Gather around with friends, smile and laugh. I still believe that this part of the video game ecosystem (you’ll here me saying this a lot) is still going strong but it now cohabits with a another giant that strives for meaningful experiences and that wants to deliver emotionally charged content to the masses (i.e. both indie and AAA games). A way to underline and report this change in the content of games is to look at how those pieces of software are sold on the market, how they are marketed. How do the companies want to showcase their product and whom are they targeting? I’m always hearing a lot of negative affirmations here and there on how mature games viciously target younger demographics (between 12 and 17) as their primary audience. I don’t think it’s true anymore because believe or not, gamers are growing up. As they slowly but surely enter the very real world of adulthood, the demographic of gamers slowly changes as well. So how are games advertised and marketed now compared to the previous generations of the 80s-90s?
80's and 90's
From I was able to see online, most game commercials features young (pre-teen and teen) white males enjoying recreational time in front of the television. Most ads feature over the top set pieces such as recreating the games’ environment inside the children room while they are intensely absorbed and invested playing a video game (17 old Nintendo ads: 0:36, 2: 23, 4: 18, 5: 58, 6: 41). Notice that even though there might be other individuals involved in the scenes, it all revolves around kids being overly excited about the games they're playing. A good example of this would be the Yoshi’s commercial that showcases frightened adults and finally a young boy playfully recognizing Yoshi while enjoying a little cool off playing on his Game Boy.
Another striking statement that really seems to define what gamers are supposed to be during this time period is the following phrase heard in a Legend of Zelda commercial: “your parents help you hook it up” talking about Nintendo's console the NES. This simple phrase reinforces the image of parents buying the system, installing it and giving it to their kids. In other terms, adults are not playing the NES they “hook it up”. One last to thing to mention is the constant “cool” attitude that emanates from those publicities. “Buy a Nintendo Entertainment System and be the cool kid in school” we almost instantly feel while watching the Legend of Zelda commercial. Be a cool “white boy” one author states as he writes: “a cooler white boy, of course, whereby if there were girls or people of color in the ads, they were mainly there to look awed by or envious of the sporty white boy who was winning the video game”.
The Theory of Empowerment
One thing that clearly struck me while browsing video game commercials on Youtube is how the term “power” is used and repeated throughout old Nintendo’s television ads. “Now you’re playing with power” they said with a very deep voice synonym of gravity and seriousness. So I went digging (on the surface) to find how it all relates to the kids’ societal situation of this very time period. Many writers believe the transition from the 80s to the 90s seems to be a conflicted one for younger individuals. Lost in the very “high speed” development of capitalism of the 80s certain kids (pre-teen and teens I assume) found themselves powerless in a world they couldn’t quite yet grasp. In order to maybe subconsciously satisfy this desire of being relevant in a highly unstable and changing world, companies took the opportunity to play around this societal problem (or internal crisis) by offering products that would empower children or make them feel powerful. One example of this can be heard in a commercial of Wizards & Warriors II: IronSword where the barbarian tells the kid at the end that “the fate of the world is in your hands”. Another game commercial shows frightened adults and screaming old ladies all running away at the sight of a fairly innocent creature named Yoshi. While people are struck with fear running from Yoshi, a boy is sited on park bench and both casually and playfully greets the creature that seems like a friend for the young one. We then present Yoshi as a friend of kids. They are not scared of it. In a way (because this can probably interpreted in several ways) this showcases younger demographic as being superior and more powerful than adults.
JRPGs were also a very popular type of video game back in the 90s. The premise of most of these games was: “a young ordinary boy, mostly powerless that is provided with a quest… with a purpose and that slowly gets to discover who he really is”. In the end, the hero would confront the highest authority or “the system”. And what can we say about Nintendo’s old slogan “now you’re playing with power”? Knowing all of this, we can now assume that commercials were aimed at a target audience of children, pre teens and teens and are tailored to make them feel powerful, in control and meaningful.
The Later 2000's
A drastic change can be observed in marketing strategies as gamers grow up. Commercials get darker and tackle very mature subjects such as the meaning of war, daily responsibilities and the hardships of life. Notice who is portrayed in those Call of Duty and Halo commercials… mostly adults in their mid 30s. In fact, a well known organization (ESA) specified that the gaming market, whereas people that buy and play video games, is majorly composed of people around the age of 35. It’s not surprizing to see gaming companies going from targeting younger audience to a more mature demographic by adjusting the content of their commercials. In the “Replacer” (a Call of Duty commercial), we see an adult replacing other adults in their daily life so they can play and enjoy Call of Duty (video games if you’re thinking about the larger picture). This means accompanying their wife to give birth, maybe going on blind dates, assembling Ikea furniture and taking care of others. We’re not showcasing kids playing in their rooms anymore. Everything seems a lot heavier like in this Halo ODST trailer revealing the disturbing life of a vulnerable military recruit. The Dead Island trailer also leads the way in term of “disturbingness” and showcases a strongly emotional set of scenes where a family (and at a higher level… family bonds) is torn apart by raging zombies. This seems very far away from Yoshi “rampaging” in the streets of a city.
There’s also this recurrent theme in the content of games that made me think about how developers are slowly starting to tackle more mature subjects to probably attract older audiences: the theme of “parenthood”. Bioshock Infinite, Dishonored, The Last of Us and many other games features a grown up character being tormented by their difficult past and having to protect and watch over a younger individual (parenting in a way). In that sense, I think all of this is the reflection of the developer’s reality of life but also the reality of those who now consume games, adults.
In my opinion, game companies do not intently target younger audiences but rather try to make games appeal to the older demographic of young adults to adults by power charging their commercials with emotional content (see Call of Duty: Ghost trailer presenting the tight and vulnerable relation soldiers share with each other) and things that the buying force (people around 37) can relate to: the hardships of everyday life.