5 Controversial Video Game Marketing Campaigns

Marketing things is complicated, and video games are especially slippery. You have to get people talking, shake things up. This often pushes marketing teams to try to come up with outside-the-box ideas to spark some interest, and sometimes this results in ideas that some sensible person should have shot down before they actually made it out into real life. Let’s see a few.

5. Dead Island: Riptide
Special editions are how video game companies trick us into paying four times a game’s worth with swag that tells all your visitors you are a person who should not be trusted with money. It’s harmless fun, but sometimes these things mutate in weird directions.

For instance, Techland offered Dead Island: Riptide Zombie Bait Edition, and it came with a bikini-clad, headless and limbless woman’s torso. It was honestly like an Anita Sarkeesian critique in knickknack form, and someone really should have explained why this was a terrible idea. Techland would later go on to offer a $400,000 collector’s edition of Dying Light, further cementing the idea that whoever is in charge of collector’s editions at the company is clearly a Batman villain. 

4. WipEout
WipEout, which launched with the original PlayStation in Europe in 1995, was by all definitions a revolutionary title. It was cross-promoted with the film Hackers, with playing the game being a plot point in the film. It was also one of the first games to use licensed music in the sound track, focusing on techno greats like Orbital and Chemical Brothers.

It was gritty and dark, a mature, futuristic racer. Some of that got the makers, Psygnosis, mired in controversy. A famous ad campaign for the game featured a poster with DJ Sara Cox bleeding from her nose and using the tagline “a dangerous game.” Many people interpreted the game as depicting a drug overdose. The large middle E in the title was called a coded reference to ecstasy, which was prominent in rave culture at the time along with the music that Psygnosis made such a big part of its game.

Ecstasy was no laughing matter in the ‘90s. The drug had risen greatly in popularity, trailing only marijuana among first-time users. Fortunately for Psygnosis, this was one of those rare controversial ad campaigns that helped out, with WipEout reaching an untapped market in gaming with club culture and becoming a bestseller. The same cannot be said of…

3. Shadow Man: 2econd Coming
Shadow Man holds the distinction of having its marketing plan being denounced by a major world religion. And no, it’s not because spelling “Second” as “2econd” is a crime not only against language but against God Himself. It’s because Acclaim wanted to put ads on tombstones.

Acclaim, which assured reporters it was totally serious, said it would pay surviving relatives a fee to allow the company to add small billboards on memorials, and that this might be a good opportunity for “poorer families.” The Church of England formally announced that it would not allow any such billboards in its graveyards, responding in perhaps the most English way ever, “There was enough fuss with plastic flowers in the churchyards.”

2. Dante’s Inferno
Dante’s Inferno is what happens when someone looks at God of War and thinks, “This is fun, but it really needs more nudity and bizarre gore and way less character development.” Thus was born one of the crappiest “edgy” games ever and an utter mockery of Dante’s work, human decency and gaming itself. It’s about as enjoyable as a Human Centipede film marathon.

And there’s no reason we shouldn’t have seen it coming because the marketing campaign basically implied that you could win real-life prostitutes. EA invited Comic Con goers to “commit acts of lust” by taking pictures with booth babes and uploading them on social media. The winner would get “a sinful night with two hot girls, a limo service, paparazzi, and a chest full of booty." After some backlash, EA stated that its Night of Lust would just be a night on the town in a limo with a company rep and all expenses paid, not literally offering women as objects to be won.

And speaking of bad “sex sells” ideas…

1. Game Gear
Also known as Not the Game Boy, Sega’s Game Gear tried very hard to stand up to the juggernaut that was Nintendo’s original handheld. Sega needed to appeal to someone other than the Tetris crowd, so it went after the perverted teenage boy dollar.

In the United Kingdom, Sega started advertising in Viz, which is basically Mad Magazine for people who think the Scary Movie franchise is comedy genius. One of the adverts is above, making a super-clever masturbation joke. Others included one of a man peeing the word “SEGA” into the snow, and another with hairy testicles hanging out of a swimsuit, dubbing them Sonic the Hedgehogs one and two.

At least this was only juvenile. In America, Game Gear implied that people who played Game Boy were mentally disabled. The good news is that the Game Gear survived into the 21st-century handheld market. The bad news is that it’s only because its library is available on the Game Boy’s descendant, the 3DS

Jef has a new story about robot sharks out now in Lurking in the Deep. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner