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Advertising in videogames: Unwelcome intrusion or a chance for entertainment?  

As a marketer I can see the appeal and the potential that in-game adverts have, but I have a few issues

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Author – Elisa Zallio

The other day I listened to a podcast about advertising in multi-player games that left me conflicted. On one hand, as someone that works in the marketing field, I recognise the potential of in-game advertising. It’s a vast audience with spendable income, and if done right in-game ads could even help with immersion. Say you’re playing FIFA; stadiums in the real world have advertising all over them, so they would just organically fit into the game. Ads could also fit in sci-fi game, as part of the cityscape – is Burger King still a thing in 2300? Does Zara organise hologram runaways between skyscrapers? As long as it’s entertaining and fits with the whole vibe of the game, I don’t see a problem.

In fantasy games it might be more complicated, but there’s always the Easter egg route. Recently I was playing Dragon Age: Origins, and I stumbled upon two farmers beside a crater, who had just found a child that fell from the stars. Sound familiar? If like me you have heard a bit about Superman, it does. It was a lovely reference to catch. Now think of a Witcher game where a new tavern is in town – it serves a strong drink from Ofieri called coffee and has a two-tailed siren trophy as a mantlepiece. A not-so-subtle nod to Starbucks, but it would steal a smile from me.

I can see advertising like that working. However, I am also a gamer. And from that perspective, to misquote Dr Malcom, marketers are so preoccupied with whether or not they can that they don’t stop to think if they should. Because it’s not just raising awareness; in-game advertising can also mean NFTs, micro-transactions and breaking of the immersion. I have loads of issues with the first two, from being sceptical of the actual value of NFTs to the irritation at pay-to-win strategies, but since I’m mainly into fantasy RPGs I find immersion-breaking to be the worst offender.

No, I’m sorry, I do not want a Tesco sword in my hand while I’m in Sovngarde battling Alduin the World Devourer, thank you very much. I don’t care if it has better stats than any of my other equipment, it will just end in the basement of my many houses in Skyrim, never to see the light of day again. I always preferred bows anyway.

I guess laziness is my main worry. With time and effort, brands could come up with very creative and entertaining ideas to appear in videogames, without threatening the immersion. However, just slapping an advert in is much easier and inexpensive, and I fear many could decide to take that route. Brands slipping in games already feels like an intrusion, a blasting commercial for the latest energy drink while I’m firing arrows at a mechanical mammoth would just leave me fuming.

In conclusion, as a marketer I can see the appeal and the potential that in-game adverts have. You could make something truly fun and creative with it, that entertains your audience and raises awareness. As a gamer, I don’t welcome the intrusion. And that’s only from an immersion point of view, without opening the total can of worms that is how these ads can be used to target minors, and all the dangers that come with it.

We’ll have to wait and see, but one thing is for sure – I won’t put a branded armour on any of my future play-through of The Witcher III. If, however, Starbucks wants to sponsor a new potion to add to my inventory… I guess caffeine addiction can’t be escaped, even while hunting Leshens.