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Torso-gate and how game marketing hurts acceptance of games

I published this on my personal blog earlier, but wanted to put it here as well.

The Entertainment Software Association reports that the average “frequent game purchaser” in the United States is 35. They also claim that just under half of gamers are women. Video games are a multibillion dollar entertainment industry and a medium that’s about as mainstream as anything else in our popular culture. And so, I have to ask myself, why is it that I often feel the need to qualify my interest in games in a way that I would never think of having to do with movies or television.

Between the conversations about violence in media that arose out of the Newtown tragedy and a really fascinating discussion taking place among some online circles about the role of women in games, and the tech industry as a whole, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit lately. And then yesterday, some news broke that seemed to take all of these discussions and crystallize them in a way that I felt that I needed to write something to address this.

You see, in an attempt to market the sequel to a moderately successful zombie game called Dead Island, a game publisher announced a “collector’s edition” bundle with what might be the most crass and offensive item I’ve ever seen offered for sale – a plastic statuette of a dismembered, bikini-clad torso of a woman replete with comically large breasts and bloody, bone-protruding limb stumps. Classy stuff, right?

Now, I could go into why this is a terrible move from a marketing/PR perspective, but I would like to think that most people wouldn’t need an explanation as to why this isn’t really what you want associated with your brand. And yet this item, which must have made it through countless approvals and boardroom meetings, exists. Unsurprisingly, this caused a bit of a firestorm and many more talented than me have already written about this specific incident in detail. But, this brings me back to my original dilemma – why do I, as a consumer of entertainment content enjoyed by millions, feel so embarrassed by it, so often? And, the only thing I can conclude is that the public face of games, the one that my friends, my co-workers, my family see most often, is the marketing materials.

All of this is sort of taking place around movie awards season, and I want to use two Best Picture nominees as examples here. On one hand, we have Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a brutally violent revenge fantasy that probably stands next to all but the most extreme video games in its depictions of human brutality; on the other Michael Haneke’s Amour, a deeply serious drama which spends 90 minutes exploring the emotional depths of sickness and death. And yet, these two films, whose content, themes and presentation could hardly be more different, are being celebrated together in one of the most watched public events of the year. I would feel entirely comfortable discussing either of these films with a colleague, a friend, a loved one, without needing to qualify anything about my feelings, like I often feel I must do with games.

And here’s the sad part, the breadth of interesting, poignant content in games is rapidly increasing. I would venture to say that I had just as many meaningful moments with games over the past few years s I have with films or television. But, for those who aren’t “gamers,” all they see is lowest common denominator. Imagine if the only movies ever advertised, covered in the press, or otherwise exposed to audiences who don’t visit art house theaters were Michael Bay films and Adam Sandler comedies? This is where games are right now.

Even those games which have something to say often hide those themes in their marketing for one reason or another. Take my most anticipated game of 2013, Bioshock Infinite. Its predecessor, simply named Bioshock, managed to take the framework of a violent action game and turn it into a commentary on free will and as brutal a refutation of libertarianism and objectivism as I’ve seen in any media. Bioshock Infinite promises to tackle American exceptionalism, religious freedom and racial intolerance in much the same way. And what did marketers decide would be the best cover for the game? An image of a man in an action hero pose, with a shotgun and a burning flag.

In the independent games space, there are countless games exploring important and challenging themes. I’d suggest that anyone should download and play Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a game that takes, at most 5 minutes to play. Without spoiling it, the game manages to tackle life, love, sacrifice and death with a poignancy and economy of narrative that simply wouldn’t be possible in a non-interactive format. And not all of these games need to tackle some deep issue, but can just be interesting in their own right - I’m currently playing through an episodic game called Kentucky Route Zero which combines the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the films of David Lynch, and American folk music into one of the most sublime experiences I’ve had in any medium.

The fact of the matter is that games, and the people who play them, are growing up. I’d like to believe that game creators are looking to do so as well. Yes, there will always be testosterone fueled teenagers to market to, and I can’t deny that they are attractive to companies looking to hit the bottom line. But, it’s also now up to the games industry to realize that there’s this whole other group of us who want to share why gaming can be great with friends and family without feeling embarrassed by the content. And more than that, I’d love to be able to share my love of games with my future children and feel like they’re not going to be exposed to an industry where marketing a bloody, sexualized torso is considered a rational business decision.