Saturday, October 13, 2007

Simcity and Big Oil

Simcity has been a very successful game franchise for nearly 20 years. For those who don't know, it's what would probably be called (and has been called) a "city simulator". You pick a plot of land, start putting up things (roads, power lines, residential areas, commercial zones). As more people move and settle into the area, they pay taxes, which enable you (as the mayor) to expand the village into a town, than a city, and so on.

I've always thought the Simcity games were really cool. The last one I did play, though, was Simcity 2000, although I did spend some time with the classic version last month. Anyway, a big component of the games is controlling pollution. You have to decide whether you'll build a plant powered by either nuclear or coal. As I understand, in the later games, there are alternative energy sources that open up as you progress.

In the newest game, Simcity Societies, the oil company BP will be featured in the game when you build an energy-efficient plant. However, their logo won't be emblazoned on a plant if it's a high-polluting one. As this article shows, this isn't just merely product placement. BP approached Electronic Arts last year to develop a game about energy use and climate change. After some thinking, EA decided to incorporate BP's ideas into the Simcity franchise.

Product placement in video games is still a new concept to me. For years, I've gotten used to it in movies and TV shows, and at sporting events. When I was a kid, I played a lot of sports games, primarily baseball. When I played a virtual game at a virtual park, I looked at the fictional logos and companies on the backdrop and the billboards, and thought it'd be cooler and genuine if they were provided by real companies. But I was a kid then, and didn't understand the implications of commercialism.

Now, as games have evolved, I've seen more real companies' advertising in games. It hasn't really bothered me that much because it was done in an apparently benign way in which the companies featured didn't have a voice in the design of the game. But the BP/EA alliance on Simcity Societies goes beyond mere product placement. A company is taking a franchise thats beloved by many, and using it to broaden its PR campaign, even if it's contrary to its real-world workings. BP is a more progressive oil company than, say, Exxon/Mobil. It's spent billions on alternative energy research and has even stated publicly that global warming is real. However, it's still an oil company.

And a "shame on you" to EA. For a long time, from its games on the Commodore 64 (my first game system) to the Genesis, EA was one of my favorite game companies. Even in the mid 90s on the PC, they were still a name you thought of when it came to quality experiences. But they've gotten far worse as they've gotten bigger. There are many sources you can find for examples, Google it. But this Simcity Societies debacle is a glaring example of what I'm talking about.

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