October 31, 2009
Infinity Ward posted a promotional video for Modern Warfare 2 on YouTube last night. The ad features an in-game version of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels delivering a faux public service announcement for a faux organization called Fight Against Grenade Spam (FAGS, get it?) urging players to "be cool, and avoid random grenades. They’re for pussies."
It didn't take long for justifiably outraged folks to register their displeasure.
Publicity campaigns like this - and EA's "Sin to Win" contest and SEGA's "Can You Be Bayonetta?" contest co-sponsored by Maxim - suggest the game industry is aggressively targeting a core audience they believe will embrace edgy ads because they're purposely offensive, not in spite of the fact.
Spend a few minutes plowing through the comments on that YouTube video (1700+ as of this writing), and you'll see what I mean. The response can best be described as gleeful. Those who figured out the FAGS acronym seem especially delighted by their cleverness.
Nobody at Activision fumbled the ball here. Nobody's going to be fired for bad judgment. Infinity Ward (owned by Activision) is plugging into a real and widespread cultural pushback occurring among young American men. It's cool at the moment to be an insensitive jerk. Empathy and understanding are out. Tough guys with smirks on their faces are in. Infinity Ward knows this because it's their business to know.
Like every major developer, Infinity Ward has reams of data on who buys and plays their games. Now, it seems, they've decided to eliminate the PR middle man and target their core audience directly with ads tailored specifically to them. Community manager Robert Bowling puts it this way:
Not only do we know the game but we know the gamer. We know what to expect from them and what they expect from us. So it helps us guide design decisions and decisions overall, including with PR. ... I think it is essential for developers to have that power. ... We are responsible for what we say and what we do, and we can be held accountable for our successes and failures.
The marketing strategy for MW2 reflects the realities of the marketplace and a set of assumptions about the culture of gamers who play the Call of Duty series. I may not like what those assumptions imply, and I may object to a hegemonic characterization of "gamer" - but do I think that ugly little video reached its target? Bullseye.
If we want to teach boys why compassion and civility are essential to their development as men, we must do it one lesson at a time. We can disapprove of EA and Activision's despicable choices, but we shouldn't presume our outrage will impact the underlying reality. It's not about the games or the ad campaigns; it's about how we raise and teach our kids. We have created this callous consumer, and we should expect marketers to target him accordingly. Are companies who sell games and music and body spray complicit in all this? Of course. Are they to blame? No.
The day your son gets a load of "Sin to Win" and decides he'd rather spend his money on another game is the day we begin to turn this around. And the marketing will follow suit. Those PR types know how to hit a moving target.
Addendum: Infinity Ward has pulled the video from YouTube (via community manager Robert Bowling's Twitter post).