I purchased my own Sega Saturn two years ago.  The Saturn, being a 5th generation home console (released in 1995), is considered a very dated piece of hardware compared to its peers of today, yet the Saturn has established itself with the retro videogame community as a particular system with its own niche.  What made my fascination with the Sega Saturn grow?  Where did I even hear of the Sega Saturn, and why, for the love of most sane people, have I spent an extraordinary amount of money on a system I never owned as a child nor had it any contact?  

Even as a child I was a videogame enthusiast, my NES was a gateway drug to more elaborate forms of entertainment.  Though, like most children, I seldom ever got what I always wanted, so I had to settle for the next-best thing – videogame magazines.  Even though I could not purchase one given my young age and inexperience with the world of finances, my frothing for information about videogames consoles and their respective games continued.  And as child who grew up during the 90’s, it’s not difficult to conclude where my interest in the Sega Saturn began, for my interest in the system did not go away but instead, it hibernated.

Of course, this being a study from the 1980s to the end of 2010 it would be time-consuming to distinguish the videogame systems that spawned during these years.  As stated, those 30 years saw a great leap in technology and innovation when regarding videogame systems and their highlighted videogames.

Referring to the image above, this timeline produced by the educational database online (www.onlineeducation.net) recaps not only the past 30 years, but also the earliest generations of videogames.

As mentioned, the Nintendo Entertainment System started the 3rd generation of videogame consoles and from there companies like SEGA, SONY, and Microsoft dominated for supremacy.  As their respective technologies evolved so did their campaigns for consumers money. In Young’s article we reviewed that in early videogame system advertisements it was difficult for advertisers to find the right medium.  Does this radical new interactive technology fit in with the toys, clothing, electronics, or even accessories? To help with the introduction of this new technology, Japan based videogame company Nintendo, as seen below, showed audiences of the 1980s not only what their products are, but how to use them.  

This action secured the company to its current status as a leader in the videogame market. Though this problem with identification of videogames is one of the past, we’re seeing a reoccurring theme in some cases. The videogame systems on today’s market are breaking the boundaries once again combining DVD/CD playback, Blu-Ray accessibility, internet browser compatibility and social media connections are all adding value to their respective console, yet blurring the lines of strict identification too.

After finding their identity at the beginning of the 3rd generation thanks to Nintendo’s informative advertising, creative advertisers began seeing a market for showing audiences what these videogame systems could actually do.  Early ads that displayed people setting up and playing there videogame console were replaced with vibrant gameplay and flashy graphics.

As displayed in the timeline, SEGA saw the success of the Nintendo in America and released a console of their own, the SEGA Genesis in 1988. The system boasted higher-end graphics and faster processing and along with their “Genesis Does what Nintendon’t” advertising campaign secured SEGA’s seat in the console war until the end of the 5th generation of videogame consoles in 1999.

Similar to a timely political debate between two candidates, videogame consoles were put out in the spotlight and established their own version of mud-slinging.  However, having a more aggressive campaign than a console’s competitors doesn’t always equal success. In 1993 Atari attempted to make a comeback to the home-console market by pushing the audience to “Do the Math”, with their print and television commercials.  

This campaign, sampled above, put the technical specs of Atari’s Jaguar up against the other systems of the 4th generation (Super Nintendo & SEGA Genesis).  Yet even with the numbers, Atari struggled and simply could not compete with the existing systems – consumers knew the math, but they weren’t impressed.  With the lack of 3rd party support for videogames, a difficult to use controller, and the promise of newer, more recognized systems from Nintendo and SEGA on the horizon, the Atari Jaguar’s failure was inevitable.

However, with all the ads flowing for the videogame systems, we must not forget attention to the games.  Again, referring to the timeline above, it highlights some of the more influential and successful games released during the timeline.  Because the games were designed for people who either already own the system or are willing to consider buying the specific system, building brand loyalty was a needed attribute.  This exclusivity still exists today though, a handful of games are system specific and are more so than not, funded by console brands to stay that way.

As you can see from the timeline, there were a lot of videogame consoles and subsequently, a lot of videogames released in those 30 years.  But the purpose of this research proposal is not to inform, but to analyze and code.  Take the following print ads below.

The first print ad is for the videogame Wolverine (released in 1991), for the Nintendo Entertainment system.  Notice the screen shots with captions underneath them to the left?  They inform the audience of the game’s highlights as well as show in-game action and if that weren’t enough we have extensive copy running down the middle of the page for further information about the product.  Finally, our eyes trace to the bottom right where we have a picture of the game box itself, isolating the fact that you can purchase this game now and control the iconic character Wolverine of the X-Men popularity.  

We can see comparisons between the second advertisements with the first.  They both feature screenshots with captions and they also both include a large graphic.  However, the comparisons stop there in which this ad for the videogame Xenogears (released in 1998) for the Sony Playstation limits the amount of copy. If we follow the formula of the first videogame ad we can assume that the two characters on the left have a sort of significance and/or importance.  Even though this is a new game with no previous recognizable characters like Wolverine is to the X-Men we have a general idea that these people play a strong and identifiable purpose in the videogame’s cannon Sure there are screen shots as well, but like the copy, they’re limited in depth. There is no box art depicting the game but instead we’re only given the system the game is available for purchase.

Finally, the last ad is another full-page spread like the 2nd, this time it’s for the game Hitman: Blood Money (released in 2006), an on-going series in which the player assumes the role of a professional assassin.  Notice the lack of copy, and lack of screen shots in this ad.  To those who are not familiar with the Hitman series, who is he/she?  Is this our point character?  In fact, if I didn’t provide that exposition you probably would be asking the same questions.  We assume the game is about killing but what else?  What are its highlights? What are it’s features?  We know its release date and it’s for the Sony Playstation and Microsoft Xbox, but the ad lacks the informative substance the previous two print ads included.

Literature Review

The videogame market no longer consists of only children and teenagers as it did in its humble beginnings; but instead, an older generation has taken an interest.  Since the videogame boom in the 1980’s the children of that generation have grown up, and with jobs and money of their own are rekindling their excitement for this interactive medium (Ridlen, 2002).  Videogame developers have moved out of their respective basements and garages and into large, multi-leveled facilities with up to 50 plus members on their staff.  This change, along with business models, investors, development schedules, and a middle management all became attached to each new videogame project to ensure its overall quality and more importantly, its success.

Simple videogame formulas such as making your way from one side of the screen to the other, while still in existence today, do not cut it as much as they used to back when the technology was limited.  With the growth of this industry, so has the growth of the tools that support them.  Computer coding for said videogames now requires an extensive knowledge of advanced language code and writing skills, C++, DirectX, and Open GL are all various types of graphic interface that usually, cannot be self-taught.  These languages create the framework for the 3D animators, illustrators, and graphic artists who from there, are like the directors, set designers, and producers of a big-budget movie (Ridlen, 2002).  

Videogame Advertising

Taking what is known so far, we compare videogames to their current peers – television and film.  As the technology advances, so do the mediums by which to portray the work needed for a polished product.  This takes time and most importantly, money.  The videogame industry is a multi-billion dollar industry because of its advancements in gameplay, interactivity, and design; money is needed to keep up with media rivalry, and not every major videogame developer can distribute the figures needed for a competitive product.  So where do many videogame developers receive their money?  The same way most TV and movies do, advertising.  

There was a time when videogames mostly remained a relatively untapped market for advertisers.  As established in the Ridlen article, the videogame industry has grown up substantially.  With a focus on television and movies, advertisers were shoveling out billions for product placement, references, logos, and the like to be featured on the air or in theaters.  However, unlike videogames which can expose the audience anywhere from 5 to 100 plus hours of play time respectfully, television and movies are typically viewed by their audiences once or twice.  Videogames create a huge margin of exposure that has very little other mediums in which to compare itself.

From here, we review the work of Chambers in his article “The Sponsored Avatar”, where he examines the practice of advertising within the perimeter of digital games.  Traditional media is on the decline, with the creation of TiVo and other digital recording devices for television, audiences that once predictably gathered in front of network television have become fragmented and distracted (Chambers, 2005).  Because of this, more than $300 million in annual advertising is being spent away from the traditional television commercial and instead, towards ad placement in television shows, movies and of course, videogames (2005).

The Advergame, a term used to describe the developmental interest on the part of advertising agencies and game publishers to incorporate advertising into digital games; yet with no model or framework development there is no foundation for an optimum approach for such advertising messages (Chambers, 2005).  Like the internet, the advergame is a relatively new concept that is flooded with various directions and advertising messages leading to a saturation of content.  Because of this rush of persuasive messaging, creative strategies like product placement similar to that in TV shows and movies have been implemented in videogames disguised as realistic set pieces.  

Chambers continues in his piece that there should be a sense of control when attempting to push one’s product and/or message through videogame advertising.  Keeping the integrity of the gaming experience should be the foremost factor and abandoning the gamers are geeks and geeks only persona are just two examples he presents to bring credibility to videogame advertising.  Chambers encouraging advertisers and advertising agencies not to approach in-game advertising as though it were a complete replacement for the 30-second commercial spot but instead, find creative ways to enhance the brand/product so that the player feels less pressured and more engaged into what message they are being sold.

Since this publication, a huge leap forward in digital distribution has made its way combining online networking with today’s current videogame consoles.  Soft drink names, fast food franchises, and snack-food companies have been cross promoting their products with extra game content, exclusive in-game extras, and other player perks are now being integrated with their respective games.  While this is one of the more creative ways of advertising within the videogame space it is not the only one.  The previously mentioned videogame conferences and expos are now heavily sponsored by said brands like Mountain Dew, Burger King, and Doritos.  As expected as well, new videogame consoles market online accessibility, broadband and cellular networks like Comcast and Verizon have been pitching their services to players offering the fastest online connections for videogame downloads, media, and gameplay.  

Measuring the Effects of Videogame Advertising

In Branco Mommer’s study “Advertising our ‘soldiers’; Testing the Effectiveness of Ingame Advertising” we explore, as the name suggests, the effectiveness of in-game advertising and while it produced unexpected results, it is still a noteworthy article for exploring the shortcomings advertising and product placement still has to overcome to be truly effective in videogames. Focused whether or not playing a stimulating video game affected the memory of the displayed advertisements in a subsequent videogame was the core concept of the research.

Mommer’s hypothesis expected Group A, playing an ad-abundant racing game with little to no car customization would yield stronger memory retention than Group B who played a different racing game with a racing track that featured little-to no ads and a higher car customization.  Contrary to the desired result, both groups tested in poor performance on the subsequent and post 6-month memory tests.  However, given the results presented in the study, limitations of the group were abounding.  The amount of time playing both selected games was very minimal, perhaps Mommer was looking for a “Magic Bullet Theory” like effect in which given aggressive stimuli, and the message/advertisement – would have a stronger impact on the memory, yet this was not the case.  Another limitation presented was the way in which the study was developed between the participants (2008). Videogames, majority, are used as a recreational, or competitive activity.  Presented in this case however, may have influenced the group playing the videogames – if they’re not playing for fun or personal accomplishment, then an apathetic feel could be factored (2008).

While the study produced results that were not expected, there is still validity in the study.  Perhaps future researchers could build on the shortcomings of Mommer’s study to produce stronger and expected results.  Could the participants, who, we assume, were all avid videogames have been desensitized?  Similar in stating that the media has made us desensitized to violence, could this term also be represented in advertisements and applied to videogames as well?

Even with Mommer’s study, there is still research and continuing efforts to evaluate the effectiveness of advertising in videogames.  Persuasive manners such as the mentioned aggressive “Magic Bullet Theory” and the more subtle messages all integrate within videogame adspace - whether they are using videogames as a vehicle by the advertising agencies is debatable.  Chambers expressed similar research to that of Adrian Perez, 2009 and Ian Bogost, 2007 who all approached videogame advertising with a comprehensive and rhetorical view.  

While Perez, in his thesis “Exploring the possibilities of Videogames as an advertising platform”, believes that videogame advertising is still too new to fully utilize given the current control standards, similar to Chamber’s view.  He is optimistic, and like Chambers, believes that guidelines are required to understand the impact of videogame advertising.  Evaluating with the current methods given today, there are too many requirements and grey areas that could decide the effectiveness of an ad (2009).  

Ian Bogost however, in his article “Persuasive Games. The Expressive Power of Videogames”, encourages that videogames are readily available for advertising and similar persuasive outlets.  Through context, he continues, can a desired outcome be observed, even if it is not intended from the beginning (2007). Applying this idea, it is theoretically possible to deduce an outcome were there enough research into the desired target audience and medium message.

So far in the articles presented we’ve seen the growth of a huge industry that involves way more than its simple beginnings.  Corporate sponsors, private investors, and celebrity like status for some of the more major developers have all boomed along with the videogame world.  And with that boom in mind, there is no denying the influence and appeal videogames have to advertisers that can equal the power and exposure of their products and/or messages.  But what about advertising for the videogames themselves, how does videogame advertising work for the actual products people will play?  

Advertising Videogames

Moving away from videogame advertisements, we twist those two words to create a new direction – advertising videogames. In the article “The Disappearance and Reappearance and Disappearance of the Player in Videogame Advertising” by Bryan Young,  he breaks down the origin of the television first, incorporating its relationship with videogame add-ons for home use. Young explores the interest audiences have with not only the moving pictures on their television set, but how audiences could become active participants in what they see.  Using early print advertisements of the rudimentary, yet addictive game Pong (released for home consoles in 1972), Young examines and deconstructs the ads to show how difficult it was for advertisers to inform the consumer about the game and what all it was about.  By placing the Pong ads with other products like sweaters and alarm clocks advertisers were trying to figure out where exactly this videogame fit best with its counterparts (Young, 2007).  

Early consumers who had no idea of what a videogames (or videogame systems) were had to rely on rudimentary television commercials to actually show audiences how it all worked.  Plugging in the system, inserting the game cartridge, pushing the ON switch are all directions which are second nature to us now – but early videogame ads took the responsibility and held valuable guidelines to their prospective and curious customers.  Young focuses on the Nintendo videogame company and from their Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), to today’s relevant Nintendo Wii.  He studies the steps made to ensure their target audiences was me with a direct, constant message with advertising videogames – furthermore establishing how videogames were not just a passing fad.

Young establishes a good foundation of early advertising for videogames and explains the importance of their commercials in the early ages for inexperienced audiences.  These type of commercials are in a non-existence today and are instead replaced with CGI images of the game, though, ironically, not the game in action itself.  Instead, audiences are exposed to scenarios that while you can do in the actual game, are not as stylized or elaborate as the commercials show.  Showing various gameplay for a videogame was a much stronger pitch for earlier competitive systems that portrayed differences in graphics and style.  But compared to the systems of today, the games look generally the same no matter what system you’re playing.

Why Are We Attracted?

So what exactly makes the videogame world so attractive?  Where, in the binary and coding does the reception come into play and why has it been such an effective entertainment market?  To answer this question, we review “In Search of the Videogame Player”, a detailed article discussing the interaction of players by James Newman.

Newman’s article presents findings from two studies that highlight the analytical and methodological weakness of videogame play and encourages a more sensitive approach to investigating and interpreting the medium’s composition.  He takes his findings and, as the name of the article suggests, searches for how the player fits into the dichotomy of the videogame he or she is playing.  What is their role?  Who are they to be?  Why are they so motivated?  These are just some of the analytical questions Newman asks and, for the most part, answers.  

Players are engaged at the level of first-hand experiential participation. Not only that, but players fill the role of both the motivation and observer.  They blend sequences of high-level interaction (gameplay), with segments of an almost movie-like spectatorship (in-game cinematics) (Newman, 2004).  Videogames, according to Newman, blur the boundaries between an active and passive participant creating unique and integrating modes of engagement.  

Though published in 2004, like Chambers in 2005, we have to take Newman’s research and observation and attempt to integrate it with today’s videogame design.  Controllers held strictly in the hands of the player are not the only option of interactivity.  Voice, facial, weight, and body movement control have also been a newly added trait in today’s videogames.  Using these new technologies, new audiences are being targeted for advertising videogames.  Examples such as exercising product accessories, weight trainers, and brain stimuli games are being sold to an older and even younger video game market.

In regards to advertising in videogames, many of the articles covered suggested that the medium is still too new to process and measure accordingly.  Without a set of guidelines to follow and adhere to it is difficult to deduce the desired result of advertising in videogames.  Expression of videogames continues to evolve with the technology that helps support them.  Comparisons with the internet work best to understand how new videogames are as an advertising medium.  This level of ambiguity is mirrored with the process videogame advertising.  They started with meek and informative ads but due to their interactive nature it was difficult to categorize videogames and draw relationships to where they first belonged.  

Tschang (2005), Keum (2004), and Dardis (2012) all explore the evolution of the videogame and give predictions as to where their direction in advertising will take them.  Starting with a focus on family relations videogame advertisements have branched to respect a more single-player campaign.  However, with the technology available to play with/against others over the internet, a new market has been established giving the availability to play with complete strangers.

What separates videogames from most mediums is the level of interactivity.  As established, videogames are not passive media.  They are in fact, alive and are willing to share their views, ideas, creativity, and experiences with anyone willing to explore new scenarios and lives.  It is this level of direct feedback that set videogames beyond any methods of persuasion and involvement.  Rather than just reading and watching in-game advertising (for example), the player could explore the ad portrayed to them.  From all the readings though, the element of change is a constant.  Change in technology, messages, and advertising methods will always be in abundance when it comes to the videogame game.

Research Questions

Evaluating the background of videogame ads and the researched material in the literature review, several questions have evolved to create the backbone to the purpose of this study.  By answering these questions a foundation into further research could be developed and built upon in the future.  

By identifying the audience of videogames (if a generalization can be concluded) how can that knowledge best be used for the advertising edge?

Do production values in the represented videogame ads influence the given advertisement and if so, does this result in a higher audience interest?  

Studying the evolution of videogame ads from the 1980s to 2010 what elements have been removed, added, and changed to reach the videogame audiences of that decade?

By answering these questions we will have a better understanding of the culture and lifestyle of the videogame consumer.  Though this proposal does not state the exact outcome of the suggested analysis other branches from the conducted research could be split and elaborated.  

Method

The literature review covered various aspects of the dual-identity of videogame advertising and advertising videogames.  However, when looking back on the literature, I used Mommer’s study to explore the relationship with the effects of videogame advertising. Yet, there was no such treatment of study or experiment when discussing advertising videogames.  This content analysis would fill in the missing correlations and in doing so, will also provide answers to the asked research questions.

The study is going to focus on 20 randomly selected videogame ads, each from the 80s, 90s, and to the end of 2010.  From theses 20 selected ads 10 print and 10 video/TV ads will be acquired through the use of varied websites and studied in a similar fashion that was used to compare the general ads above.  Of course, this study is going to be more in depth than what was previously done simply as an example.  The sample audience will be voluntarily selected male and female Graduate students from a convenient university.  Gradute students are preferred due to their strong diversity of age and this will help keep the audience varied as well as from different backgrounds and stages of life.  College professors will also be included to participate should they like.  Extra credit, course requirement, and/or reward incentive will be provided given the available circumstances. The research would provide empirical evidence of how videogame ads have changed and whether or not advertisers have created stereotypes to categorize their audience and cater to.

Expected results will support my idea that throughout the 30 years of videogame advertisements, the ads themselves have become more visual-focused and non-informative.  Similar to that of a movie trailer, they produce elaborate set pieces and drama to encourage the audiences to fill in the blanks and build stronger curiosity than the humble informative and context heavy beginnings of the 1980 videogame advertisements.

Conclusion

What sets my research apart from the literature I reviewed is the fact that I’ve been not only a player of videogames but a retailer of them as well.  Inside knowledge fueled by my own curiosity and not so much relevant topics can give my content analysis a stronger foothold and thus, provide with personal results – and while my peers may view my current interest as a biased project I disagree.  Too many articles I have read, while the topics featured are of personal interest in the subject material, fell below expectations because the researcher was limited and did not consider all the options presented to them before conducting their analysis.

The importance of this study is, as stated, not only to evaluate the videogame ads of previous, but also to elaborate on the kind of message advertisers are using today.  Television and internet advertising spots have adopted a more movie and cinematic take, as oppose to people actually playing the videogame and showing their level of interactivity.  Does this method persuade audiences that videogame players are isolated individuals with no life other than what they see on their computer monitor or television? Can this attitude change and more importantly, what will the attitude change into?  I would find the answer to these questions and more through my research.

-originally document and research by Will Gorusch

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