February 3, 2006 12:51 PM PST

Games that stick it to 'The Man'

Big corporations beware: Some video game developers are on a mission to skewer your reputation.

For several years, hard-core game players have complained that big consumer brands are increasingly being featured in their virtual game worlds. Even worse, they say, are "advergames," video games developed by companies to promote products.

Now a new genre of games is flipping that promotion on its head. Known as "anti-advergames," the new titles satirize big companies and question corporate polices ranging from how cattle are raised to low pay for workers.

Anti-advergames

"Advertisers, governments and organizations mount huge campaigns to show us what they want us to see, and we want to expose what they're hiding," said Ian Bogost, a partner at Persuasive Games, a pioneer of the new genre. "There's lots of precedent for this sort of speech in print, in film (and) on the Web, but we think videogames are particularly good at exposing the underlying logics of these organizations--how they work and what's wrong with it."

One of the earliest titles in the nascent genre is Persuasive's "Disaffected!," which puts players in the role of managing a FedEx Kinko's copy franchise.

"Disaffected!" gives players the chance to step into the shoes of "demotivated" FedEx Kinkos employees, a blurb about the game on Persuasive Game's Web site said. "Feel the indifference of these purple-shirted malcontents firsthand, and consider the possible reasons behind their malaise--is it mere incompetence? Managerial affliction? Unseen but serious labor issues?"

Another new game, from the Italian design shop Molleindustria, skewers McDonald's by taking players though a game experience in which they discover that to make money running the company they must exploit underdeveloped countries and low-wage workers and feed unhealthy growth hormones to cattle.

"Behind every sandwich, there is a complex process you must learn to manage," Molleindustria said in a statement. "From the creation of pastures to the slaughter, from the restaurant management to the branding. You'll discover all the dirty little secrets that made (McDonald's) one of the biggest companies (in) the world."

Neither McDonalds nor Kinko's responded to multiple requests for comment.

To be sure, satirical criticism of corporations is nothing new. The subject has been broached in movies, books, cartoons and songs for some time. "Super Size Me," Morgan Spurlock's documentary about the ill effects of eating too much McDonald's food, was a cult hit.

Another barbed critique, which made its rounds on the Web, was "Yours is a Very Bad Hotel" (Click here for PDF), a 17-slide PowerPoint screed created in 2001 by two travelers upset with the DoubleTree Club Hotel in Houston. (In an e-mail, the author of the PowerPoint presentation told CNET News.com that he has since resolved his issue with DoubleTree and has appeared with hotel management on a Webcast talking about the "strategic issues posed to corporations by the Internet-enabled power shift.")

Of course, there's always the risk of publishers getting sued if their games step beyond the line of satire, which is usually protected speech. And Molleindustria game designer Paulo Pedercini, for one, worries about the risk of copyright infringement. But because the games are usually free, makers can at least argue that they're not profiting from their distribution.

The idea behind the McDonald's game, Pedercini argues, is that game play can be a good way to let users understand the complexities of economic and social systems.

And after reading Jeremy Rifkin's book "Beyond Meat," which argues that the meat industry negatively impacts society, the environment and human health, "we thought that a video game would be (the) right way to popularize this kind of systemic criticism," Pedercini said.

For its part, Persuasive Games has been designing games about political and social issues since its "Howard Dean for Iowa," which the Dean presidential campaign commissioned in 2003.

Bogost and his Persuasive Games partner, Gerard LaFond, come from advertising backgrounds, having created Web sites and online games for Hollywood studios, consumer packaged goods companies and carmakers in the 1990s.

"I've always had a complicated relationship with advertising," Bogost said. "It's everywhere, and it's becoming more and more parasitic. Yet, because it's everywhere it has the power to influence people positively as well as negatively."

Bogost admits, however, that it's hard to make a living designing experimental games, so Persuasive Games makes some of its money from advertising projects. Thus, he and his partners are forced to walk a thin line between what they feel are socially responsible and economically viable projects.

"Just as many independent filmmakers work on television spots and music videos to fund their features and documentaries," he said, "we work on advergames to fund our social and political games."

CONTINUED: Making people ask questions…
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6 comments

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mmmmmm
Growth hormones and cattle. I better go check on my roast.
Posted by Bob Brinkman (556 comments )
Reply Link Flag
... for got the dessert menu
... don't forget the high fructose corn syrup in breakfast the orange drink, ice cream, buns...
Posted by marileev (292 comments )
Link Flag
Advertising in videogmaes is nothing new
Anyone remember the M&M's video game, or Cheetos Chester Cheetah or 7up's Cool Spot? In more recent times, I give you every single videogame based off a movie ever (c.f. the roughly 3.6 million Star Wars games released every year), and every sports game: NFL Inc. owns the names and logos of every team and they will only give the go ahead to videogames that feel promote and enhance their brand, and are produced by EA (EA paid the NFL a boatload of cash for exclusive rights to NFL teams in games.) Racing games featuring licensed cars (which is why in most of them, the cars never take damage; Porsche won't allow a beat up 911 chugging down a virtual autobahn), FPSs with real world weapons and SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals and America's Army (the latter being an aknowledged recruitment tool). The list goes on. And when videogames aren't ads in and of themselves, they often become advertising FOR themselves: A few months before the release of every Final Fantasy game, you what you can find on the shelf at EB games, Software Etc. and Frys? Licensed action figures for the same. My point is, advertising in videogames is as pervasive and as neccessary as advertising on television; without it, these industries would not be what we know them to be today, and people who are just now starting to complain about it are more than a little late.
Posted by Naznarreb (1 comment )
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I think it's a GREAT idea.... TRUTH in "Advertising"?
All media are used for brainwashing...including games.

It's about time SOMEONE took the bull by the horns and told the TRUTH!!!!!!!!

I wonder when games about Microsoft, the RIAA/MPAA and the Nazi Hydra that is running our 'government' will come out.............
Posted by btljooz (401 comments )
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Truth in copyrighting...
I think these games are a great idea. I'd love to see more of this kind. I love intelligent satire of all types.

While I agree that satire is covered in the US under the 1st Amendment (excluding such issues as malicious libel and slander), the reaction by the makers of the McDonald's satire contains a common misconception about US copyright laws - the issue of making money, or not. The law states who has the RIGHT to COPY material (hence the name "copyright"). Whether or not money is charged is irrelevant.
Posted by Jim Harmon (329 comments )
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