It’s that time of year again. Carved pumpkins light the way as trick or treaters run down driveways past fake tombstones nestled in the ground. Fake blood splatter and cotton cobwebs strewn across porches dare bold children to ring the bell in search of a treat. Who will open the door? A vampire or Freddy Kruger ready to pounce and scare the daylights out of them? A princess ready to shower her guests with delicious sweets?
Whether you thrive on the thrill of fright or have a soft spot for a friendly ghost, one thing is for sure – Halloween is a holiday that delights the imagination. People become part of another world, another story. They escape the mundane, trading it in for a fantasy land, if only just for a few hours.
That’s exactly what happens when people play video games. Players become immersed in an adventure: slaying dragons, flinging birds at pigs, or running through a post-apocalyptic environment. The experience gamers feel while playing is similar to watching a great movie that captivates its audience. Advertisers have tapped into mesmerized audiences for decades, carefully placing brands and products in front of viewers. They capitalize on consumers’ associations (conscious or unconscious) between characters, themes, feelings and their featured brand.
Video games and the ghost story of violence
Ad tech has evolved rapidly over the last few years, paving the way for brands to walk down the video game-filled driveway and connect with whoever is in front of the screen.
However, brands seem to remain hesitant about in-game advertising, believing that violence in a game could tarnish the brand’s reputation. Yet, brands don’t exhibit the same high level of concern when placing products in violent movies. Horror flick Get Out was soaked with blood, violence, and Microsoft. Bottles of Jack Daniels are featured prominently in The Shining. BMW Mini Coopers are the vehicles of choice for criminals in The Italian Job. None of those brands shied away from being presented alongside gore, violence and crime.
The Addams Family comes to the Ghostopia experience on Roblox. Credit: SuperSocial
As psychologist Dr. Kowert points out, hundreds of scientific studies have assessed the relationship between playing violent video games and aggressive behaviors. Except for a few questionable studies, researchers all come to the same conclusion: no evidence suggests violent gameplay translates into real-world actions or behaviors. It’s time for advertisers to let go of the myth and embrace the power that in-game ads hold.
Gamers weigh in on video game violence
Some advertisers need to have their fears set aside and hear from the horse’s mouth, so here’s the truth, advertisers. We interviewed a random sampling of gamers and their viewpoints mostly aligned. Echoed by many was that violence in video games is just another plot device. If you’re playing a Souls-like game, FPS, etc., violence is just part of the world or game plot.
Some gamers viewed violence in games and movies similarly. A player known as SynRapture said: “There are obvious lines, and I don’t enjoy gratuitous violence for violence’s sake or unnecessary extreme gore, but playing Battlefield and watching a WW1 or WW2 movie is pretty much the same.”
Others found movie violence even harsher than what they see in games. A gamer known by the nickname RY4NDY said: “I have also never felt “affected” in any way by seeing or doing something violent in a game (except if said violence has resulted in the death of a “good” character in a story-based game or something. But in that case, it isn’t the violence itself, but the death of that character that “affects” me), whereas in movies seeing a particularly violent/gruesome scene does sometimes “affect” me somewhat.”
Video game violence isn’t a one-size-fits-all costume
The classification of violence is currently determined by the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (Garm), an initiative established by the World Federation of Advertisers to address the challenge of harmful content on digital media platforms and its monetization via advertising.
What advertisers need to internalize is that not all violence is the same. In the most extreme example, consider Angry Birds. Players launch birds at pigs, hoping that the pigs will meet their death. That’s violent, but no one has raised the flag on that game. Is it because of the colorful cartoon imagery? Or is it because the idea of that happening in real life is so unrealistic?
That same logic could and should be applied to games such as Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft. As violence in movies differs (think Deadpool vs. Saw), so does violence in games. What one brand might find tolerable could be a no-go for another, and that’s ok. Video games and players are so diverse. There is a right game, a right gaming environment, and a right audience within the gaming community for every brand to find their ideal moment to connect with players. Brand suitability and contextual targeting are key here. If you find a genre or a specific game that aligns with your brand values, just go for it. The players will feel the authenticity rather than associate your brand with in-game violence.
Chipotle gives fans a fun way to experience Booritos in the metaverse for the first time. Credit: Roblox Corp
Finding that moment is key. When it comes to creating an emotional connection between the game, the positive excitement gamers feel while playing, transferring that emotion to the brand. After all, placing a product in a movie scene is incredibly deliberate, not random.
If you’re still not convinced, let me leave you with this final thought: people love to be scared during Halloween. Why? Psychology has proven that when people anticipate they are going to be scared, it’s actually enjoyable. Horror movies, with their ominous soundtracks, play right into this situation. When humans sense fear is on the horizon, the hypothalamus region in the brain is activated in the same way as when people experience excitement.
Predictable fear activates the reward center in the brain, so when gamers play and anticipate a sense of dread as they battle their way across lands, positive emotions bubble up. By ignoring any game that contains violence and labeling them all the same, advertisers are missing out on a huge opportunity to reach a massive audience who is diverse, engaged, and ready to hear from them.
By Natalia Vasilyeva, VP marketing at Anzu.