The video game industry appears to be one of the latter, having benefited from the fact that many people are spending more time at home. Sales of game consoles, game subscriptions and individual games have risen sharply during the global coronavirus pandemic. That trend includes the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which was released in March. In the game, players get to travel to a virtual island where they can go fishing, shake trees until fruit falls down, build homes and talk to animals who talk back. To date, it has sold about 22.4 mn copies across the globe. But there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Platforms for political messages
Political activists and politicians make use of online games to create awareness for their concerns. A Black Lives Matter activist has, for example, created a monument on an island in Animal Crossing with portraits of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black victims of police violence. Virtual Black Lives Matter demonstrations have also been taking place in popular games including The Sims, Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft.
US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went on an election campaign tour with her virtual character in the Animal Crossing universe, delivering personal messages to the islanders. Gamers have also had the opportunity to put up campaign posters for Democratic candidate Joe Biden and running mate Kamala Harris in their virtual front yards. However, there are no official Trump posters in the game. A spokeswoman for the US President said the Trump campaign would continue to use its resources to campaign in the real world, “with real Americans.” Election campaigns have for years used video games. This is not exactly a new phenomenon. In the past, they were programmed for just that purpose, advertising games for a party or a candidate with a limited range.
But in-game advertising is an entirely different story, as such advertising becomes an accessory of sorts and is not the main purpose of the game, much as is the case with ads on social media. Advertising in video games is for the most part still the exception, however — and not the rule.
“Commercial advertising in video games never reached the levels predicted 10 years ago — even less so in political advertising,” said communications expert Christoph Klimmt. He told DW that technological hurdles remain the main obstacle in creating a wider reach. “Integrating ads is comparatively complex because these are interactive software products, and are therefore bulky.” That’s why campaign strategists think twice over whether making the effort might be worthwhile.
Obama first to run in-game ads
It’s always also a matter of money, said Julius van de Laar, who campaigned for former President Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Obama was the first to use in-game advertising in video games in a US presidential campaign. Virtual billboards flashed his likeness in 18 popular video games, including the NBA Live 08 basketball game and Burnout Paradise, a racing game.
“We had a clever campaign team. And we were so well-funded in the 2008 election campaign that we had the financial freedom and capacity to simply try things like that,” van der Laar told DW. Communication scientists and campaign managers know, however, that in-game advertising has very little influence on individual players — their focus is to follow the action on the screen and not the ads. In-game election advertising is an earned media strategy. “The point is to reach specific target groups through such tactical measures, to show how innovative the election campaign is and to generate coverage [about that] in the classic media,” said van de Laar, adding that “in-game advertising is a nice gimmick.”
— This article has been provided by Deutsche Welle