Remember when movie theatres only showed a few previews before a film? Remember when they added commercials to the mix? Videogames were advertisement-free once, too. Long lusted after as a vehicle for commercial messaging, games have finally joined the ranks of the rest of the entertainment industry.
In the soon-to-be blockbuster The Sims Online, players could find it difficult to avoid getting their fingers soiled on virtual McDonald's hamburgers. A deal struck between Sims publisher Electronic Arts and the fastfood mega-corporation allows Sims players to open up their own McDonald's kiosk and improve their game stats by consuming McD's greasy goodies. While news of this groundbreaking sponsorship deal fades quickly from memory, failure to address this latest barrage in the war on ad-free gaming could result in a super-sized sandwich of misery. Based on the success of previous Sims offerings, The Sims Online is an ideal high-profile backdrop in the war against "advergaming." The McDonald's kiosks that dot the imaginary battlefield are mere burger bunkers to be ad-busted in an anti-advergaming mission that could go down in the annals of gaming history.
The Sims Online website crows, "Let your imagination run wild. Choose your online role and play your way in this unpredictable, infinite, online world." Your online role, should you choose to stand against advertising in games, is that of Revolutionary.
Your motivation is simple. Product placement weakens the overall aesthetic of a game in ways more insidious than movie- or television-based placement -- moving from passive directly to aggressive, from inactive to interactive. It used to be enough for advertisers that we merely observed their product. Now, in an increasing number of games, becoming immersed in a company's brand is integral and inevitable. What benefit do we reap from this immersion? Our gaming experience is cheapened, but game titles are no less expensive. Publishers have already set the price of a computer game two to three times that of a new DVD movie. Will games with integrated advertising be any less expensive than games without? Not bloody likely.
Know this, future rebel: Deeply-integrated marketing is a double-edged sword. Once the strategic sponsorship deal was signed, both parties were locked into a digital dungeon of their own devise. Shakes, fries, and pimply-faced employees are irrevocably etched on to every CD of The Sims Online.
In an online world with no way to address challenges to their brand, we've got McDonald's right where we want them.
The ad-busting revolution needs clever soldiers, able to use their Sims avatar and the entire world of The Sims Online to their advantage. These anti-corporate activists must play within the rules of The Sims Online, but push the boundaries to the breaking point in order to get the attention of fellow citizens and the real world media. It's been reported that eating virtual McDonald's hamburgers will positively affect your "Fun" and "Hunger" game stats. But what if you're a vegetarian? What if you're an eco-activist? What if you think it's more Fun dining at Biff's Family Restaurant? Although the game hasn't hit the stores yet, the free public beta is open. The time to act is now. Log in, Revolutionary, and fight the good fight:
Picket the nearest McDonald's kiosk. Stand in front of the kiosk and tell visitors why you think McDonald's sucks. Be careful not to use foul language or hinder the movement of your fellow Simians. Polite protest can't result in your account getting suspended... can it?
Actually order and consume virtual McD's food, then use The Sims Online's "expressive gestures" in creative ways. Lie down and play dead. Emote the vomiting, sickness, or fatigue that might overcome you after eating a real life McNugget.
Open your own McDonald's kiosk. Verbally abuse all customers in the name of McDonald's. Loudly proclaim how terrible your food is and how it's made from substandard ingredients (or whatever you think will turn people off). Make sure you preface each such statement with "In my opinion," to avoid libel charges.
Open an independent restaurant. Gain the confidence of your clientele, and then let them know your business is being hurt by ubiquitous McDonald's kiosks. Ask them to put pressure on other Simians to support small business people instead of cogs in a gigantic franchise-machine.
History has shown gamers that online protest can result in positive change, as exemplified in Ultima Online's 1997 naked riot demanding bug fixes and server upgrades. Not only were some of the rioters' issues addressed by the game publisher following the incident, but the event was widely reported, and gamers worldwide have been inspired to acts of virtual civil disobedience ever since. Remember that your worst enemy, aside from integrated branding, is inaction. Electronic Arts clearly wants players of The Sims Online to be wildly imaginative, and has already recognized that the online world is unpredictable.
With EA touting such egalitarian rhetoric, it follows to reason that freedom of speech is as alive in The Sims Online as it is in the real world. Test this theory by standing up and shouting for what you believe in, my Revolutionaries! If the thought of being force-fed Big Macs makes you sick, you'd better start giving this advertising model a serious case of indigestion.
Originally printed at Shift.com, Mark Moyes editor.