There have been several TV shows this past fall that have included videogames as an important part of certain episodes. I'd like to say this is a symptom of acceptance of videogaming as general cultural practice. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to explain: product placement. Traditionally this means products are displayed at some point during a show (have you noticed what is the only game console that appears in Heroes?); now games are actually being written into episodes as key plot elements. The challenges of this product placement strategy are how to display the game, as well as how to portray the culture of the people who play videogames.
The process works like this, more or less: the videogame company provides support and materials, from videos to the game engine itself (or an improved version of it), so that the videogame looks its best in the show. The game makers act as consultants for the show, which does not necessarily mean that the view of videogames will be closer to reality; but at least it means that gamer culture will not be bashed (even though it may be depicted according to silly stereotypes). The burden is usually on the writers, who have to figure out how to integrate the videogame into the show and make it seem plausible. If the writer is familiar with videogame culture through the experience of being a gamer and/or a game writer, there is at least a chance gaming will be portrayed reasonably, and that possible inaccuracies will be closer to poetic license than sheer ignorance. If not, you get shows where it seems like the writers only have seen game consoles in a photo, or have not played games since the release of the original Pac-Man.
Let's see a few examples from shows that have been aired in the U.S. this fall.
- NBC's Life, episode "A Civil War"
(watch the "key" scenes here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bB3ir_h3VeY (via GayGamer) )
Product placed: Ubisoft's Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones
This is a clear example of how *not* to bring videogames to your show. To begin with, if you have to advertise a game, at least please play it first. Don't prove you haven't played the game by photoshopping in "You have Died" in tacky Papyrus font with the default yellow glow. It is rather evident that the filmmakers do not know how gaming technology works. This is not new, there are tons of lists of the worst fictional portrayals of science/computers in various internet sites. This episode adds a bunch of further examples, such as the following exchange:
- "A game console is like a computer, isn't it?"
- "Not like one, it *is* one. It's just a hard drive with games on it."
From this moment on, all the gaming references feel like nails on a blackboard. The excuse to introduce the videogame is that a drug dealer has hidden a spreadsheet with "vital" data inside a hacked version of Prince of Persia for the XBox. (No, they're not promoting the console, because it's not an Xbox 360.) They have to beat Level 10 to get access to the file--which appears after a very tacky opening wipe. The worst part, however, is how wrong they get what it means to be a gamer, and not necessarily a hard-core one. Since someone needs to beat level 10, they get the computer guy to play, his justification being that he had a Star Trek costume when he was a kid. Of course he sucks at the game, though we don't know whether this is because of the failed proposition "have a Star Trek costume = being a geek = being good at videogames", or because the writers needed to introduce this other girl, who actually beats the game and thus "disproves" the stereotype. How they spot that the girl can be a better player evidences how misinformed the filmmakers are: she twitches her fingers while watching the computer guy play, as if she was playing along with an "air controller." Uh? My hunch is that these guys have not only not played a videogame, but not even watched someone play. When was the last time you held an invisible controller while watching someone playing Super Mario Galaxy? Exactly. If the girl-gamer had pushed the guy from his chair and taken the controller, tired of seeing him suck so much at Prince of Persia, it would have been more believable.
- CSI NY, episode "Down the Rabbit Hole"
Product placed: Second Life, along with the new Second Life area of CSI: NY , a tie-in where users can solve crimes in the virtual world.
Linden Labs (the company behind Second Life), seems to have provided a lot of support in this episode, starting with a fictional character editor that SL users wish was true, or at least that the actual one was as fast. We hear about "lindens", "furries" and the stores in-game. It also features the voice chat, and points out the problems of cross-gender in SL if you use it. It takes poetic license when, in order to bring some action to the screen, the protagonist enters a "gladiatorial" area that looks more like a wizard party in War of Warcraft, with lots of sparks and explosions to fight monsters. It enters the realm of the unlikely first by the premise of the episode: a girl with a popular avatar in SL gets killed, because someone very, very evil wants her avatar. This someone wanted the victim's password really badly, even though a keylogger may be an easier way to get it, and stealing someone's avatar online is not considered a crime yet (unlike murder). They also forget about the adult areas of SL, as well as the instant message app, where you can call anyone in SL using their user name, even if they are not in the same area (sim) you are on. I guess that then the investigation may be too easy--what is detective work without hunting down your witnesses and suspects, even if it's in a virtual world? "Down the Rabbit Hole" hones Second Life into their weekly formula, and even though it's not very believable, it's a worthy effort in what they managed to get right.
- South Park, episode "Guitar Queer-o" (aired 11/14/2007)
Product Placed: Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
South Park's "Make Love, not Warcraft" last year was probably the beginning of the wave of "videogames as part of the plot" product placement strategy, and we wish that the examples above would have been half as brilliant at that. Blizzard gave access to their WoW assets and engine to make the episode, so that half of it turned out to be a machinema TV show. This year is the turn of another hugely popular game, Guitar Hero, to become the favourite of Kyle, Stan, Cartman & Kenny--the episode was timely aired two weeks before the release of Guitar Hero III (though the songs featured also come from GH2 and GH Encore Rocks the 80s). Though not as brilliant as its WoW precursor (IMO), it is a great example of how you can do product placement, and please fans of the show and the games alike. "Guitar Queer-o" understands the game and its players--yes, we know it's not the same as playing a real guitar, and that it takes more talent and effort to be a guitar player than to be a good Guitar Hero player. The running joke of the show, what happens if you treat playing GH as if it was being a real "rock star", including the band fights and the drugs. The moral of the story is what most GH players already know: the fun is not about high scores, but about playing together. The poetic license is that there is an arcade version of Guitar Hero in South Park--that would be Guitar Freaks, and hell of a lot harder to play...
I hope that future examples of product placement are closer to South Park than to Life. We already know that marketers want to sell the games; if they want to appeal to gamers, at least they should be familiar with their culture and portray it in ways we can identify with it. It does not mean that we will run to buy the advertised game, but at least we will not be completely alienated.