When a musical artist, pop culture figure or even political spokesman hits it big, the merchandising switch is hit. You saw KISS on lunchboxes, Eminem action figures, the list goes on. But when a celebrity enters the world of full-on video games, you can’t really look at it in the same way. Video games, unlike films and television, are filled with a culture who doesn’t take lightly to that same kind of sensationalism and paparazzi flair. It’s a really different animal. Yet, year after year, we see these pop culture figures enter the world of interactive entertainment with their personalities and reputations blowing up in our faces. It’s a surreal moment, but not a particularly welcome one. So celebrities: stay out of my video games.
Now note this: I’m not talking about celebrity voice actors. I firmly believe that celebrities can bring something very unique to the voice acting table. Some of the best voice acting I’ve seen in gaming has come from big-name celebrities, like Mark Hamill with his unforgettable role as The Joker in Batman: Arkham Asylum and the many different heavy metal icons in Brutal Legend like Ozzy Osbourne and the members of Tenacious D. These types of games aren’t surrounded by the celebrities; essentially, the voice acting roles are complementary and the game (though significantly improved with them) doesn’t subsist on their existence.
The games I’m talking about are the ones where the celebrity not only plays the role of themselves, but so much so that the role is centralized and sensationalized. The game, in a way, doesn’t even seem like a game anymore. It seems more like pure, ego-tripped product placement.
Now, we’ve seen this kind of celebrity role for decades now. It’s not anything particularly new. We all remember Shaq Fu, the absolutely terrible fighting game featuring the former basketball superstar, Shaquille O’Neal. It’s become one of the most critically panned video games of the 16-bit era due to its broken controls and nonsensical setting. But from a completely analytical standpoint, Shaq Fu’s place in the cultural spectrum of gaming is prominent in one very important way: the game itself really didn’t have anything to do with Shaquille O’Neal himself. His reputation as a basketball player wasn’t in any way fleshed out in Shaq Fu; his entire purpose in the game was as an advertisement, not furthering the quality of the game design itself.
No matter how many commercials he does, Shaq can’t remove this stain from his career…
In all honesty, however, would Shaq Fu have been a great game without Shaquille O’Neal? No, it wouldn’t. Actually, in a twisted sort of way, Shaquille O’Neal’s involvement probably made the game reach a wider audience. Shaq actually made a very big message by being a part of Shaq Fu. He showed the gaming culture a bad game through the lens of his own image. If the game didn’t have Shaq in it, would anyone have even played it or even given it a second glance? If anything, Shaq’s presence made the game a significant cultural artifact, one that showed everyone a bad, very broken game that he partook in to show its sheer crap factor. In that regard, Shaquille O’Neal was a martyr.
The more recent examples of this negligence have come in the form of the 50 Cent shooter games and Way of the Dogg, the rhythm-fighter game featuring rapper-turned-reggae-artist Snoop Dogg (Snoop Lion). None of these games have been classified as “good games.” They might be passable in an extreme case, but on the whole, nothing that anyone should really invest their time or money in. All in all, these games are simply there to market the image of the celebrity; the game itself has nothing to do with the title’s cultural significance. The celebrity presence is a marketing tool, but a flawed one as well. It’s true that the game is sure to grab more attention if a famous celebrity is involved in it, but if the game is truly bad, what’s the advantage? If the game featuring the celebrity is a phenomenally designed one, the celebrity’s presence will seem crass and the marketability and merchandising vibe stick out like a sore thumb, almost like it really doesn’t belong. But on the other hand, if the game is absolute garbage, the celebrity’s presence may gather attention, but the attention will ultimately be redirected toward the negativity, seeing as the celebrity got involved with such a broken and flawed product.
All apologies, Nirvana fans…
With both of those situations discussed, the celebrity’s presence really has no advantage at all. It will almost always bring down the resulting quality of the game itself. This is even clearer in the explosion of music games during the mid-2000’s. Guitar Hero developers Neversoft made the absolutely stupid move of including avatars of different musical artists like Slash (Guitar Hero III), Aerosmith (Guitar Hero: Aerosmith), and Kurt Cobain (Guitar Hero 5). These inclusions may have been mildly interesting at first, none of them were particularly essential to the game itself. In fact, the Guitar Hero 5 debacle even got legal attention from former Nirvana members Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, who were disgusted at how Cobain’s image could be perverted by having the avatar sing songs by other artists like Bush, Bon Jovi and Public Enemy (all of which were in no way appropriate for Cobain’s pure rock mantra). In this way, the use of a celebrity’s image (especially a posthumous representation) only brings the hammer down on keeping the image preserved in bright amber. There’s a significant risk in using an image like this, and while there is a successful way to do it, the high amount of surveillance in making sure that the image is used in a positive light just isn’t worth putting up with for huge conglomerate publishers like Activision. Why watch when you can simply pay up and patch it?
I want to bring up The Beatles: Rock Band a little as well, because it’s an outlier in this pattern. Harmonix put a ton of effort in securing rights for using the images of the original Beatles. The songs were licensed and there was clearly a lot of research done in making sure the game wasn’t disrespectful to the Fab Four. Bassist Sir Paul McCartney and drummer Ringo Starr were very involved with the game’s production as well. So why were these celebrity images received with such passionate applause when compared to Guitar Hero 5? Because classifying The Beatles: Rock Band as a game is only described it halfway. The Beatles: Rock Band was half a game, half a cultural time capsule. Yes, you did play the game in the same way as past Rock Band games, but nearly every aspect that defined who The Beatles were was there. Harmonix made this image the centerpiece of the product; the gameplay itself didn’t do too many things new. It really was a Beatles music documentary that you could rock along with.
Harmonix got it right. What can’t anyone else?
The Beatles: Rock Band may have been a major critical success, but one right way doesn’t eliminate all of the other wrong ways. In a general sense, the celebrity presence is extraneous and is no way correlated with the game itself. They remain distant factors that normally don’t mesh together in cohesive ways. Once again, I commend Harmonix for approaching The Beatles: Rock Band in a different method, but their example (from what I’ve seen) hasn’t been followed by any other game developers or publishers this generation.
The idea of having a major celebrity in a game is a novelty, but it’s not a novelty that lasts. While many people visited games like Shaq Fu and 50 Cent: Bulletproof when they were released, no one really stuck around, played the games and said “that’s a really good game.” Why? Because they weren’t good games. Under these conditions, celebrity roles as high-profile commercial selling points don’t do anything to help the game’s reputation. As gamers, we may be initially intrigued by having a major cultural figure in our video games, but that isn’t something that lasts throughout our entire playthrough. It’s only a distraction, a catalyst that generally encourages us to play the game in the first place, ultimately leaving us with a bad taste in our mouth once the credits roll.
A celebrity’s image disappears after a while. A bad game? That doesn’t go away. Bad is forever.
It began with a hand-me-down Sega Genesis from his cousin and since then, he's been fascinated with video games. He enjoys the blissful platforming of the 16-bit era and the rich adventures of the 64-bit era. Favorite games include Metroid Prime, Banjo-Tooie, and practically every 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog title.
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