Ads get piece of the action

Advertising is pervasive, so seeing logos and brand-name products in video games is nothing new, especially for realistic games: vending machines distribute Bawls or Coke or Pepsi, posters hanging in the backgrounds advertise other games or Web sites. Such advertisements are simply Hollywood-style product placement, like Aston Martin cars in James Bond films or Ray-Ban sunglasses on the heads of the Men in Black. And, like advertising in film, they're permanent, because the information is hard-coded into the video-game software.

But that's now changing.

As more and more gamers move to on-line play, an opportunity exists for video-game developers and advertisers alike to create ads that are as interactive as the games themselves. Any computer system that has a constant high-speed connection to the Internet can have the content of advertisements refreshed. When you are playing the latest Splinter Cell, for example, look closely at that billboard behind the action, because while today it might advertise the Warner Brothers movie Batman Begins, when you play the game again in a few months it will feature another Warner Brothers comic-book film, V for Vendetta.

One of the companies spearheading this new method-which they call "dynamic advertising"-is Massive Incorporated, and their latest innovation is the insertion of 15-second commercials into video games.

Advertisers are falling all over themselves to get a piece of the action, because if video games are doing anything, they are preventing a core demographic from watching television, the advertising medium of choice. But to convince clients, Massive Incorporated needed a way to prove that the ads were actually being seen by an audience. So Massive's software not only puts ads into your game but transmits information back to the Massive servers. The software knows, for example, which player ID was playing the game, what was on the screen at any time during their game session, for how long, and even from what angle and distance (determined by the size and orientation of the ad on the screen) the player viewed the ad.

And while gamers don't seem to have a problem with the idea of in-game advertising-if it is contextually appropriate and doesn't detract from game play-there is a growing uproar about what Massive is doing. Ian Bogost, an academic video-game researcher and editor of Water Cooler Games (www.watercoolergames .org/), argues correctly that games are not like other media, and that in trying to apply traditional television and print advertising methods to interactive media, Massive "is providing a deluded service".

The hard-core gamers who double as tech wizards have already figured out how to prevent the game software from contacting the Massive servers. See the code and the technical nitty-gritty at www.national