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Editorial - 'You Will Buy This Game'

by Ben Parfitt on June 6, 2004 @ 2:47 a.m. PDT

I want to discuss something today that isn’t necessarily games related as such, but I think is a factor that as purchasers of games we should be aware of. Over here in the UK there’s a guy on TV called Derren Brown. You may know him in the States and across the world, I don’t know. He’s one of these modern day magicians; the sort that call themselves ‘illusionists’ because pulling rabbits out of hats is no longer cool.

I watched his program on Friday night and was particularly struck by one piece. In it Derren courted the services of a Supermarket Consumer Engineer. You may or may not be aware that from the moment we enter a supermarket to the moment we leave our entire shopping experience is manipulated through dozens of contrived elements. Be it the music, the artificial smells, the advertising, the layout or any other of the manipulated factors, we are constantly subliminally ‘encouraged’ to buy certain products.

Derren had posted a small picture to this Consumer Engineer (I can’t remember his name – let’s call him Joe) a week previously. At first glance it appeared to be little more than a simple abstract line drawing. Joe had been encouraged simply to look at this picture from time to time over the course of the week, nothing more. For the program a week later Joe was then bought to a supermarket to meet Derren. His instructions were simple – he was to walk around the supermarket at his own pace, browsing wherever he saw fit. At some stage he was instructed to pick up a product, any product, and then in his own time make his way back to the front of the store to meet again with Derren. As Joe headed off on his merry way Derren sneakily stuck a piece of paper on his back stating “I’m off to buy vinegar”.

Sure enough, after slowly meandering seemingly randomly around the store, Joe returned with a bottle of balsamic vinegar and there was much celebration. It was not until the explanation afterwards that the real scariness of the illusion was exposed. The viewer was greeted with an overhead plan of the supermarket, over which was drawn a line which mapped the route Joe had taken around the store. The whole episode was played back in fast forward to show that the map was an accurate representation of his route. This line was then superimposed on top of the abstract drawing Joe had been looking at all week – they matched exactly.

The fact Joe was selected was of course to demonstrate that even those responsible for our manipulation can in turn be manipulated themselves, but this was not the real point of the piece. Instead it was to lay bare the level to which we can, and undoubtedly are, manipulated in our day-to-day lives. The whole ordeal reduced me to a level of near panic. How much of what I do is as a result of choices I have actually made for myself? To what extent are my actions manipulated? Do I have free will?

It was later that it occurred to me that perhaps this had something to do with my compulsive purchasing of games that happens on a near daily basis. You should be thinking the same thing. Many people like myself in the industry are constantly frustrated when supposedly lesser titles continue to top the charts whilst genuinely good games languish in the bargain bins. Are there influences at work more sinister than simple licensing?

I’ve been guilty of underestimating the impact of advertising throughout the years but I can’t help but feel that was an error. Ask anyone why the Dreamcast died a premature death and they’ll tell you that Sega failed to market the machine effectively. There’s no question that the hardware was good enough to succeed – the fact that it boasts a growing hardcore following and still host’s new releases is ample proof of this. The main reason was that it couldn’t compete with the Sony Playstation. We’re accustomed to the dominance of Sony to such an extent that we barely question it, but perhaps we should. After all what is it that’s so superior about the PS2? It’s certainly not the power – both the Xbox and Gamecube can beat the PS2 in the boxing ring. There is only one thing that keeps the PS2 ahead of the competition – the Playstation brand.

But what is a brand? In reality a brand isn’t something that exists, at least not in physical terms. Its only tangible form is the way in which it survives and flourishes in our cerebrum. It thrives in our subconscious and only adopts a physical manifestation when we walk into a store and buy into it. Am I the only one that finds this extremely disturbing? I went shopping this morning for a few basics – milk, tuna, bread and bananas. I couldn’t help but ponder whether I was buying these things because I actually needed them or because somewhere deep inside my psyche a company had implanted an image or belief that somehow drives me to consume such things.

So what about the poor showing of genuinely great games in the charts? I was sitting down enjoying R Racing earlier yet couldn’t help but wonder why I bought it when I already own far better racers like Project Gotham 2 and TOCA Race Driver 2. The same can be said of Everything or Nothing – it hardly compares to Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry yet I have found myself playing it none the less. The only saving grace is to think of the times that I’ve bought a title that I hadn’t even heard of before setting foot in the store – A Train 6, Mr Moskeeto, Shikigami No Shiro II. The only safe course of action I can see is from this point on to vow that I’ll only ever buy totally obscure imported titles that could in no way have been subliminally planted inside my head. But maybe I’ve been programmed to do that by Lik Sang? First things first, I need to find a way to stop dreaming about The Suffering on PS2…

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