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?


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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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.

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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.



The rise of episodic video games

In a world full of endless DLC content, additional game packages, and bonus in-game keepsakes maps, it seems video game companies are having a hard time packaging full games for consumer consumption.

Or, more likely they’re just not giving us full games and are instead keeping us permanently strung out and always looking for that next hit of content.

Nuka World” is a perfect example.

The Bethesda twitter account, which I follow religiously, has been giving us sneak peeks of the new DLC for weeks before finally releasing it on August 30 to a flurry of user downloads.

While I haven’t actually gotten the time to sit down and play the new DLC myself, I can’t help but wonder why extra downloadable content has become such a popular marketing model for AAA consoles and beyond.

Along the same lines, why are there so many episodic games of late?

Episodic games are basically teaser DLC content on steroids and they have become increasingly popular in recent years.

“Life is Strange,” Telltale’s “Batman” and, well, Telltale’s everything, basically.

Telltale Games first rose to prominence in the gaming world with the 2011 release of their “Walking Dead” series. For those who haven’t played, the game’s first season follows the down-on-his-luck convict Lee and how he deals with the fallout of the zombie apocalypse.

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Everything goes about as well as you might expect, but somewhere in between the gruesome face-gnawing and head-exploding that comes with the zombiefied territory, Telltale managed to hook audiences with their story-rich gameplay.

While the game lacked the point-and-shoot action of comparable AAA games, it had everything else gamers could want: great graphics, developed characters, high-key suspense and dialogue that kept us coming back.

“The Walking Dead” was wildly successful for an episodic game, belaying a rise in popularity for similar games.

The trend was easy to ignore when it was just Telltale.

But now it seems episodic games are popping up everywhere you look. “Life is Strange” from Square Enix, “Heavy Rain” from Sony and others.

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Not that I don’t enjoy these games. In fact, the greater the story, the move involvement I can have in the players actions, the more I love a game.

The thing I’m having a hard time coming to terms with is the format of the game themselves.

While the concept is pretty unique (or at least, it was a couple years ago) and the idea of a slow, timed release an admittedly brilliant feat of marketing genius, it is still hard for me to commit myself to this new form of packaged game content.

I’m reluctant to love up on these games too much because I’ve only played the ones that have already been completely released. “Tales from the Borderlands” was absolutely amazing, especially in the way it handled Handsome Jack’s death and his subsequent resurrection. I also really liked being able to play both Rhys, handsome company man, and Fiona, the quick-witted Pandoran con-artist.

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But that game was already completely released by the time I played it. And while they had an opening segment narrated by the game’s gun master Marcus Kincaid that constantly evolved with my in-game choices, I still feel that had I actually waited the designated time between releases I would have either gone crazy or lost interest entirely.

Case in point, episode one “Zero Sum” was released a full four months before the second, “Atlas Mugged,” which was released another three months before the third.

I like to think I’m pretty good at time management and about rewarding myself with video games after a long week, but even I couldn’t bear waiting that long between episodes.

It’s like watching a TV show on Netflix. While I like the periodic breaks between episodes, it’s always better to gasp at the show’s cliffhanger, speculate wildly about what will happen, and then hit next episode.

I don’t know if episodic gaming is here to stay, or if it will still be popular in five years when I stumble upon this blog and cringe at my poor life choices, but I can say it will be interesting to watch.

In the mean time, my wallet will cry with each new installment and I will await the day a video game is finally packaged whole, with no DLC or additional downloads to suffer through.

Until then, game on and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

good enough life is strange