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Video Games: The New Reality of Youth Marketing

A Geek Subculture Eclipses the Earning Power of Hollywood Movies

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- It's a weeknight in Las Vegas, and people have piled five-deep into a tiny bar called the Freakin' Frog, waiting for Seth "Fingers" Flynn Barkan.

The U.S. video game business, which grosses $9.4 billion a year, is now bigger than the Hollywood movie business.

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Mr. Barkan, a 23-year-old writer for an alternative weekly and sometime UNLV student, can find nowhere to station himself amid the crush of bodies. He climbs a staircase at the far side of the room, opens his newly published book and starts reading prose such as "Mario vs. the Punk Rock Hero" and "The Mega Man Haikus" to the entranced crowd.

"Poetry usually clears the room," said Mr. Barkan, author of The Blue Wizard Is About to Die, a tome about video games that hits retail stores this summer. "I was so far beyond shocked."

Bigger than movie box office
Mr. Barkan isn't the only one waxing poetic about video games these days. In fact, judging by the demographics, we're living in a joystick nation. Video games are a $9.4 billion business in the U.S., bigger than the movie box office. Marketers in the category spent $414.1 million on advertising in the first 11 months of 2003, according to TNS/Competitive Media Reporting.

There are 100 million gaming consoles in households, 60 million hand-held games and growing numbers of game-enabled cellphones. Video gaming is the fastest-growing form of entertainment, and one-third of gamers are women. The average gamer is 29 years old, and young audiences consistently rank the Internet and video games above TV on the importance scale.

"People have started to realize that it's a major industry, it's not just some lonely 16-year-old playing in his room because he can't get a date," said David Comtois, executive producer of the documentary Video Game Invasion, airing this week on GSN, recently rebranded from Game Show Network. "It's become part of a language that we all speak."

Cable networks such as GSN are adding content from video games, major studios are creating films around game characters and everyone from Hollywood movie executives to fashionistas, musicians and Madison Avenue ad agencies are co-opting the design, look and sensibility of an interactive entertainment world once considered a geek subculture.

From rappers to runways
This spring's Fashion Week in Paris saw a catwalk creation from designer Miuccia Prada inspired by the computerized images and colors of video games. Rappers Lil' Flip, The Streets and Dizzee Rascal make video game references in their lyrics and sample the sounds for their recordings. A Phoenix band called the Minibosses plays nothing but music from classic Nintendo video games, note for note.

One of the latest Tom Clancy military action video games for Microsoft's Xbox system.

"Some people recognize what it is, and they like it for the nostalgia," said Aaron Burke, one of the Minibosses. "Other people think it's weird prog rock, but they still enjoy it. They don't care that it was written for a video game."

In fact, the proliferation of video-game imitators now is similar to a few decades ago when so much media began stealing "the MTV style" of quick cuts and pulsating backdrops. That quickly became the norm because it was fresh. Video games have taken up that mantle.

"Video games are part of the DNA of the youth market -- they're in the bloodstream," said Howard Handler, Virgin Mobile's chief marketing officer. "The contemporary youth lifestyle is music, action sports and video gaming all blurred together."

TV cozies up to gamers
TV, still stinging from Nielsen Media Research's reported loss of young male viewers, has taken an unsurprising shine to video games. UPN recently launched Game Over, a computer-generated half-hour built around the Smashenburns, a family of video-game characters that crosses paths with cohorts such as Lara Croft, Crash Bandicoot and Pac Man. A show-based video game that allows players to build their own scenarios launched concurrently.

"If you're under 40, you've had a seminal moment with a video game," said David Goetsch, the show's executive producer. "But in reality, there's no single audience of gamers. It's not niche."

Two-year-old cable channel G4 creates original programming around gaming, and GSN is broadening its mix to include video-game coverage, including this week's Video Game Invasion: The History of a Global Obsession.

The new enveloping reality of Activision's 'MotoTrax' offers nonstop interactive competition against other gamers.

Brand-friendly network
The brand integration-friendly G4, brainchild of its founder-CEO, Charles Hirschhorn, and owned by Comcast Communications, has spread to 15 million homes, and it says its upfront ad dollars increased 200% in that time. Marketers have rallied around such original programming as Judgement Day, the gamer Ebert & Roeper; the sports-centric Sweat; and its tent-pole music, celeb and game coverage dubbed G-Phoria.

Executives at Chrysler's Jeep division launched a spot made exclusively for G4, complete with a Rubicon model animated into a video game, and marketers including Procter & Gamble Co., Coca-Cola Co. and Best Buy have partnered with the network for on- and off-channel promotions. Virgin Mobile also advertises heavily on G4, seeing what Mr. Handler describes as "massive growth potential" in the early adopting, game-loving consumer.

"Brands that are trying to reach young men get it immediately," said Dale Hopkins, G4's senior vice president of advertising and affiliate sales. "Video gaming is the No. 1 entertainment choice for young men, and we're programming to their passion."

Warner Bros. inked a deal with G4 that makes the channel its eyes and ears in the game world for movie fodder. Action director Jerry Bruckheimer is in seven-figure talks to make a feature based on the best-selling game franchise "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" for Walt Disney Co. A German film producer, Boll KG, is focused on turning video games such as "Far Cry," "Dungeon Siege" and "Fear Effect" into features.

GSN, now in 54 million homes, renamed itself and started including video-game coverage in its programming, commissioning the Video Game Invasion documentary. "If we didn't cover video games," said Rich Cronin, GSN's CEO, "it would be like if Comedy Central didn't include stand-up."

MLB 2005 for PlayStation is a multiple player online sports game that allows users to control their teams, run their stadium business and even include images of themselves in the digital action.

GSN's ad increase
The channel, which uses video-game imagery in its brand-image campaigns, has seen an uptick in advertising since launching its new positioning. Coca-Cola just signed up with the network for the first time, for a multi-quarter commitment, and Hollywood's movie studios are spending more scatter dollars, Mr. Cronin said. New talks have started with wireless, soft-drink, technology and other marketers.

Viacom's Spike TV aired the "Video Game Awards" late last year, with sponsors Virgin Mobile, Radio Shack, Target and General Motors Corp. The show will be an annual event at male-skewing Spike TV, which has two video-game-inspired shows in development.

Because players spend so much time with a single game -- on average, between two and four hours at a time -- brands want to be part of that hyper-reality. Marketers ranging from McDonald's Corp., Puma and Procter & Gamble Co. to AT&T Wireless, Nokia, Coca-Cola's Sprite and Nestle's Butterfinger have embedded themselves in the content of some of the most popular franchises.

Army gets embedded
Groups as far apart as Hollywood talent agencies and the U.S. Army are also locking into the video-game world. Talent agencies, trying to stay on top of the trends, have bulked up their video-game divisions with stars from the game world and executives to market them. The Army, in addition to borrowing video-game style in its TV and in-theater advertising, actively uses video games as training tools. New recruits get simulated experience on "Full Spectrum Warrior," commissioned by the Army and later tweaked for a non-military audience. It's now marketed by THQ and sold at retail.

Gaming is "for people who want to be part of what they see as a movement," said Jane Buckingham, president of New York and Los Angeles-based trend firm Youth Intelligence.

Blue-chip marketers such as DaimlerChrysler's Jeep division, Nike and Volvo Cars North America are using video-game images, and sometimes the game designers themselves, for TV ad campaigns. There was even talk of using the Wieden & Kennedy-created Nike spot called "GameBreakers" as a jumping-off point for its own video game after fans flooded the Nike site to watch it, said Hal Curtis, the agency's creative director. Video games "can't help but influence how an art director or writer thinks about an ad," he said.

Seamus Blackley, co-creator of Microsoft's Xbox who now works for talent agency Creative Artists Agency, said he's not surprised that marketers are borrowing video-game sensibility, since ad agency creatives are part of the gaming community. "It's not people being ultra-hardcore Machiavellian," Mr. Blackley said. "They're taking elements they love and applying them to marketing."

"It's hyper-realistic and a little cartoon-y, but it makes an instant association with a young demo," said David Carr, executive producer of Video Game Invasion.

There's a universal appeal to the approach. "Everybody has touched a game," Mr. Comtois said, "whether it was in a bar, an arcade, a mall, at home, online. At some point, everyone's done it. And at some point, we'll have a president who grew up playing Super Mario Brothers."

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