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Wednesday, Dec 18 1996
Gentlemen Start Their Engines
As the computer selling season heats up for the holidays, plugs for PC and electronic games are proliferating. Most have long been sold on the strength of their sex and violence -- "guts, butts, smut, and nuts," to borrow one maker's slogan. But there's a wrinkle peculiar to this genre: pitches that sell games on their ability to defeat and embarrass the player in the extreme, to the point, in one ad, where he (that is the demographic) wets his pants.

Most mainstream computer mags and the ads they carry are pretty tame, so much so that even a small deviation can draw flak. Macworld was taken to task recently by a Third World advocacy group for a plug in its January issue for a flight simulator game called A-10 Cuba! Global Exchange, an S.F.-based organization, wanted Publisher Colin Crawford to make the advertiser rewrite the copy, which Crawford had done a year ago for an earlier, more offensively worded ad. It said the ad should be censored because the game was insensitive to Cubans. Crawford declined, pointing out that A-10 Cuba! posits an alliance between American and Cuban troops against a common alien enemy, that Castro's never even mentioned, and that it goes overboard in the PC department by penalizing players for causing civilian casualties.

But Macworld's game ads pale compared to what runs in the specialized gaming titles, which cater to the 8-year-old and up '90s version of the MAD Magazine set. The level of subtlety is still relative, however. Even though A-10 Cuba! is aimed at a slightly older demographic, its ad is plenty crude: A stubbed-out, blood-splattered, presumably Cuban cigar lies in the sand with the punch line, "After a hard day, it's nice to sit back, relax and smoke a few butts."

That's nothing, though, compared to what can be found in the fat Ziff-Davis book Electronic Gaming Monthly. Most of the ads still play on the traditional, macho butts-and-smut theme. The emphasis is on macho. Even the suggestion of a deviation from the hetero can cause a stir. Maxis, the maker of the acclaimed "Sim" series, recently fired a gay game writer after it discovered that he had slipped in a few boy-kissing-boy exchanges in a segment of a new release. It also recalled copies with the illicit code and posted a "fix" on the Internet.

The copy for another game, Tempest, reads "The first time you did it you were excited, frustrated and you lasted about 10 seconds," along with a photo of a young guy with his tongue arched lecherously, superimposed over a bare mattress.

Or this knowing nod to the Nancy Reagan/William Bennett crowd: "Say No to Drugs. Say Yes to Bloodshed and Helicopter Warfare."

But elsewhere, the violence is played with a twist. In a variant on the time-honored advertising convention where the message tells the buyer the product will make him feel bigger and stronger, these games flex their metaphorical muscle to make their customers feel, well, small.

The newest Mortal Kombat, a longtime thorn in the side for the morality police, has a full-page ad that shows a sonogram of a fetus (male, it would seem) with the tag line: "Better get used to being in this position again." Battleship posts a mock cigarette caution box: "WARNING: Before Playing, Notify Your Next of Kin."

In the December Game Informer, the copywriters stray into the ticklish area of male incontinence. A double-truck ad for WipeOut features before and after pictures of a guy in khakis and polo shirt, shot from midriff to knees. In the first, there's a wet spot about the size of an orange on his fly. That's with "Original WipeOut." In the second, with "New WipeOut XL," the spot is about as big as a basketball.

Could this mean a new niche for the adult diaper industry?

Ex Thumps Chest With Bug
Twice in the past month the Examiner has tagged the grandiose and utterly superfluous "Copyright © 1996, the Hearst Corporation" onto Page One stories by Christopher Matthews, the paper's one-man road-show-cum-Washington Bureau.

In both cases, the Ex's chest-thumping was occasioned by Matthews' reports on 200 or so hours of taped conversations from the Nixon White House released by the National Archives on Nov. 18. The first story (Nov. 21) detailed a June 1971 Oval Office meeting in which Richard Nixon ordered his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, to arrange a break-in at the Brookings Institution. The second (Dec. 8) chronicled two other meetings in September of 1971 where Nixon ordered aides to sic the Internal Revenue Service on "rich Jews" (or "cocksuckers," as the sewer-tongued president of the United States so delicately put it).

Scoops? Well maybe scooplets.
As Matthews pointed out in the first story, Nixon himself had alluded to the burglary order in his 1975 memoirs. As for the second story, Matthews again very properly noted that the Haldeman diaries, posthumously published in 1993, cited numerous instances of anti-Semitism in the White House.

But our beef (at least this time) is not with Matthews, who last year published his own book on the rivalry between Nixon and John F. Kennedy. His stories were well-written, providing good detail and context on the nuggets he pulled from the newly released tapes and that he apparently spotted before anybody else (including the Washington Post, which duly credited the Ex in its own account on Dec. 11).

What we can't understand is the cheesy self-promotion of a copyright bug since all material in newspapers is implicitly copyrighted anyway.

"It was a conscious decision," according to Phil Bronstein, executive editor at the Ex, who said he couldn't recall whether he or some other editor had actually ordered the bug be put on Matthews' stories. "We're not the New York Times. We don't pretend to be the New York Times in terms of scope," so the copyright notice "causes other media to think if they're going to lift the story." The Times, which fumbled the Watergate story the first time around, ran a 164-word Reuters dispatch out of S.F., which did credit the Ex.

Washington Post National News Editor Howard Kurtz termed the copyright bug "a small bit of hype" that had no bearing on the Post's decision to credit Matthews and noted that the paper had done it "as a professional courtesy."

What a concept.

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail:

About The Authors

Phyllis Orrick


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