By Daniel Terdiman
Big corporations beware: Some video game developers are on a mission to skewer your reputation.
For several years, hard-core game players have complained that big consumer brands are increasingly being featured in their virtual game worlds. Even worse, they say, are "advergames," video games developed by companies to promote products.
Now a new genre of games is flipping that promotion on its head. Known as "anti-advergames," the new titles satirize big companies and question corporate polices ranging from how cattle are raised to low pay for workers.
"Advertisers, governments and organizations mount huge campaigns to show us what they want us to see, and we want to expose what they're hiding," said Ian Bogost, a partner at Persuasive Games, a pioneer of the new genre. "There's lots of precedent for this sort of speech in print, in film (and) on the Web, but we think videogames are particularly good at exposing the underlying logics of these organizations--how they work and what's wrong with it."
One of the earliest titles in the nascent genre is Persuasive's "Disaffected!," which puts players in the role of managing a FedEx Kinko's copy franchise.
"Disaffected!" gives players the chance to step into the shoes of "demotivated" FedEx Kinkos employees, a blurb about the game on Persuasive Game's Web site said. "Feel the indifference of these purple-shirted malcontents firsthand, and consider the possible reasons behind their malaise--is it mere incompetence? Managerial affliction? Unseen but serious labor issues?"
Another new game, from the Italian design shop Molleindustria, skewers McDonald's by taking players though a game experience in which they discover that to make money running the company they must exploit underdeveloped countries and low-wage workers and feed unhealthy growth hormones to cattle.
"Behind every sandwich, there is a complex process you must learn to manage," Molleindustria said in a statement. "From the creation of pastures to the slaughter, from the restaurant management to the branding. You'll discover all the dirty little secrets that made (McDonald's) one of the biggest companies (in) the world."
Neither McDonalds nor Kinko's responded to multiple requests for comment.
To be sure, satirical criticism of corporations is nothing new. The subject has been broached in movies, books, cartoons and songs for some time. "Super Size Me," Morgan Spurlock's documentary about the ill effects of eating too much McDonald's food, was a cult hit.
Another barbed critique, which made its rounds on the Web, was "Yours is a Very Bad Hotel" (Click here for PDF), a 17-slide PowerPoint screed created in 2001 by two travelers upset with the DoubleTree Club Hotel in Houston. (In an e-mail, the author of the PowerPoint presentation told CNET News.com that he has since resolved his issue with DoubleTree and has appeared with hotel management on a Webcast talking about the "strategic issues posed to corporations by the Internet-enabled power shift.")
Of course, there's always the risk of publishers getting sued if their games step beyond the line of satire, which is usually protected speech. And Molleindustria game designer Paulo Pedercini, for one, worries about the risk of copyright infringement. But because the games are usually free, makers can at least argue that they're not profiting from their distribution.
The idea behind the McDonald's game, Pedercini argues, is that game play can be a good way to let users understand the complexities of economic and social systems.
And after reading Jeremy Rifkin's book "Beyond Meat," which argues that the meat industry negatively impacts society, the environment and human health, "we thought that a video game would be (the) right way to popularize this kind of systemic criticism," Pedercini said.
For its part, Persuasive Games has been designing games about political and social issues since its "Howard Dean for Iowa," which the Dean presidential campaign commissioned in 2003.
Bogost and his Persuasive Games partner, Gerard LaFond, come from advertising backgrounds, having created Web sites and online games for Hollywood studios, consumer packaged goods companies and carmakers in the 1990s.
"I've always had a complicated relationship with advertising," Bogost said. "It's everywhere, and it's becoming more and more parasitic. Yet, because it's everywhere it has the power to influence people positively as well as negatively."
Bogost admits, however, that it's hard to make a living designing experimental games, so Persuasive Games makes some of its money from advertising projects. Thus, he and his partners are forced to walk a thin line between what they feel are socially responsible and economically viable projects.
"Just as many independent filmmakers work on television spots and music videos to fund their features and documentaries," he said, "we work on advergames to fund our social and political games." To be sure, as a young genre, there are few pure anti-advergames making the rounds of the Internet. But Persuasive Games had another title, "Airport Insecurity," which takes the Transportation Security Administration to task for the inefficient ways it handles moving masses of passengers through airports in the post-9/11 era.
There are other examples, too, that ask players to examine complex social messages, while not revolving around corporations.
One is Gonzalo Frasca's "September 12," in which players shoot missiles at terrorists in a small village. The fun quickly turns political, however, as villagers mourning friends and relatives accidentally killed by the missiles morph into terrorists themselves. The message, clearly, is to think about consequences.
Another is Nick Montfort's interactive fiction, "Book and Volume," which explores, among other things, consumerism and the culture of work.
Bogost wouldn't say which companies he might parody next. In any case, though the genre is still young, some observers of digital culture and branding think it's the start of something big that corporations will have to take notice of.
"We're just at the beginning of it," said Michael Tchong, an independent consumer products trend analyst. "We're going to get into a whole digital polemic battle, and this is just with crude (game design) tools. You can imagine (what will be possible) in the next five years."
Tchong said he thinks efforts like "Disaffected" and the McDonald's game could have an impact on the way big companies do business, but others aren't so sure.
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Brad Scott, director of digital branding at Landor Associates, which represents FedEx Kinkos, said he thinks such companies may actually benefit by being singled out from among several potential competitors.
"I don't know that they would have that negative effect on the brand," Scott said. "You can almost use it as, 'Boy, we've become such an icon as a brand that we're being mimicked by video games.'"
But developers like Pedercini and Bogost feel their work will have some effect. At the very least, they contend, players might start thinking about corporations in new ways.
The games, Pedercini said, "can make people ask some questions, and for instance read a book or consider that there are a lot of motivations to change their lifestyles."
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