Co-authored with David Gurney
One lucrative business pursuit for indie game developers has been the production of advergames – games designed to advertise a product, service, or brand. We’ve been observing a sliver of this activity in our research on the [adult swim] phenomenon, which began as a late night programming block for Cartoon Network but has since grown into a lifestyle brand that includes a record label, clothing and merchandise, and, of course, an ever-expanding library of games.
Several studios create games for [adult swim]. But in supplying close to a quarter of those 100-plus games, This Is Pop has designed some of the most played, including Hemp Tycoon, the game with the highest current user rating. As the name suggests, this game parodies the casual game phenomenon Farmville. Hemp Tycoon is not the opposite of casual games; that is, it is not a hardcore title that demands time and skill from the player. Rather, it is best understood as what we are calling a “contra-casual” advergame because it uses the accessible, casual game format to trouble prevailing definitions of games, advertising, and genre. (Though it bears noting that even these titles don't foreclose the possibility of gamers playing them as hardcore gamers might). These advergames operate by solidifying the forging of a niche taste culture of parodic transgression that begins with the nightly programming block but extends well beyond it.
Hemp Tycoon’s mode of address is in keeping with most of [adult swim]'s titles, including other games made by This Is Pop and other studios. However, what differentiates This Is Pop's games from stylistically similar fare (e.g., Mediatonic’s Robot Unicorn Attack, Spiritonin’s Amateur Surgeon, and Ham in the Fridge’s 5 Minutes to Kill (Yourself)) is the thoroughgoingness with which the studio aligns itself with the [adult swim] brand (including placing the network’s logo atop its own homepage).
We’re wondering if advergames present critics with a fresh avenue of media criticism? Do these titles highlight considerations of niche audiences and gameplay commodification over questions of design? And are advergames more likely to function pleasurably for audiences (i.e., we know we're playing an ad, but it’s okay because we get the joke), and serve as a calling card for industry by showcaseing the studio’s ability to align content and gameplay design with a reflexive wit that both players and network execs enjoy?