GameSetWatch pointed me to an AtariAge thread, which pointed me to a 1984(?) episode of a PBS business series called Enterprise. The show examines the rise of the 3rd-party game developer/publisher Imagic and the process of developing a hit title (in this case, Atlantis for the Atari 2600). It’s a fun look back in time, although hearing that designers got 2% royalties on gross back in the day leaves me green with envy. Other than the insane royalty schemes, though, the video game industry in 1982 looked a lot like it does in 2007, what with all the money being tossed around and developers trying to establish their names and focus test subjects mumbling about their vague impressions of what’s “realistic.”

Poking around YouTube, though, got me thinking about some of the ways in which video games are not the same as they were in the early 80s. Miyamoto, in his GDC keynote, touched on one of these ways: The popular image of gaming has changed since he began making them, and where he once fielded questions from the press about making harmless entertainment, he now had to respond to concerns about media effects and whether games were turning us all into violent “zombies” with no grip on reality.

As is so often the case, we can look to television commercials to act as a mirror on our culture’s attitude towards games. Check out this Atari spot, circa 1982:

Atari 2600: “Have You Played Atari Today?”

As the commercial progresses, the community of players expands, from boys, to dad, to mom, to sister, to neighbors, to grandparents. The setting is a comfortable living room with houseplants in the background and light streaming in through the windows. The color palette is dominated by warm, earthy reds and browns. In the last sequence, the grandfather looks like he’s getting frustrated; grandma pats his arm and seems to give him some advice, while the other spectators shout encouragement; a moment later, everyone is lifting their arms in a group gesture of victory, or fiero. This is an ad that sells games qua games, as something that families and friends play together, both cooperatively and competitively (like Scrabble or Bridge), and through this act of playing, strengthen their existing relationships and communities.

At the other end of the spectrum is this recent ad for the PS3:

PlayStation 3: “Baby Doll” (TBWA/Chiat/Day, 2006)

This couldn’t be more different than the old Atari spot if it tried. A stark, white room, bathed in cold, fluorescent light. A plastic baby doll boots up and cycles through a series of simulated emotions, gunfire and explosions reflected in its glass eyes like a virtual Clockwork Orange. The faux-baby calls out to its “mama,” the PS3, which hovers above the ground, a light-absorbent obelisk straight out of 2001. This is games qua escape, the opportunity for the player to erase his or her normal existence and to link with the machine, creating an experience that is dramatic, immersive, and highly affective, but disconnected from the mundane comforts of real life.

Then we have this Xbox 360 commercial, which was apparently pulled before it ever aired:

Xbox 360: “Standoff” (McCann-Erickson/72andSunny, 2005)

This one, at least, has actual humans in it, and a sense of humor to boot. However, the expanding circle of game players here still has a very different vibe than in the old Atari commercial. It’s in a public space, full of strangers, away from the safe confines of the home. The playful absurdity of the finger guns being pointed is contradicted by the twitchy, fearful looks on the actors’ faces as the tension mounts. When that tension breaks in a hail of “Bang!”s, the sudden jerks and cries as the bodies fall causes you to forget, for one terrifying second, that these are just actors pretending to pretend to shoot the hell out of each other. That instant of revulsion colors the rest of the spot, turning what might otherwise be a large-scale game of “Cops and Robbers” (or perhaps, considering the Guy Ritchie or John Woo references, a game of “Robbers and More Robbers”) into a alternate-reality riot where the bullets may be imaginary, but the intent to do harm seems all too real. Bizarrely, the commercial’s savior is the guy who refuses to play until he’s finished his phone call, a shot that allows us to break out of the fictive circle that we’ve been drawn into, take a breath, and remind ourselves that it’s only a game. Who would have thought that the jerk who never turns his cell off would ever provide a moment of stillness?

(Also: No smiling, unless you count the one “Woo!” shouted by an out-of-focus character. This is very serious play. Also also: No kids here. This commercial is rated M for Mature.)

Microsoft and McCann-Erickson do a much better job at conveying their vision of a gamer community in this award-winning spot:

Xbox 360: “Jump Rope” (McCann-Erickson, 2005)

The basic premise is similar to that in the “Standoff” spot: Random people in a public space being drawn into a game event. The tone of the piece is completely different, though. The setting is a neighborhood, which points towards home and suggests that some of the people here may already know each other. New players are welcome to enter and exit the game as they wish, and as they jump in and out of the ropes, the crowd cheers with encouragement and appreciation. The handheld camera gives the ad a spontaneous feel, but the lack of edits makes it all seem like a single, theatric experience. This is games qua collaborative performance, a transitory, temporary community forming and working to create an aesthetic experience for each other.

(Ironically, this commercial uses gameplay as a metaphor for gameplay, which kind of makes my head spin.)

Finally, bringing things almost full circle, there’s Nintendo’s ad for the Wii:

Nintendo Wii: “Wii for All” (Leo Burnett, 2006)

Shying away from high-concept metaphors, the Wii commercial seems to almost intentionally hearken back to the older days of the 2600. The dominant palette is cooler (blues and greens), and the traveling ambassadors add a layer of mysteriousness that, while hardly “edgy,” does reinforce the foreignness of Nintendo and of the Wiimote. Beyond that, though, all the core elements from the Atari spot are there: the emphasis on preexisting communities; the reaching out to community members who aren’t normally considered gamers; and the direct sell of the product itself (i.e., clips of gameplay), the “games qua games” idea that it’s possible to enjoy video games without having to traverse a long chain of signifiers.

(Incidentally: I [or someone who actually knows what they're talking about] could devote an entire article to the way race is used, abused, or ignored in all these ads, but I’ve rambled too much already. Maybe later.)

Game companies and ad agencies take the public’s concern over media effects and either play into, play off of, or play against the stereotypes that have built up around video games. The audiences that the major vendors court in their ads don’t just tell us who they think they’re selling games to, but what they think those games are.

Bonus Level: I’m just tossing in this Dreamcast ad because I’ve always loved it:

Dreamcast: “Up to 6 Billion Players”

Spontaneous gameplay breaks out in the darndest places. Replace “Dreamcast” in the tag with “Earth,” and see where that takes you.