Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

Marketing and the Simulacrum in Video Games

Mainstream video game franchises from publishers Activision and EA release on an annual schedule, and in doing so, developers slightly tweak the core formula to create new experiences while retaining the familiar mechanics of the game’s brand name; an effective development strategy that attracts new players without alienating the existing community. But that isn’t enough to “wow” an audience.

So how does the video game developer evoke the uncanny in their audience without scaring the audience, fearing for the loss of our real selves? This feeling is contributed to Call of Duty’s development and market strategy. Activision publishing boss Eric Hirshberg claims, “"We put him in front of a new audience who might not be familiar with some of his iconic films in another situation where he's trailblazing, being an actor on his level, a two-time Oscar winner in a completely new medium." If Hirshberg’s claim rings accurate, then surely the marketing strategy must rely on the uncanny. Although not based off of childhood repression, Hirshberg and his marketing team relied on the assumption that the gaming community at the very least recognized Spacey as a Hollywood actor. Although they may not realize him as an actor of iconic films and television, the recognizable name is enough for gamers to be intrigued to watch a supposed Oscar worthy actor perform in their preferred art form. And the numbers speak for themselves. According to MoneyNation, Advanced Warfare sold 21 million units at an average price of $40.

The most glaring is the fact that gamers know they are playing a video game. Forced to move their character by means of specially-mapped buttons is an indicator that information is being processed between gamer and television. Freud states, “The distinction between what has been repressed and what has been surmounted cannot be transposed on to the uncanny in fiction without profound modification; for the realm of phantasy depends for its very existence on the fact that its content is not submitted to the reality-testing faculty” (Freud 18). A twin-stick controller held in the gamer’s hand acts as a barrier between what is real and what is generated. Pair this same graphical experience with a Virtual Reality headset - PSVR or Oculus Rift - remove the controller, and the gamer becomes nearly 100% immersed as the character in the virtual space, simulating movements with their sight, touch, and hearing. The Call of Duty franchise has already diverged down the path of Virtual Reality. In 2016's Infinite Warfare entry players who owned the headset were treated with a special single player mission that placed the player in a spaceship to battle out combat in space. It differentiates itself from the main game in which the player's head-movements and body functions determine the success of the experience. Paired with the graphical fidelity that the series is known for, there's no doubt that the company will be one of the core developers of VR experiences when the technology of the physical device allows for such high-definition quality.

Of course, VR is in its own stages of early development and only time will tell how that experience affects the uncanny.
Baudrillard describes the theory of the simulacrum as a representation of an object or person. In other words, the duplicate of what is being drawn upon – the original - must resemble as closely as possible of its representative meaning. Baudrillard argues that the simulacrum must fulfill certain qualities as an image:
Digital Kevin Spacey meets these requirements. The first, having been marketed as a reflection of the actor himself; the second, changing the actor to depict a villainous leader, the third, manipulating the character’s dialogue and speech to reflect a not too far off future of global wafrare, and the fourth, the creation of an entire war-torn world at the hands of the actor himself. Everything besides the original Kevin Spacey’s thought-processes are recreated in this virtual world to depict as close as possible the actor in a new medium.

It is important to note that the simulacrum can never truly be the original object in which it is based upon, and we see this in other forms of media and marketing. Take, for example, the popular Starbucks drink, the Pumpkin Spice Latte. The company’s purpose is to market this beverage during the specific Fall season as a popular drink filled with familiar flavors ad spicy smells to recreate the “feeling” of the season. Yet there is no trace of pumpkin ingredients in the Pumpkin Spice Latte. The beverage, representative of all that is Fall, is made with special syrups – a mere replica of what the original beverage mass produced to evoke a familiar feeling in the coffee drinking audience.

And the same applies for digital Kevin Spacey. As stated previously, the digitally rendered individual simply isn’t the original man as he is completely devoid of free-thinking. Rather, the computerized version is exactly the Pumpkin Spice Latte. In terms of the video game process, the ingredients put into digital Kevin Spacey is pre-recorded, pre-written dialogue. Only depicted in the video game’s campaign, digital Kevin Spacey will never produce a movement that hasn’t already been coded into the story. This is a replica on train tracks – a copy trapped to perform the same duties with a beginning, middle and end, for millions of players around the world, never to stray off the scripted material in the world of the simulacrum.

Yet the simulacrum also relates to Freud’s uncanny and it does indeed contribute to this familiar sense of awe that is evoked from players when they see digital Kevin Spacey. Baudrillard believes the entire city of Los Angeles a simulacrum of many original representations, arguing, “As much as electrical and atomic power stations, as much as cinema studios, this city, which is no longer anything but an immense scenario and a perpetual pan shot, needs this old imaginary like a sympathetic nervous system made up of childhood signals and faked phantasms” (Baudrillard 13). Baudrillard believes the city to be a Disney World in and of itself; a place built upon childhood dreams to evoke wonder and awe, a place unlike any other until one actually steps foot into it. 

Except the key word is “childhood.” Does not Freud relate the Uncanny back to our repressed childhood memories? It seems as if the simulacrum and the uncanny draw on the childhood subconscious to evoke specific emotions from an audience. In regards to the uncanny, Freud claims, “while the Sand-Man story deals with the excitation of an early childhood fear, the idea of a “living doll” excites no fear at all; the child had no fear of its doll coming to life, it may even have desired it. The source of the feeling of an uncanny thing would not, therefore, be an infantile fear in this case, but rather an infantile wish or even only an infantile belief” (Freud 9). There is a difference between evoking a childhood emotion based on two factors. One, the successful method to evoke the uncanny is to draw from a childhood experience that truly affected the person at that age. Whether it terrified them (as is the case of castration and the Sand-Man), or inspired them, it must resemble those repressed feelings. Two, the least successful one, as Freud so alludes to is to merely create a scenario that involves a child. It is easy to forget that children are full of imagination, that may wish for a doll to come to life, as Freud suggests. Yet just drawing on what a child wishes for isn’t enough. It’s how that child was forced to deal with the consequences of what they wished for is where the Uncanny draws its power from. 

Perhaps this is where video game developers manipulate their games to inspire the uncanny in the gaming community. According to the PewResearchCenter, a 2015 study demonstrates that 77% of men ages 18-29 play video games and 55% of women ages 18-29 play. Advanced Warfare was released to the general public in 2014, hot off of the heels of the next-generation of video game consoles, the PS4 and the Xbox One. Only a year earlier, it’s fair to conclude that the statistics of gamers were fairly recent one year prior, and many of this same demographic grew up upon the first iterations of video games in the 80’s and 90’s. Graphical capability of video games were nowhere near an iota as impressive or advanced as they are today in the mid-2010’s, and it’s no coincidence that this specific audience finds themselves so enraptured from seeing Kevin Spacey rendered in the virtual space. This reaction of awe and excitement draws directly on childhood experiences, of experiencing where their video game journeys have progressed years down the line. Baudrillard claims, “When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning.” The nostalgia of what once was is proved to be in good hands of developers as they continue to blur these lines between physical and digital realities.

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