The secret history of video game advertising

This blog has become more of an outlet for all my video game frustration than a place of discussion and learning, but who says it can’t be both?

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Way back when I first started this blog, I may have mentioned the fact that my original concept for this experiment in self-actualization included a discussion of a paper I wrote for my English 105i class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Obviously, I’ve deviated considerably from this intent statement, but there are still some important points I would like to address regarding that paper and what I learned while writing it.

And the first is sexism.

Sexism in gaming is an incredibly broad topic, one that cannot be comprehensively tackled in one, two or even sixteen (now seventeen) blog posts . Anita Sarkeesian, gaming’s fearless godmother, and many others have tried tackling this overarching topic but even they have just barely scratched the surface of this pervasive norm in gaming culture.

In this entry, I’m going to narrow the field a bit and talk about sexism in the early days of gaming, or more specifically the marketing strategies used to sell video games in the 90s and how those tactics spawned the toxic reality we now live in.

A good chunk of my paper focused on this topic with nearly all the research pulled out of a Polygon article entitled “No Girls Allowed” by Tracey Lien.

In it, Lien discusses the “chicken-and-egg” marketing strategy that led early developers to target male players.

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Source: Polygon.com.

Basically, early polls suggested that a large part of the early consumer audience were teenage boys. Marketers then took that information and intentionally crafted their marketing campaigns and products to cater to that audience. This led to a cyclical loop that reinforced stereotypes that men were the only ones playing video games, which increased their numbers in poll results which lead to more targeted campaigning, and so on and so forth.

A lot of earlier advertising techniques were incredibly sexist, using sex and violence to sell exclusively to boys with little regard to any female audience that might want to play these games.

Note: some of these pictures are hard to look at. Not just because they’re overtly sexist and piggishly disgusting but because they are mind-bogglingly forthright in their quest to disregard female audiences and cater exclusively to males.

This just makes you think, what advertising executive signed off on this degradingly sexist display?

Even today, when the ratio of male to female players is almost one to one, there seem to be a lot of games with commercials and advertising campaigns meant to emphasis the maleness of those games.

“Call of Duty” is a franchise with a history of catering specifically towards a male audience with little regard to potential female players. Even games with female leads, like Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” for example, focus almost entirely on the men in the game.

Don’t believe me?

Both the E3 cinematic and the US debut trailer make absolutely no mention of the playable female character. Even the “Syndicate” box art mostly features the robust and rugged Jacob Frye rather than his badass and beautiful twin Evie.

in the corner.jpg

In case you didn’t see her, she’s off to the right and easy to miss if you don’t know who you’re looking for. 

And Jacob is the only Frye in this trailer, despite the fact that they play equal roles in the story. 

And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Erik Kain of the game section of Forbes magazine devotes an entire article to the sexism in the box art of a game that focuses equally on both Jacob and Evie, yet fails to include Evie in most of the box art and promotional features.

These are the kinds of subtle advertising techniques that perpetuate sexism in an industry that is just starting to outgrow its early sexist stagnation.

While I can offer no outright solution to this problem in gaming, I can conclude that this disturbing trends needs to change, especially now that there are more games with female leads coming out every day.

“Rise of the Tomb Raider” and “Horizon Zero Dawn” and “Mass Effect: Andromeda” and “Dishonored 2” all feature female leads in some capacity or another. And we should showcase these women and all the others to come rather than burying them in an onslaught of marketing and advertisements meant to cater to men and only men.

Just for clarification, this post definitely isn’t a cry to have more video games cater to women exclusively because Lord knows what kind of disaster marketing execs would come up with to address “female needs.”

In this day and age, when our children are still separated by colors, I don’t want to imagine what stereotypical depictions those execs and the game designers they work for would try to pass off as the female ideal.

Just make more games with female leads and use them in advertisements. Focus on the women just as much as the men and try to be as inclusive as possible.

Continue making the games we love, but don’t blot women out of the picture because we’re a growing demographic. And one day you might regret cutting us out of the picture.

But for now we’ll just game on.

Let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

my-precious-cinnamon-bun

6 thoughts on “The secret history of video game advertising

  1. One thing that needs to be said here is that games started out way before the 90s. The oldest computer games (late 70s/early 80s) were only accessible the tech saavy geeks who knew how to operate a PC, and these were mostly nerdy dudes who went to A/V clubs after school to escape bullies. So the trend of guys being gamers is possibly an artifact of that time. The idea of “it’s this way because corporate execs said so” just strikes me as a bit oversimplified.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Even though I’m in full agreement that videogames have been male dominated, as you described it. You don’t seem to realize that society was, as a whole a schovinistic market until they were getting called out on it. (Roughly the early 1990s)

    It’s great to make an outcry for more female leads. But writers should write how they wish, not change things because society is trying force an agenda through media.

    It should suttle, that’s all I ask! Albeit a male focused game that’s selacious as hell, a strong female that emasculates men and a transgender alien in love with a rock.

    Like

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