Stephen Leacock, the Canadian economist, once described advertising as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it. Leacock didn't live long enough to join a squad in Battlefield 2142, but if he had, he might have been moved to amend his one-liner: While you're getting the money, don't mess with my personal data.
The latest furor over advertising in games arose when rumors began rattling that the futuristic, numerically anagrammed version of Electronic Arts's Battlefield 1942 series contained spyware that tracked gamers' cookies and Net surfing habits — all the better to provide targeted in-game advertisements straight to the hard drive.
Like so many things, reality is tamer than rumor: EA rushed to point out that while the game does include regional-based ads, it doesn't raid Internet Explorer's history files. Less insidious, yes, but the notion of games providing tailored advertisements still feels awfully Orwellian. It's like that creepy feeling you get when Amazon.com starts inundating you with those "You Might Also Like" e-mails 'cause you pre-ordered the new Jay-Z album. (Thanks for the suggestion, guys, but I'm still passing on the Pussycat Dolls.)
The issue of advertising in games is hardly a new one. Years before Burger King announced that they'll be selling specialized Xbox games alongside value meals this holiday season (nothing says "quality gaming" like BK, baby), megacompanies like Massive Entertainment and IGN were busily developing the tools to incorporate real-world advertisements into game worlds, all the while piling up big-name clients anxious to cash in on the vast gamer demo. Anarchy Online and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory are just two examples of games in which this phenomenon is already occurring.
To these guys (and frankly, every corporation in the universe) the virtual world is simply the next frontier — a multibillion-dollar frontier that's crying out to be furrowed and/or despoiled, depending on your perspective.
Whether this is a good thing or an abomination comes down to context — and in this case, the level of obtrusiveness. To use a subjective, real-world example, it doesn't bother me to see Jennifer Aniston guzzle a Diet Coke in The Break-Up, because the product placement makes contextual sense; on the other hand, I'm looking to pluck my eyes out with a corkscrew when every timeout, sack, and third-down play of every NFL game is brought to me by a corporate sponsor.
But what if advertising could be (gasp!) a force for gaming good? The fact that James Bond sports a Rolex and drives a Beemer in Casino Royale doesn't mean you'll be paying any less to see him at the multiplex next week. But what if dropping a Harrah's sign and a Coke billboard into Rainbow Six Vegas (instead of invented stand-ins) meant reducing the $60 price tag? What if it meant that an original game project could get a green light?
The guys at Massive, who know a thing or two about this stuff, claim that ad revenue from games amounts to only about a buck or two per title sold, so perhaps the numbers don't add up. When I'm swinging for the fences in a sports game like MLB 06, I'm already staring at a stadium billboard featuring a fake soda that's supposed to look like Dr. Pepper. Adding the real thing? No problem. Having an NPC in Oblivion interrupt the mission he's dishing me to mention a special online offer at Wal-Mart? Another pass-the-corkscrew moment. It's really a matter of degrees.
And therein lies the rub — the K.C. Masterpiece, extra-spicy brown sugar rub. As NASCAR, commercial television, and endless movie trailers have pounded into our skulls, advertising isn't a genie one gently releases from its glitzy, neon bottle — it's more like the djinn from the Wishmaster movies, a soulless capitalistic force that'll grind you into hamburger quicker than you can say "product placement."
The onslaught is inevitable, and controlling it probably impossible. All I know is that if 2007 brings us Home Depot's Halo 4, I'm totally passing.