In the “Gamer in the Grease” episode of Bones, the team investigates the death of the only player known to achieve a perfect score on the game, Punky Pong. When I originally watched the episode, I was struck by how it portrayed fandom and exhaustively the promoted the theatrical release of Avatar. Eager fans were framed as overzealous and even called “freaks and fanatics” by one of the characters (click here for a clip). The inclusion of the subplot that consisted of characters waiting in line for Avatar tickets reeked of a poorly conceived synergy effort that would ultimately make the episode seem dated in reruns (click here for more of my thoughts on movie product placements).
The “Gamer in the Grease” episode included several topics that deserve further analysis including the heavily featured Punky Pong game, which is an example of fictionalized product displacement. The arcade game Bones examines is branded with an ape holding a paddle. Punky Pong name itself is a sort of hybrid reference to Donkey Kong and PONG. The actual purpose of the game is exactly like PONG where a player continually hits a ball back to the opponent. Originally, Punky Pong only existed in the Bones world, but in effort to give its viewers a seen-on-TV experience, Fox launched it on its site after the episode aired. A friend, and apparent Bones fan, informed me that Fox aired promos inviting viewers to visit Fox.com to play the actual game during the episode’s commercial breaks.
Fox essentially defictionalized Punky Pong and created a commodity to engage Bones viewers into the crime procedural’s world. Punky Pong also allowed fans to engage with each other by spreading the game’s link and posting their high scores. It also stimulated viewer curiosity–here, one inquires whether the game is real in which another viewer poignantly responds, “It is now. It didn’t exist before the Bones episode (Gamer in the Grease, Season 5 Episode 9) was created.”
I receive a lot of blog and Flickr hits from people searching for information regarding Alt World 2, a fictionalized Second Life-like game that was featured in a Ghost Whisperer episode. Alt World 2 was never developed into an actual game or even a fan forum, but I get the sense that viewers would welcome and even appreciate playing once fictional games. I think people enjoy the possibility of playing a game that they may already be familiar with in a new context that is established by a show they watch. I track a lot of fictionalized brands for my product displacement blog, but never see search terms regarding whether Mapple, ScienceWater or Buy More actually exist.
Perhaps because games can readily be posted online, people assume games featured on shows are real. In the case of Grand Theft Walrus, a fictionalized version of Grand Theft Auto where a walrus kills penguins, it only existed in The Simpsons world, but was then created by fans of the show. Had Fox released GTW with Rockstar Games, it would have given game the authenticity to be rendered defictionalized, but instead the GTW game available online is stuck in the realm of fan fiction.
The above image is one of the most viewed pictures in my Flickr photostream. The majority of viewers find the image by conducting keyword searches for “Alt World 2,” a fictionalized interpretation of the virtual world application, Second Life. In the “Ghost in the Machine” episode of Ghost Whisperer, Melinda is shown how to create an avatar and navigate through a virtual environment in order to catch a child predator. The Alt World 2 interface and its function closely resembles Second Life’s, but since the plot addressed the dangers of online worlds, it’s only natural that Second Life would want to avoid being mentioned or featured in the episode.
A behind-the-scenes clip, previously available on CBS.com, detailed Alt World 2’s creation process and featured the director and designers discussing their inspiration for the animation and graphics. What I find particularly interesting, are the viewer inquiries as to whether or not the Alt World 2 game exists in real life. Here, a Ghost Whisperer viewer identifies Second Life as an Alt World 2 substitute and reminds another fan about the dangers discussed on the show. At MIT’s Futures of Entertainment 3 conference, Ghost Whisperer Executive Producer, Kim Moses, touted the show’s transmedia storytelling ability as successfully connecting viewers to its content. Through the use of webisodes, books, message boards and fan fiction, Moses has laid the foundation to engage audiences. When I refer to engagement, I am referring to the resulting audience behavior, recall and participation after watching the program. It’s understandable for viewers to wonder if Alt World 2 is a real game given Ghost Whisperer’s presence across various media forms. Seeking out information regarding Alt World 2 is a form of engagement because it illustrates an interest in the show’s content that extends beyond the initial television airing.
I’m sure some Ghost Whisperer viewers are familiar with Second Life, but given all the outlets fans have to discuss the show, it’s completely plausible for them to believe that the Alt World 2 exits. Although an actual Alt World 2 gaming platform never came to a fruition, audience reaction to it demonstrates that product displacement can engage viewers and pique their curiosity. Fans that searched for Alt World 2 probably viewed it as another medium to connect with the Ghost Whisperer world. The episode featuring Alt World 2 originally aired October 2008, but searches for it appear on my Flickr stats almost everyday. Alt World 2 is a great example of a product displacement that really resonated with viewers. It’s a shame the game wasn’t developed into an actual social networking platform. I’m pretty sure Second Life was never approached to be included in the episode, but Alt World 2 presents the company with an opportunity to create virtual environments specifically for television shows.