In the ever-expanding battlefront over whether video games are legitimate adult entertainment, a decidedly childish marketing campaign has drawn attention to the weaknesses of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board.
Common Sense Media, a San Francisco family advocacy group, has fired a volley against the ESRB and Electronic Arts for their ad campaign for Dead Space 2 (which I reviewed favorably). Their target: The immature "Your Mom Hates Dead Space 2" marketing schtick that accompanied the game's Jan. 25 release.
If you're not familiar with the ads in question, they involve EA taking clips of real mothers from focus-group sessions with 200 volunteers. They're shown scenes of the game — which is exceptionally violent and gory — and they react as you'd expect, expressing horror and outrage. One ad, which features a URL to YourMomHates This.com, ends with a woman saying, "Why would they even make something like this?"
The answer, of course, is because it's a fantastic game set in a space station overrun with mutant alien monsters who find all manner of ways to slash and dismember humans. That's why the game is rated M for Mature by the ESRB. The problem, Common Sense Media says, is that the ads, which ran on TV and are available on YouTube, are obviously made to appeal to children younger than 17, the cutoff age for M-rated games.
"We think it violates the ESRB's Principles and Guidelines for Responsible Advertising Practices," Common Sense president Jim Steyer wrote to ESRB chief Patricia Vance, the Los Angeles Times reports. "The question is, does the ESRB stick up for kids or not?"
Vance responded that the commercials had been submitted to the ESRB before the game's release, and they were clearly flagged as not intended for children younger than 17. She also noted the commercials aired only later in the evening, when fewer than 35 percent of viewers were kids.
"Surely EA is not the first company, nor will it be the last, to gin up interest in its product by conveying the notion that 'the older generation just doesn't get it, so it has to be cool,' " Vance wrote to Steyer. "And just because a product desires to be seen as 'cool' or 'edgy' does not in and of itself necessitate that it is directed at children."
Well, that's ostensibly the argument, despite the fact that what Common Sense is saying is, in fact, common sense. My first reaction upon seeing one of the commercials several weeks ago — after midnight, during the late-night rerun of G4's Attack of the Show! — was that I was clearly not the target audience and did not appreciate that a game with such mature themes was being marketed to a younger crowd. Forget all the blood and guts; What I found most compelling about Dead Space 2, aside from atmosphere and gameplay, were the themes of isolation and madness, since protagonist Isaac was mentally scarred from his experiences aboard the U.S.G. Ishimura. While the plot may have been boiled down in the typical "game story" manner, great pains had been taken to truly help players empathize with the series' main character. That is the kind of thing that attracts older gamers, not seeing how many ways you can set monsters on fire (although that's plenty fun, too).
So while I disagree with the ESRB's patronizing response to Common Sense's complaint over targeted marketing, I'm especially ambivalent about supporting the ads because EA then passes the buck over the fallout. "We work to ensure our marketing is 100 percent compliant with ESRB rules," the publisher's spokeswoman, Amanda Taggart, told the L.A. Times. But she didn't go into detail about why the company is so clearly focusing on kids who are still concerned about what their parents think.
We could play the semantic game in which I point out everyone has a mother, so it's impossible to exclude older gamers or ascertain that young people are the ones on whom the campaign is fixated. But it's blatantly obvious that EA was trying to sell to kids here, and no amount of denial from the publisher or the (voluntary) ratings board is going to disprove that. Why would anyone older than 18, who likely has moved out of the house and become a productive member of society in their own right, give a damn how their mother would react to a video game? Arguing this is the target audience of these ads is disingenuous at best and plain stupid at worst.
Perhaps the only plausible answer would be that EA was targeting boomerang kids who still live in their parents' spare bedrooms. In which case, quit entering the game's Twitter-based sweepstakes — in which players show off clips of their mothers freaking out over Dead Space 2 footage — and go get a job.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org.