On Wednesday, a number of journalists in Australia (myself not included) were sent press kits from Ubisoft’s Australian PR team to publicise the release of Watch[underscore]Dogs. That, in and of itself, is not an uncommon occurrence, especially for big releases. Media all around the world get sent press kits full of strange, fantastical, sometimes expensive stuff all the time. It just so happened, however, that in this case the Watch Dogs press kit contained some… unusual things.
Namely, a black safe with a keypad, a piece of paper with a code on it, and a message to “check your voicemail”.
Among the recipients of this press packet was Australian news outlet Ninemsn. For you foreigners, Ninemsn is a leading player in Australian media, linked to commercial TV and all the revenue that attracts. Upon receiving the package, they did what any sane media outlet responsible for breaking news stories about crime and politics – they called the bomb squad.
Let me put a few things in context here – the package was unlabelled with no sender, was delivered by unsigned courier, the journalist to whom it was addressed did not have voicemail, meaning they missed a critical clue to the sender’s identity, and when the code supplied was entered, the thing started beeping. So, err, that may seem just a tad suspicious.
Press packets like this are used to generate hype – that’s their solitary purpose. In this case, it was supposed to be mysterious, tapping into the game’s themes of technophobia, surveillance, mystery, and conspiracy. It was also meant to be taken in good faith – and also identified as a PR stunt through a (in the Ninemsn instance a critically misplaced) voicemail message. I seriously doubt the Ubisoft PR team intended to turn the delivery of a slightly unconventional press packet to a media outlet into a bomb threat. I seriously doubt that the Ubisoft PR team intended to use the international reporting of the bomb threat as exposure for their game. Ubisoft’s PR team has sent out an apology for the misunderstanding caused.
While there are some very interesting conversations to be had around technological illiteracy within the general public and the culture of fear perpetuated by media outlets and governments in a post-9/11 world, here’s not really the ideal place for that – we are, after all, a gaming site.
No, what this illustrates – in relation to games, anyway – is a fundamental disconnect between the dedicated “games media” and the more generalised media industry as a whole.
For instance, Gamespot received an almost identical package. They, of course, received the voice mail, and had the package labelled as Ubisoft, which I imagine would make a little bit of a difference. But their reaction to the package was a lot more subdued – some would even say positive, judging by some of the tweets sent out at the time.
There is an expectation among games media that they will be receiving mysterious things in boxes sometimes – especially with the release of a major title just around the corner. Gaming outlets know the schedules, they know the precedents. Games media knows the themes and tone of the product that is being released, and can expect a certain type of object at a certain time.
Mainstream media outlets – commercial TV, newspapers, general news websites – generally don’t have dedicated video game coverage. Occasionally they might employ a freelancer or redirect a non-specialist journalist to cover something like Call of Duty or a console launch. Rarely do they have the time or resources to keep up with video game releases – especially with revenues in the state they are as a result of newspaper sales declining, free internet streaming, and a move to ad-supported web content.
There’s also a larger cultural factor at play – one where video games are not recognised as a part of the wider entertainment industry.
Consider how often you see entertainment reporters walking the red carpet, chasing actors, interviewing directors, covering movies. Consider that Avatar – the highest grossing film EVER MADE, cost $237 million to make and made $212 million in its first week. Now consider that Grand Theft Auto V cost around $250 million to make, and made $1 BILLION in just three days. Avatar has grossed $2.8 billion in the five years since its release, and Rockstar aren’t being very forthcoming with lifetime sales figures for GTA V, but considering the sheer numbers involved it may be just up around the $2 billion mark.
Sure, we’re comparing the top-tier of entertainment releases here. But the trend is that video games make more money than movies.
So why is there still such a cultural insistence that films – which make considerably less than video games – are more relevant and “real” entertainment properties than video games? Why does mainstream media cling to the idea that film is king?
Probably because film has a long and rich history, one that is ingrained into the pop-culture weave. Film has been around for over a hundred and twenty years, video games a little over forty. Film has a dedicated academic discipline, one that has become commonplace in schools and culture, whereas video game literacy is only just beginning. And there’s the human face of films – actors are real people capable of being photographed in compromising positions and being held up as paragons of what not to do.
There is also, overwhelmingly, the idea that video games are for kids and boys – an immature medium that caters to immature people. Video games aren’t taken seriously as a cultural force by traditional media analysts and outlets.
And you know what? They’re probably right. If anything, Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs PR stunt failure is indicative of this mindset. Any way you look at it, sending an unmarked, beeping package to a media outlet – one who can and does make real enemies – is not really mature. It may have been intended as a harmless prank to get attention and generate hype, but it’s not the most unthreatening way to do it. That there is an expectation that games media outlets would take such a stunt as such – a stunt – shows that the games media itself is immature.
And we are. Games media, on the whole, is very immature. We try to be grown-ups playing in the big league, but it’s inescapable fact that most video game “journalists” are under thirty. Most video game “journalists” are independent. Most of us are untrained. And overwhelmingly we are male. Video game press reflects and internalises the cultural expectations of the demographic expected to play video games, and we reinforce that stereotype with aplomb.
Now that is a broad generalisation. There are many great writers who lend a mature perspective to the medium. Some video game journalists are even real journalists. And there are plenty of fantastic women writing about video games (although not nearly enough). But while we ourselves reflect the stereotype, we can’t really expect others to disagree with it.
Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs stunt reveals a whole underlying problem – we are not mainstream. We have our own in-jokes, our own expectations, our own language. We treat what is easily passable as a legitimate threat to safety – a mock-up that looks like a bomb – as a joke. And sometimes that’s bad, especially when applied to those outside our tiny incestuous bubble.
If we want the world to accept games as bigger and more important than they are considered by the general media, perhaps we need to think about expanding our own world and views.