'Difficulty Settings' and Marketing

By Alexandra Geraets in Serious Infotainment
Monday, June 4, 2012 at 11:00 am


A few weeks ago, the science fiction writer John Scalzi wrote up a rather interesting perspective piece entitled 'Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is'. Scalzi's article is about straight white male privilege, and how the only way for men to grasp this concept is to think of life like an MMO or a video game. He goes on to explain that harder levels of difficulty belong to other groups, like women and minorities, and that straight white men get off easy. Life is handed to you guys on a platter. You'll never have to hunt for spare ammo, never run low on health, and you'll never be fighting for the best spot in the multiplayer queue, because, lo, you are straight white men. You've already got the world by the tail.

I'm oversimplifying Scalzi's point, but you get it. Congratulations, straight white men. You get to live life easy, and you can't reset your difficulty rating.

Now, direct your attention Exhibit B, at top: The Hitman: Absolution 'Attack of the Saints' trailer. This, my straight white male gamer friends, is what video game marketers think you like. Scantily clad women, guns a-blazing, mindless slaughter, and a snazzily-dressed bald man with a barcode on the back of his head, dishing out bloodshed and violence, and leaving all those lovely ladies in varying states of blood-drenched death.

Straight white male gamers, allow this female gamer to say: I'm so sorry, guys. I am so, so sorry that this what they think about you.

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A part of me suspects that I, as a gamer of the non-dominant gender, should be offended by this trailer. True, I don't tend to find massacring people entertaining, though I do like shooters, so I've probably engaged in the act at least once or twice. I also don't really find that bondage gear works as a fashion statement, but that didn't stop me from playing with a Saints Row the Third character dressed down, as it were. However, by the logic of the cultural masses, video gamers are not women, so women, by virtue of their being such, should look at Hitman: Absolution's marketing tactic as tasteless, offensive, and insulting to the feminine mystique. 

Actually, I feel worse for the guys out there. Some marketer looked at this concept and decided that this is was the best way to sell a game. They looked out at the crowd of straight white male gamers and thought 'Ah-hah! You guys, the primary consumers of games! I can sell this product to you by appealing to your basest of natures. Yes. Instant bank.

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I haven't played a Hitman game since college. This was not a franchise that I ever had a particular opinion. It taught me to have some patience, but stealth games have never been my cup of tea. As such, it struck me as an even stranger marketing tactic to portray Hitman: Absolution as an action game. Isn't it a stealth game? Wasn't the entire point of the Hitman franchise to be quiet, patient, and focused on a target? This trailer, if anything, seems to be made by people who don't know what they're marketing, or who think they have their audience figured out. I suspect that these are people who haven't the first clue.

When it comes to video game marketing, and even real world marketing, who actually knows what's being sold? Is it the game itself? A narrative? A character? What is being sold to the gamer that the gamer could not gain elsewhere? Sex is accessible, yet gaming marketers rely on it. Violence in games is an all-encompassing theme, yet marketers feel the need to constantly stylize it, make it more appealing. Sooner or later, they will find a way to merge sex and violence into one great explosion of blood. Two birds, one targeted group of gamers, instant bank.

Marketing a product is a delicate art form. If you've ever worked in a business that involved customers, you know that. Marketing is a brutal beast, even more difficult that simply staying afloat as a business. To sell your product, you must learn how to target appropriately. For instance, there is a type of beer sold in our local markets called 'Chick Beer'. It comes in pink boxes, with a curly-cute white font, and apparently the beer tastes like fruit. I have no idea why this is appealing, but someone thought it was a good way to market.

Last week, I talked about the fragile nature of gaming development companies. Now, I'm looking at marketing, and how advertisements, trailers, demos, and promotional packs are shown to the masses. What's the last good marketing you saw? What was the last poster, trailer, demo, or advertisement that made you think: That's something I want to play. Personally, it took a demo for me to put my money down on Spec Ops: The Line, and I'm almost certain that they weren't targeting my gender for this game.

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If marketing beer to women is hard, video games must be even harder to market. When you're focused on your straight white male crowd to the point where you run the risk of actually insulting their intelligence, and possibly driving them away from your product, have you perhaps missed the point?

John Scalzi says that straight white male is the lowest difficulty setting of life. This means that you're on permanent very easy mode. Video game marketers have this assumption that only one group of people play their games, and so they target the straight white male. This assumption leads to other assumptions about gamers, namely the belief that we are whiney, entitled, and driven to consume violence, sex, gore, and profane fantasy worlds.

I'd like to stand up and say: male gamers of the world, I don't care if you're straight, gay, white, black or whatever. You deserve a bit better than that.

Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays.


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