Who's Watching the Boys? (Part 6, Updated)
It's cutting-edge Israeli technology -- a piece of software inserted directly into Left Behind: Eternal Forces, software that cannot be blocked or removed -- and without your knowledge or permission, it tracks you. This in-game ad software records how often you play the video game, at what time of day and for how long, what game play areas you visit (like Times Square, Soho, Chinatown, or the United Nations Building), which video ads and product placements you view, where your computer is located geographically, and who you are demographically. It monitors your choices and behavior, collates data, and reports back in real-time to... whom? For what purposes? Do you know?
Double Fusion's 'Direct Hit'
Many young men, ages 13-34, crave immersive, engaging video games. Such games account for some 15% of the time young men view media; many spend as much or more time gaming as they do watching television. Nielsen Entertainment estimates that young men play 12.5 hours of videogames per week, compared with 9.8 hours watching television.
Advertisers crave young men, ages 13-34, for their minds and their hearts, which lead to their wallets, and the wallets of their friends and families. Young men who play video games tend to have money to spend, and they tend to be active consumers of technology and entertainment. Therefore, their friends and family often come to them for advice on purchases. In ad-speak, young male gamers have a "halo effect" -- a certain kind of market power, because they buy and influence others' buying choices. But it can be hard to reach young men, whose attention is often divided or distracted -- except when they're immersed for hours at a time in the virtual reality of video games. Nielsen Entertainment's researchers have concluded that gamers recall in-game ads at a very high rate -- up to 35% of the time. And this recall is retained longer in comparison with television, radio, or print ads.
"There are a host of reasons why more and more marketers are moving their advertising budgets to in-game," states startup company Double Fusion. "The first is targeted reach -- if you're targeting males 13-34, or any subset within, in-game advertising in PC and console games offers a direct hit."
Left Behind Games is targeting gamers ages 13-34, and specifically, conservative Evangelical Christian young male gamers. That's why they plan to distribute 1 million sample disks through mega-churches and pastoral networks. Double Fusion has partnered with Left Behind Games to target these young men and score, in the in-game ad company's words, "a direct hit."
Here's how Double Fusion describes its lucrative work in ad-speak, full of buzzwords and jargon that mean, in plain English, spyware: "All Double Fusion campaigns provide detailed campaign reporting for full accountability, and, unlike other media, advertisers only pay for the time their ads are seen...unlike TV, unlike the web, and unlike print. No medium is more accountable and measurable in terms of the actual time spent with advertising." "Double Fusion's In-Game Ad Engine is a software component that gamer developers insert in their games. The Ad Engine is the seamless interface between the game and the advertiser servers, and works as a broker between the two, calling advertising creative elements as needed, providing them to the game to be displayed as ads in the game, and tracking impressions and views and reporting back to the advertising management servers."
Mommy, what's spyware? Can I get some for Christmas? I want to be tracked and reported on in real-time!
This essay will tell you what Left Behind Games is doing with Double Fusion to target video game players -- especially conservative Evangelical teens and young adults, ages 13-34 -- with subtle and sophisticated in-game advertising that is interactive, slick, and capable of vacuuming up data about video game players on a scale unlike any other kind of advertising you have encountered on radio or television, or in magazines or the movies. When you log on to play the game online in multiplayer mode, the game downloads up-to-the-minute ads and uploads data on you. Left Behind Games announced its plans on June 7, 2006, and this essay will unpack and explain that announcement. But first, let's look at what happened in the week before this momentous announcement.
On June 6, 2006, Left Behind Games watched its stock price slip once again, just as it had slipped over the previous month. It closed on June 6 at $2.50 a share, down from $3.55 on May 15. On February 15, it had closed at $4.31.
Over the spring of 2006, Left Behind Games had tried to gin up some good news by giving sneak peaks of Left Behind: Eternal Forces -- the corporation's only product to date -- to video game trade press, such as GameSpot and GameSpy. The trade press released mostly positive reviews that have no clue what to make of the game's theology or cultural context. And that's the best thing about video game industry publications: the reviews tend to be positive, if you have a novel concept that is executed competently on a technical level, because there are no video game critics to put a game in cultural context and tell us what it actually means. Instead, there are only "reviewers," who talk not about cultural context and meaning but about the game's architecture, plot, graphics, game features, and action. Industry reviews talk about what games look like and what they do, but not what they mean. That's unfortunate, because video games are not only big business; they also hold a lot of cultural meaning.
Chuck Klosterman: 'Why Are There No Video-Game Critics?'
Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman explains in the July 2006 issue of Esquire magazine:
There are still people in America who do not take video games seriously. These are the same people who question the relevance of hip-hop and assume newspapers will still exist in twenty-five years. It's hard to find an irrefutably accurate statistic for the economic value of the video-game industry, but the best estimates seem to be around $28 billion. As such, I'm not going to waste any space trying to convince people that gaming is important. If you're reading this column, I'm just going to assume that you believe video games in 2006 are the culture equivalent of rock music in 1967, because that's (more or less) reality....
And that's where this blog comes in. In a six-part series, Talk to Action has analyzed what Left Behind: Eternal Forces actually means in its theological and cultural context. This blog had also broken the news on Memorial Day 2006 that the company's only product to date, was linked to the empire of mega-church pastor Rick Warren of Purpose Driven Church. And it's significant, because, as Talk to Action explained, this game has a particular cultural context that sets it apart from all other video games. Unlike, say, Doom or Grand Theft Auto, this game is targeted to conservative Evangelical teens and young adults, ages 13 to 34. And here are some other features that set apart Left Behind: Eternal Forces. For example, it's based on a series of novels and comics co-authored by retired Southern Baptist minister Tim LaHaye, a conservative Evangelical Christian who has been criticized by the Evangelical Christian magazine Sojourners for promoting a politics of escapism and fear. Mr. LaHaye teaches in the Left Behind novels that inspire and inform the Left Behind video game that Catholics and Jews and other people of faith, along with atheists and gays, cannot get to heaven unless they "convert." In fact, no one can get to heaven, in Mr. LaHaye's twisted theology, unless he or she is a conservative, Evangelical Christian. Everyone else is "left behind." And according to the Left Behind Games web site, every New Yorker portrayed in the game must choose to convert or die -- "They cannot remain neutral."
[UPDATE: This essay has been edited for length. The passage on "The Guardian and the Rapture Ready Moms" may now be viewed as a sidebar, here: http://www.talk2action.org/story/2006/6/21/172440/087. -- JH]
Purpose Driven Church Distances Itself, Quickly and Quietly
So the stock price of Left Behind Games was slipping on June 6, the day before it made a momentous announcement about the inclusion of in-game advertising. What else was happening on June 6, 2006? Mark Carver, a top aide to Mr. Warren, resigned as a business advisor to Left Behind Games. Mr. Carver's abrupt resignation, announced in a statement e-mailed to Talk to Action by Mr. Warren's Purpose Driven Ministries on June 6, came in response to the first two essays in this series, which revealed (1) that Mr. Carver was giving business advice to Left Behind Games; (2) that Left Behind Games was invoking the name brand of Mr. Warren's Purpose Driven Church in its web-based marketing materials; and (3) that Left Behind Games was emulating Mr. Warren's network marketing techniques, and planning to distribute its game through pastoral networks and mega-churches.
Although Talk to Action did not claim that Mr. Warren himself had developed, distributed, or endorsed the game, it held him accountable for the use of the Purpose Driven name brand in the game's web-based marketing material, and asked whether his mega-church and global pastoral network planned to distribute the game. In response, Mr. Carver requested on June 6 that his name as well as the Purpose Driven name brand be removed from the Left Behind Games web site (which happened immediately), and Purpose Driven Ministries has promised not to distribute or promote the game. In its statement, Mr. Warren's organization criticized Talk to Action's approach, but did not rebut any of the facts or claims presented. To date, Mr. Warren's organization has issued no public condemnation of the video game, although its News Director, Mark Kelly, observed in a private e-mail exchange that the idea of the game was in "extremely bad taste." Yet the actions of Purpose Driven Church showed that it agreed with Talk to Action's analysis, that it was improper for Mr. Carver to be involved with Left Behind Games, just as it was for the corporation to invoke the Purpose Driven name brand. And now the corporation has also lost the opportunity to mass-market its product through Rick Warren's global pastoral network or his mega-church. Talk to Action broke the story of Mr. Carver's resignation, and the Purpose Driven Church's quiet, careful tiptoeing away from Left Behind Games on June 7, 2006. It was an embarrassing day for Left Behind Games, and they've been spinning perky news in overdrive ever since.
And on the same date, Left Behind Games announced its partnership with Double Fusion to place in-game ads in their sole product, Left Behind: Eternal Forces. Tracking Conservative Evangelical Teens and Young Adults
Double Fusion was founded in Jerusalem in 2004, with $10 million in backing from venture capital firms, led by Accel Partners and Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) along with its incubation arm, called JVP Studio, which describes itself as "part of the Government of Israel's incubator privatization program." Additional funding was received from Jerusalam Capital. In 2005, the company placed its first in-game ads. The same year, it received another $5 million in venture capital financing from Accel and JVP, which it used to relocate its headquarters to San Francisco. Today, Double Fusion claims to have "offices and affiliates" in Jerusalem, London, New York, and Shanghai; actually, those offices are primarily JVP's. And even though Double Fusion is headquartered in San Francisco, with a satellite office in Los Angeles (hello, Hollywood cross-promotions and product placement deals!), the corporation's research and development is still done in Building 1 of Jerusalem's Malcha Technology Park. And the technology being developed and tested there is so edgy that Haaretz reported, "Israel's Double Fusion was named 'the most promising startup of 2006'," at a software developer's convention in Tel Aviv's David Intercontinental Hotel. Double Fusion's cofounder, Guy Bendov, won a trip to Redmond, Washington, and an opportunity to pitch Microsoft on integrating this in-game ad software into the Xbox 360.
Meanwhile, Double Fusion inked a deal with Left Behind Games to seamlessly integrate into Left Behind: Eternal Forces ads that can be targeted and tracked based on geography, demographics, and even date and time of day. Double Fusion has also done research with partners such as Nielsen Entertainment, finding that in-game ads heighten a sense of realism in games set in contemporary urban environments, and that gamers have much better recall of in-game ads than TV, radio, or print ads. Why? Because video games represent the most immersive media environment. When a player is immersed in a virtual Times Square, he is directly interacting with product placements and ads at a time when his attention is fully engaged.
That is good news for advertisers, because video games are not only the most immersive environment; games are also the most measurable environment. And Double Fusion's in-game ad software, inserted directly into the game, features powerful systems for managing ad campaigns, including the ability to monitor, measure, and analyze reports.
Double Fusion's software can place not just 2-Dimensional (2D) billboards, banners, and posters in games, but also flash videos, radio sound, and 3D objects, including pizza boxes, soda cans and vending machines, clothing, cell phones, and cars. In-game ads can allow sponsorship of an official car, cell phone, or clothing line of the game. It remains to be seen what, if any, corporations want to associate their brands with a Christian supremacist game that indoctrinates children that they are living in the End Times -- which look just like present-day New York -- and that soon, they may have to go out and convert or kill New Yorkers to defend their creed.
This mass slaughter of infidel New Yorkers in Times Square is sponsored by the makers of -- BlamblamBLAM! -- "Praise the Lord!" And this feasting on conservative Christian snipers by the goat-footed demons of the AntiChrist is brought to you by -- Kah-BOOM! -- because nothing beats cold bodies and hot pizza.
Double Fusion plans to count every 15-second viewing as an "impression." The ads will be billed at a cost per thousand (CPM) rate similar to product placement in a movie or cable TV show. But unlike TV or radio ads, Internet ads can be measured and reported precisely, including the frequency and duration of the exposure. And the technology will permit marketers to target a particular area for a given amount of time, time of day, or number of impressions. When gamers go online to play, their personal computers will download the latest ads -- which can be updated in a matter of days, or even hours -- while marketers upload data on how they play the game, as well as their consumer behaviors.
Because the data can be reported in detail and in real-time, in-game advertising is among the fastest-growing ad markets:
"Unlike traditional media, the Internet can provide precise usage data to advertisers on a Census basis. Every ad impression generated, link clicked, or keyword entered is recorded on the server, and data collected can be divided and diced to the meticulous details as desired by advertisers. Even online purchases can be linked back to click-through data, providing the basis for cause-effect analysis by advertisers. With this level of measurability and accountability, the Internet quickly becomes the champion and enjoys the fastest advertising revenue growth." (Kurt Scherf and Harry Wang, Reaching the Unreachable Consumer: Advertising in the Digital Age. Parks Associates. October 2005, p. 2.)
Advertisers specifically seek out young males, ages 13-34, because they are likely to spend more time playing video games than watching television. In-game ad sales teams like to say that their surveys indicate that teenaged and young adult male gamers don't mind ads that look slick and work within the context of the game, and that ads can contribute to a game's realism. But in their surveys, they do not make clear to gamers exactly how closely they are being tracked, and what data is being gathered and analyzed:
As young consumers exchange television viewing for more time on the Internet, playing online/console games, and engaging in other activities, both television broadcasters and their marketing partners have to develop means to get the most efficient return for their advertising dollars. The solution described to our survey participants in this study is quite crude in comparison to the techniques and marketing solutions likely to augment traditional advertising methods. However, the results hint at the importance of new ways of thinking and of reaching out to an increasingly distracted group of potential buyers." (Scherf and Wang, Idem, page 6.)
All the product promotions will mean a revenue stream for Left Behind Games, Double Fusion, and their corporate marks (if any want to join a short line to put their name at the top of the list of merchants to be protested and boycotted). But will it save the gamers any money? No. Left Behind Games plans to launch its product at a price of $49.95 apiece on October 17, 2006. Clear your calendars and take to the streets, good Christians and infidel New Yorkers alike. Now there's one more reason to protest and boycott over this outrageous piece of unAmerican, anti-Christian filth: Left Behind: Eternal Forces is not just a delivery system for Christian supremacist indoctrination; it's also got built-in spyware to track gamers. It's a floor wax -- and a desert topping! It's anti-Christian -- and unAmerican! You're watching it -- and it's watching you! You're playing it -- and it's playing you!
Final word goes to a random New Yorker passing through Times Square: "Hey, Left Behind Games, ovah heah. I gotcher geo-targeting campaign: right heah! Upload this! Yo! Double Fusion. You lookin' at me? Are you looking at ME?"
Well, if you go online to play the Christ/AntiChrist game, then yes, they are looking at you. But to whom precisely are they reporting so precisely? And for what precise purposes?
UPDATE: This essay opens with the word "imagine," followed by a description (based on game reviews, screen shots, and official statements from Left Behind Games) of a scene that might take place in the Left Behind: Eternal Forces video game which is still under development. This description has caught the imagination of several writers, including Talk to Action's Chip Berlet, who refers to it in his essay, "The World According to Tim LaHaye: Chapter One." Is it a fair description? Well, we know that there are demons in the game, and we've even posted official screen shots of them, complete with horns and cloven hooves. And Los Angeles Times columnist Joel Stein has played a pre-release version of the game, and described Humvees traveling with a force of peacekeepers from the United Nations building. Mr. Stein, who played against Left Behind Games co-founder Jeffrey Frichner, describes how Mr. Frichner opened fire on the peacekeepers and "took out" several nurses. Another article in the Los Angeles Times describes the demons feasting on Christians. So in the final version of the game, will a cloven-hoofed demon actually emerge from a Humvee to eat a Christian commando? Who knows? The game is still under development, and elements are changing. Maybe some elements will change in response to criticism. The final product could be as bad as it has been described, or it could be different. It could be even worse. In fact, Left Behind Games recently announced one significant change that makes their product much worse than the one originally reviewed by the game industry earlier in the spring, before Talk to Action began analyzing the game in its theological and cultural contexts. Now the game includes spyware in the software, which tracks gamers.
What is spyware? Here's a simple definition, which fits the description of Double Fusion's in-game advertising:
"Spyware is any technology that aids in gathering information about a person or organization without their knowledge... Data collecting programs that are installed with the user's knowledge are not, properly speaking, spyware, if the user fully understands what data is being collected and with whom it is being shared... Software designed to serve advertising, known as adware, can usually be thought of as spyware as well because it almost invariably includes components for tracking and reporting user information."Even if Double Fusion were to insert in the fine print of an End User Licensing Agreement some ad-speak gobbledegook, that would not suffice to adequately inform a 13-year-old gamer (or his parents) that strangers on the Internet are tracking his gameplay for undisclosed purposes without his voluntary, knowing permission. In plain English, and in bold face type, a 13-year-old gamer and his parents need to know who is tracking his gameplay and collating and reporting data, who is receiving that data, and for what purposes it is being gathered and analyzed.
Note: since this essay was originally published, Talk to Action has corrected the name of Double Fusion co-founder Guy Bendov, who had been incorrectly named as David Bendov. Certain links have also been added to substantiate a few points which have been questioned, but which are supported. For example, links were added to substantiate the amount of funding that Double Fusion received in multiple rounds of venture capital financing. Talk to Action had reported these amounts accurately, and has added the links in order to furnish readers with sources. Likewise, a link has also been added to substantiate the statement that, as of January 2006, Double Fusion counts an ad viewing of 15 seconds in duration as one "impression
Who's Watching the Boys? (Part 6, Updated) | 10 comments (10 topical, 0 hidden)
Who's Watching the Boys? (Part 6, Updated) | 10 comments (10 topical, 0 hidden)