CONSIDERING THE MOUNTING evidence that teenagers are spending more time zoning out on videogames and less time going to the movies, it’s no surprise that studios have turned to videogames as a vehicle to advertise their coming attractions.Visit the official sites of “King Kong,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Chicken Little,” “Bewitched” and “The Legend of Zorro” and you’ll find links to low-bandwidth “advergames” with primitive flash animation, designed to be played on your Web browser. Studio advergames are one of several fledgling forms of alternative advertising. They cost $100,000 or less to produce. For online marketers, the hope is that they’ll prove more beguiling than non-interactive materials like Internet banner ads and trailers, providing the same sort of mindless addiction as, say, video poker or the Brick Breaker game on your Blackberry. There’s just one problem: most studio advergames are surprisingly primitive. They bear no relation to Hollywood-style console games. They’re mindless viral marketing gimmicks with only a flimsy connection to the movie they’re meant to promote. The “King Kong” advergame was created by Pringles. The objective is to scurry up a log while dodging canisters of Pringles hurled your way. It’s a remarkably crude promotional device for a movie that’s purported to have the most spectacular special effects ever committed to celluloid. The “Chicken Little” site offers several games, most of them mesmerizingly bad. One is a clunky version of Tetris called “The Sky Is Falling”; another is a karaoke game featuring a dancing version of the eponymous chicken and songs from the movie soundtrack. The “Bewitched” game is just a fancy version of Connect Four. PACKAGED GOODS COMPANIES, automakers and online travel agencies have been devising advergames for years, but even the most successful of them suffer from a fundamental flaw. An advergame may be fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s an effective ad. Consider the case of “American Army,” a recruitment tool for the U.S. Army and one of the most popular advergames out there. The first-person shooter game has attracted about 5 million registered users since it was first made available for free download on July 4, 2002. Has it persuaded any of these users to enlist? It’s impossible to say. The New York Times reported that the Army keeps no statistics on the game’s efficacy as a recruiting tool, though it costs about $6 million to maintain each year. Ian Bogost, a former movie marketer who co-founded Persuasive Games, an Atlanta-based company that builds videogames for educational and public policy causes, says studio advergames only work if they teach you something fresh about a movie. Bogost was a fan of the “milk the cat” advergame that Universal created for the DVD “Meet the Parents.” You never actually see Ben Stiller milk a cat, Bogost said, but it’s one of the movie’s funniest conceits. “The idea was to conjure the absurd humor of the film and provide an experience you couldn’t otherwise have.” Ironically, it’s often unsuccessful movies that yield the best videogames. One of the more popular console games these days is “The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.” And Columbia Pictures created a surprisingly compelling game for, of all things, “Stealth.” The “Stealth” game involved a hyper-realistic 3-D version of the film’s stealth bomber. As users progressed through the game’s various levels, they received cell phone messages in the voice of Jessica Biels, debriefing them on their performance. An advergame, Col’s exec VP of worldwide digital marketing Dwight Caines told me, “is another touch point. It doesn’t equal some dollar amount. It does equal word of mouth.” SINCE LEAVING HOLLYWOOD, Bogost has moved onto to loftier things. Persuasive Games designed a Sims-like game for the Illinois Republican Party in which users learn about things like tort reform and medical malpractice by managing sick patients in an urban environment. Persuasive Games also created a “Howard Dean for Iowa” game. The objective, Bogost says, was to boost Dean’s prospects in the Iowa caucuses by waving signs and canvassing voters door-to-door. That all sounds interesting, but it’s worth remembering that Dean placed third in Iowa, prompting a speech to supporters in which he let loose with the now famous “Dean scream.” Now if there were just some way to get that scream into a videogame, they might just have a hit on their hands.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more