Commercial Success: Positioning Games in Pop Culture

Did you see the recent Harrison Ford advertisement? (And if you haven’t, you can check it out below.). Apparently Indiana Jones loves Uncharted 3. Dr. Henry Jones is retired of course (and who wouldn’t after that whole crystal skull fiasco?), but surely his opinion is still valid. After all, Jones is a cultural icon, a swashbuckling hero that we all admire, a perfect representative of what the medium stands for. Yet finding our games media spokesperson is not so easy. Just last week, my PopMatters compatriot Scott Juster wrote about a subway commercial that offers a different perspective on video games. G. Christopher Williams also wrote about a television commercial for the PS3 with its own reflection on games and gamers. This selection of divergent and even contradictory advertisements reflects the inconsistent place that games still hold within popular culture.

Although Sony’s latest pitch for Uncharted 3 was targeted towards Japanese consumers, the Western press picked it up and gamers responded positively to video of Harrison Ford playing Naughty Dog’s forthcoming title. Even though we all know that Ford is a paid actor, his reactions to the game appear both genuine and charming. Considering his age, it feels a bit like watching your grandpa play a video game and finding that he actually likes it. His face contorts during action scenes, and he seems genuinely strained when fighting off enemies. Ford even recognizes the artificial situation and still appears to thoroughly enjoy the experience of playing Uncharted 3. “If there wasn’t a bunch of people around it would be even more exciting,” he says.

Why is Harrison Ford in this room in Japan in the first place? Well most importantly, he played Indiana Jones, the spiritual predecessor to Uncharted’s Nathan Drake. If we enjoyed the Indiana Jones series (and really, who didn’t?), then of course we will enjoy Drake’s exploits. They are, after all, both charming adventurers. But more than that, Ford/Jones is passing the cultural torch. While playing the game, Ford describes Uncharted 3 as “cinematic” and “realistic,” which we all know to be true. Playing the game, he says that it feels “very much like being in a movie.” The commercial ties film and games together, the latter as the natural successor to the former. Games, the commercial seems to say, are now the culturally legitimate offspring of film, the new vanguards of the adventure genre — a theme very much in line with Uncharted 2’s ad campaign, which portrayed the two mediums as indistinguishable.

While Ford’s presence in Sony’s commercial exploited a cultural icon to tie the games medium to cinema and its historical achievements, the Subway “Taste for Adventure” campaign turns a digital character into an icon and normalizes our cultural consumption of video games to sell sandwiches. Juster is right when he states, “a promotion that isn’t beholden to in jokes, inaccessible fantasy/sci-fi cliches, or overt sexism is refreshing.” (“Promotional Adventures: Thoughts on the Subway ‘Uncharted 3’ Campaign”, PopMatters, 20 October 2011) Drake has become a cultural ambassador, a representative of games from the game space itself. It is his relationship with the mundane that becomes jarring. As Juster says, “our reality has been crudely inserted into this world, and it seems that Drake is less of a character than some weird digital celebrity who gets hired to do gigs.”

The Sony commercial that Williams finds so fascinating accomplishes the opposite of what Juster is talking about. In this advertisement, fictional video game characters made flesh spend their time in a cramped bar telling war stories about Michael, the stand-in for all players and the true hero of every adventure. The bar patrons include the likes of Solid Snake, Chell, and a Little Sister. While Drake’s sandwich fueled monologue speaks to everyone, the cast of characters (many whom appear alien and unfriendly) resonate only with the gamers and our collective history. “Who are these people?,” a non-gamer might think, “and what’s with the creepy dead girl?” Williams’s reading of the commercial contrasts with the Drake appearances:

Again, by emphasizing our own personal experience in the medium as paramount to gaming as an occupation, it is the medium very clearly recognizing its ‘unusual qualities’ as what is important and valuable (and different) about the medium. (Self Indulgence or Self Realization?: Sony’s “Michael” Ad, PopMatters, 19 October 2011.)

We the players, through Michael, are our own icons, the commercial suggests. The games medium is our own and sits comfortably in its own sub-culture. Yet Drake and Ford position games differently, the former normalizing the medium by bathing a game icon with corporate swag and the latter connecting games to film through an aging movie icon. All three of these commercials reflect the mobility and indeterminacy of games within our pop culture landscape.

But does the tail wag the dog? Do these commercials reflect or create our cultural understanding of games?

Games escape the confines of the television largely through advertisement (and increasingly through transmedia projects), and as a reult, maybe the indecisive positioning of games and icons sends the wrong message to non-gamers and our culture at large.

Or, perhaps this inconsistency is healthy for the medium. With a multifaceted approach to advertising, maybe Drake and Ford bring in consumers who might otherwise ignore games. Consumers and creators of games have yet to develop a consistent message regarding the medium and it relationship to the rest of pop culture. Maybe it should stay that way.


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