On an otherwise unremarkable day in early March, something truly extraordinary happened. Having sold more than 25 million copies of its blockbuster title Halo 3, the game creator Bungie announced that at precisely 6.36pm, in a three-minute and 19-second online game, four players (separated by physical distance but not by purpose) participated in Halo 3's one-billionth match. If every multiplayer game of Halo 3 lasted only around three minutes - mirroring this one- the total duration of all gameplay would be more than 63 centuries, 630 decades or 6,300 years. By anyone's reasoning, that's a lot of time.
If ever an illustration was needed to articulate that - like books, film or television before them - video games are the new medium of our age, and an awesome, still-burgeoning phenomenon of our culture, this was it. Video games are even being taken seriously in some surprisingly non-commercial quarters: university sociology and anthropology departments are offering courses on the significance of electronic games in society, and the web is rife with references to doctoral dissertations written about gaming and its influence on culture.
What makes video games so remarkable is how they combine the audiovisual capabilities of film, human insights of great literature, unlimited creative possibilities of animation and an interactivity utterly unique to the genre.
Given the craftsmanship that goes into today's best titles, the interactive storytelling and atmospheric immersion they enable, video games are arguably a new art form.
As Henry Jenkins of MIT argues, video games can "generate aesthetically and socially meaningful experiences which communicate complex ideas in a rich way", as well as offering a path beyond the static narrative which even the greatest of writers have at times found confining.
Take the astonishing perspective Jenkins takes regarding the epic book War And Peace. "Could a game be as good a work as War And Peace," he asks. "It might be a better work ... video games are going to do what literature has long wanted to do ... we are certainly still in that trajectory."
An emerging generation of game designers and publishers is convinced that video games are the ultimate storytelling medium. They are also big business. In terms of size, the video game industry is now mightier than Hollywood. Game developers measure success not just by the volume they sell or the income generated, but also by the total duration of gameplay offered by their stable, which varies from a few minutes to several hours. And because brands - most of the great ones, anyway - are about stories and emotional involvement, video games may also evolve to become the ultimate marketing platform.
There is always fear and loathing of any new medium. There was even a time when reading novels or going to the cinema was regarded as a frivolous waste of time. That's also possibly the mainstream view of video-gaming today.
Mass consumer acceptance combined with a huge diversity of titles, however, signals that we are already entering a new "age of play" and given that play is the fountain of creativity, then video games surely represent a new addition to the media landscape and a heavenly match for brands. Many respected schools teach game design from an artistic, multidisciplinary perspective and a new generation born with sophisticated games as an intrinsic, natural and accepted part of their culture don't take issue with the idea of a game being a form of creative expression.
Let's also enlist John C Beck and Mitchell Wade and their book Got Game: "Anyone who actually looks at the games selling and being played knows that the typical video game is not the blood-splattering, media-grabbing, parent-stressing cartoon that makes the nightly news on a slow or tragic day. Instead, it's a massive problem-solving exercise wrapped in the veneer of an exotic adventure. Or it's the detailed simulation of an entire civilization, or a pivotal battle that affected the course of world history. Or it's a serious opportunity to try coaching a sports team or setting military strategy. In short ... games ... lead the brain to new combinations of cognitive tasks and demand new levels of processing power."
Indeed, by occupying our minds so robustly, video games not only can be good for us, they can really make us feel things, enrapture us and help us conjure that wonderful psychological state known as "flow". The operative concept here is compelling, and the fact that video games are so compelling is why, despite being in many ways still a nascent medium - relatively speaking, perhaps somewhere about where film and music was 40 or 50 years ago - they are already a huge space for advertising.
In-game advertising spend was up 40 per cent in 2008 while conventional media spend was going sideways. Marshall McLuhan noted that "the medium is the message" and what better way to show that the new administration is in touch with technology, trends and the people than by Barack Obama's team placing ads into games (including Burnout Paradise and Madden NFL 09) in ten "battleground states" just weeks before election day?
For the moment, in-game advertising works a lot like product placement in films, and sits at a similar level of sophistication. The cardinal rule of video-game marketing today is that brands should not interfere with your fun. This is why ads on hoardings in football games or on billboards and the sides of taxi cabs in hits such as Grand Theft Auto are credible: it gives the player the chance to explore and bump into the brand, and since we are surrounded by logos and straplines in everyday life, they enhance the realism of the game. Numerous surveys prove that gamers see it this way also, and overwhelmingly enjoy brands' infiltration into the virtual world.
One reason marketers like in-game advertising is because it rewards those who don't get in the way of the game playing. And in the on-demand reality of the world we live in, advertising that respects its audience is essentially the only form that really grabs anyone's attention. Ever-better graphics, sound and playability, meanwhile, will continually raise the bar for how smart an advertiser has to be to create an effective in-game commercial or branded experience; it's going to require more, not less thinking as video games increasingly evolve into digital worlds that people inhabit for longer and longer.
What happens down the line when consuming electronic stories has become second nature for the majority of the population is not self-evident. Accordingly, to envision the future of video-game advertising, you can't just extrapolate from how Omega or Sony Ericsson use the latest James Bond film to peddle expensive watches or mobile handsets. You have to close your eyes and try to imagine how a brand we don't know about yet, or a product or service we're not currently able to conceptualise, might promote itself using the evolving video-game medium in a totally novel way.
Luckily, we haven't long to wait for some answers. Till now, gaming has been the domain of the manufacturers of the major consoles and the software developers who make them. But this paradigm is disintegrating as we speak.
Electronic distribution is shaking up the old retail markets, and indie programmers are already taking game development out of the hands of the long-dominant "studio system", which, like its Hollywood counterpart, traditionally favours shallow action titles. The depth and variety - as well as the storytelling power and finer audience segmentation - of available games will be enhanced by this trend.
Most disruptive of all, though, is the fact that, in the words of Rob Fahey at gamesindustry.biz: "Mobile devices have become powerful enough to rival handheld game consoles. Led by Apple, the rise of smartphone gaming looks set to be inexorable in 2009."
Social networking and gaming is also becoming intertwined. This will be followed by the progressively and insistently more complete intermingling of the virtual and the real, of the online and the offline, of our work and our play.
But the fact remains that as marketing clutter increases and media continues to fragment, advertising is running out of space in the most important medium of all - the human mind. We are learning more and more every week about the psychological and physiological impact of the media that inundates and stimulates us daily from dawn till well past dusk. On balance, the influence is a positive one as people are more empowered with the ease of access to knowledge and information. More intriguing, though, is the mounting evidence that neuroplasticity - the capacity of neural pathways to readjust once formed - is greater than formerly thought, and that human beings are able to continually optimise our brains throughout our lives. What this means is that some video games will have, or may already have, the power to literally make us better people.
So how are all these forces, from social networking to science, relevant to marketing through video games? Well, as has always been true, the brands that get the most will be the ones that give the most: those that make us laugh, that make us feel better about ourselves, that genuinely inspire us and make our lives better as individuals and as groups. In the case of video games, the winning brands will be those that harness the full potential of the medium - graphical, neurological or cultural - to deliver something truly fantastic to a waiting world that doesn't know it's waiting.
Among other emergent trends, there will be more instances of what the Oxford professor Douglas Holt describes as authentic cultural branding, where brands earn their keep by playing an active and helpful role in a global, national or sub-culture. In Holt's model: "As cultural activists, managers treat their brands as a medium - no different than a novel or a film - to deliver provocative creative materials that respond to society's new cultural needs."
So, imagine, if you will, Tolstoy (or at least Stephen King) being the author of a brand, and using the interactive medium of a video game as his chosen mode of expression. The effect will be more profound than today's in-game billboards, you can bet on that, and the marketing results will make banner ads seem as old school as the early arcade game Pong. From the perspective of the player, creator and brand, that makes everyone a winner.
- Ajaz Ahmed is the chairman of AKQA, Campaign's Digital Agency of the Year.