Marketing Militainment in a Post-bin Laden World

Curator's Note

It’s common practice for game publishers to tempt consumers into preordering their titles in exchange for access to “limited-edition” content. Typically, these add-ons take the form of character skins, in-game items, or – as is advertised in this video – special multiplayer maps. Yet two things are striking about Medal of Honor: Warfighter’s offer: (1) the maps’ real-world locations; and (2) the game’s tie-in with the film, Zero Dark Thirty.

EA recognizes the need to differentiate this year’s Medal of Honor installment from similar titles in a marketplace awash in first-person shooters. More precisely, EA needs to combat Microsoft’s Halo 4 and Activision’s reigning juggernaut and this year’s presumptive sales leader, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. EA’s first salvo was to schedule their game for release before Halo 4 and Black Ops 2 with the goal of siphoning off sales from their competitors. But the maps teased in the ad represent the game’s more meaningful point of contrast from other shooters, distancing it from the future combat and dystopian spaces depicted in Halo and Black Ops.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen shooters set in the contemporary period move their firefights from non-specific locations to named locales, and an increased willingness to invoke historical events in motivating their narratives. Although EA’s decision to reference “hotspots” is not entirely new, it remains a risky choice that is not always well received. Indeed, one need look no further than Six Days in Fallujah for an object lesson in these matters. By striking the right balance of military realism, EA hopes it can generate publicity and sales before Microsoft and Activision steal the spotlight in November.

The game’s tie-in with Zero Dark Thirty seemingly shores up its claims to realism by piggybacking on the film’s true story of the mission to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. The un-redacting of the title suggests the film’s unveiling of some classified story, and by association, that the game too may reveal hidden truths about US military operations. Still, this relationship remains a curious one given the recent subpar performance of combat films at the box office. Does living in a post-OBL world change EA’s calculation about how it depicts military realism, and how it conducts its partnerships with other militainment properties? And is EA betting that consumers want more grounded fare when its biggest competitors are headed in the other direction?

Comments

John Vanderhoef's picture

Another Enemy

As you point out, Matt, the realism of the re-imagined modern day Medal of Honor series touted by EA is primarily a marketing strategy meant to differentiate the game from the glutton of other military first-person shooters released at this time of year, namely the “juggernauts” you mentioned.

The actual execution of this realism is debatable, and for good reason. The skepticism behind Six Days in Fallujah emerged from a fear that it would be too realistic, not only showing too-human soldiers perishing in battle but also depicting the massive destruction of the city and the hundreds of civilians who died there. This kind of realism would be brave for a big budget military shooter, something this year’s Spec Ops The Line approaches from a thematic standpoint, but not necessarily through the guise of accuracy or realism. This brings up an interesting point. How do we judge attention to realism in digital games, especially when it comes to military shooters? Are they supposed to look and play realistically or would it be far more immersive for them to attempt to achieve “realistic” affect, themes, or trauma that circulate the warzone?

And where exactly does the appetite for either kind or realism come from? Your question about a post-OBL world remains intriguing, although I do not have an adequate answer besides banally commenting that there will also be another enemy to hate and to hunt, both politically and virtually. As much as military films are sagging at the box office, military shooters are as big of a business as ever.

Steven Boyer's picture

Commodified Realism

Following up on your final paragraph and linked to the end of John’s comment, I have to wonder why EA thinks an appeal to realism would be a successful strategy for Medal of Honor. It’s certainly to do with the series’ legacy, having emerged out of Steven Spielberg’s WWII depictions in film (Saving Private Ryan) and television (Band of Brothers) around that same time that both aspired to an unflinchingly realistic depiction of war. And of course, EA has also seen success with their relatively realistic (compared to Call of Duty) take on military shooters with Battlefield.

That said, while military shooters may still be big, they are rapidly vacating the modern-day, realism-focused space in favor of sci-fi, near future, or historical settings. The closest comparision point is THQ’s extremely similar attempt at realism with Homefront, which did not perform well. Sony’s SOCOM series has also collapsed, and like Homefront, involved studio closure. Brothers in Arms is AWOL. Ghost Recon, like so many others, has gone futuristic (and canned their Facebook game). If game players are truly interested in realism, they’re more likely to be playing a military simulation like ArmA II, but even that has now found it’s broadest popular success with a zombie modification (Day Z).

To connect this with my comments on the previous post about the continued importance of first month sales, EA has already publicly expressed disappointment with Medal of Honor ‘s performance in their quarterly investor call even though the game has only been out for just over a week and has not even been released in all territories (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/179502/Sports_games_carry_EA_though_Q...). I don’t think this means gamers don’t want realism, just that they don’t want or aren’t convinced by the commodified version that EA is offering.

One way this commodified warfare is apparent is in the partnerships you mention near the end of the post that encourage players to purchase weapons in the real world (e.g. the backlash to the directly-branded Tomahawk promotion http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-08-16-ea-pulls-medal-of-honor-tom...). EA’s marketing department clearly does not take weaponized promotion seriously (see also: their commission of state and federal crimes in mailing brass knuckles to journalists as Godfather 2 schwag http://www.gamepolitics.com/2009/04/11/ea-wants-its-brass-knuckles-back), but in the case of Medal of Honor they fall back on “authenticity” as a justification for their approach to marketing the game. Here both tomahawk and authenticity are defined as product, which in turn emphasizes the game as product and the constructed nature of its authenticity, undermining the game’s appeal to realism.

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