Mass Media Effects
Last week, my fellow columnist Shankar Gupta did a great job covering the drama between a conservative columnist's misunderstanding of the game "Mass Effect," and the people that had played the game. While I hate to follow up this week with the same issue, there's been a significant development that demands a revisit: "Mass Effect" has hit mass media.
FOX News, likely influenced from the buzz surrounding the prior drama, hosted a brief segment on the game. The problem was that the "fair and balanced" network hadn't done a particularly good job in "gathering diligent research and presenting well-informed views." Accusations of gratuitous sex acts and full-frontal nudity were rampant. The guest who represented family values clearly had no concept of the game's content. Fox's segment ended up causing a bit more drama with the gaming crowd, with many giving one-star reviews to the guest's "family values" books on Amazon. EA even got in on the action, writing a letter to Fox asking for a correction.
This week's drama, as well as last week's, are great examples of subculture snobbery. This phenomenon is best described as "an elitist attitude that exists both toward a subculture by non-inclusive cultures, as well as from within the subculture toward non-inclusive cultures." Basically, "you don't get me because you're lame" and "I don't want to ‘get' you because you're lame." Subculture snobbery has existed for millennia -- the drama between gamers and non-gamers is but one incarnation. One common problem with this particular snobbery is that there is a misconception by the mainstream that the subculture is smaller and less significant that it in fact is.
Network news political analysts considered it newsworthy when, within three weeks, 200,000 people joined a Facebook group for Barack Obama. Well, within the first three weeks of its release, "Mass Effect" sold over 1 million copies. One would think a media product that sold one tenth as many copies in 21 days as Dante's "Divine Comedy" sold in 700 years would at least demand a solid Google search before launching into a hit job against it.
But there is a bias by non-gamers against the very medium. Roger Ebert claimed that video games are not "art." And it's apparent that many in the mainstream agree -- which leads to continual witch hunts against the medium. After the Virginia Tech shooting, video games were blamed before the facts were in (and then it turned out that the shooter did not play games). In the case of the "Oblivion" ESRB re-rating scandal, action was taken against the game that was equivalent to the MPAA re-rating an R rated film as NC-17 because some DVD owners used the picture-in-picture function of their TVs to watch porn at the same time the movie was playing. And in the case of "Mass Effect," a tastefully done, 20 second cut scene of romantic interaction that was PG-13 at best gets panned as contributing to the sexual downfall of our youth. Really now?
While the gaming community tends to react on a wide spectrum from polite discourse to hotheaded threats, until an equal platform for debate is available, their puerile reactions are understandable: they seem to be the only method that works. I'm reminded of what happened five years ago when a certain Blockbuster ad campaign for video game rentals ran. A popular online comic author commented (see second item on linked page) on the campaign. The next few days, the email address of Blockbuster's marketing head was posted; his mailbox was filled by complaints; Blockbuster cried foul and a second, private mailbox for the executive was set up; after that one was discovered and subsequently filled, the company finally pulled the ad campaign and asked the community for advice on what it should have done.
Which leads to the key takeaway from all the current drama: marketers need to take the time to recognize the trials and tribulations of their target demographic. And in the case of gaming, a "we stand with you, in all your varieties" message is far more effective than a "we think we understand you" message. Consider a post from the same online comic author a month after the Blockbuster mess entitled "Advertising." In it, he set a tone for accepting advertising for his site that's been working in the five years since: transparency. So much of this drama could be avoided if cultures and subcultures took the time to admit their ignorance about each other, and withhold judgment until a comprehensive assessment about gaming, and issues beyond it, had been made.
Note: Many of the links in this post point to pages where the language use is a bit less restrained. Please take this into consideration before clicking.