October 20, 2006
Technological Convergence between In-Game Advertising and Military Games

In-game advertising is still a hotly debated topic, also on this blog with recent contributions on the psycho-environmental circumstances of being exposed to in-game ads and on the ideal duration of exposure. Drawing on my PhD thesis, I'm suggesting a complementary closer look at the enabling technologies of in-game advertising.

The US Army is currently one of the most successful brands tapping the potential of interactive media for advertising purposes. Other military formations like the Australian Airforce pursue relatively conventional strategies of game-based advertising, following the principles of viral marketing and offering free, redistributable Adobe Flash games; the British Royal Airforce followed suit, cooperating with a successful online marketing company which produced a 'remake' of the game classic Choplifter around the RAF brand.

A preliminary list of brands featured prominently in popular video games contains mostly lifestyle brands like mobile phones and soft drinks; thus, by entering in-game advertising at this stage, the US Army has the added benefit of positioning itself among mostly desirable household brands, stabilizing its intended 'image' as an integral part of society.

However, my main argument holds that in-game advertising and military simulation games not only share converging interests but also technologies.
Recently, DICE and EA were severely criticized for their modular piece of advertising software implemented into the upcoming Battlefield 2142, which allegedly was consistent with the definition of spyware. Most of the allegations, focusing on the game supposedly analyzing its users' online behavior, were apparently exaggerated although the software does use the player's IP address for providing regionally specific ads only.

Actually, the whole debate blanked out a really important aspect, namely the fact that the (proprietary?) in-game advertising code is also able to track the average duration of a player looking at a specific billboard texture. (link) Most game engines even provide built-in object-oriented functions allowing for each object or even vertex to check autonomously whether the center of its bounding box is currently being rendered in a given camera view.
According to the 'reverse engineering' of a player of the game SWAT4 using a packet dumper, this game even secretly transmits a session and gamer ID to Massive Inc., thus allowing for adequate view measuring even in multiplayer sessions.

Current military software like America's Army uses similar techniques to track player positions, e.g. in coordinated attack missions, which can e.g. be displayed as graphical patterns overlayed on the level map. These patterns can, for instance, automatically be tested for compliance with standard procedures from military textbooks. The same functionality, usually termed 'after-action review' (AAR), was ex-post implemented into the commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) game Operation Flashpoint which was then relabeled and used for training as Virtual Battlesystem 1 by the US Army. (link)

This type of convergence is enable first and foremost through increasingly compatible game engines used in military and commercial games. Massive Inc., for instance, provides a modular software package for developers to integrate into their engine that automatizes the dynamic updating of textures with the latest promotional material in the appropriate format etc.
Read against the aforementioned 'secret' functionality of its software, the tech documentation on the Massive homepage suggests a 'behind the scenes' look but in fact seems to take attention away from the really sensitive questions.

Inducing from these instances of convergence, it appears plausible to assume a symbiotic relationship between in-game advertising and military software technologies. For instance, taking up the movement tracking approach from the America's Army example, the Massive Inc. tools could be feasibly upgraded not only to preselect the type of product information shown on a billboard but also, for instance, to determine the optimal distribution of in-game billboards, branded vending machines, scattered advertising leaflets etc. according to an analysis of player movement in a given game environment.