Most people would agree that nobody likes work, and perhaps least of all those who enjoy playing video games. But it seems the more work you ask gamers to do the more they enjoy it. Not just in the sense of puzzle-solving and overcoming obstacles, but in taking part in the creation process of the game world itself.
Compare some of the earliest video game box cover designs and you’ll notice an obvious and unremarkable trend: the games are depicted as they actually appear on screen. The selling point is the game itself.
This trend doesn’t hold for long though. By the time the Super Mario Bros. sequel came out on the Nintendo Entertainment System, covers had taken on a whole new look:
What happened? Marketers had shifted to selling games not by showing what they are but what they are meant to depict.
Yet there never seemed to be an outcry from angry gamers having been misled by false advertising. Players intuitively understood that the cover was not an accurate representation of the game, most likely in large part due to an understanding that game technology at the time was nowhere near powerful enough to make good on those expectations.
The convention held through the 16-bit, 32-bit, and 64-bit eras as well, and continues to this day even though graphics are now fully capable of delivering photorealistic scenes (or highly-polished cartoon worlds) worthy of eye-grabbing covers. Most gamers love these game covers… even though they look nothing like the game.
It seems marketers want gamers to “judge a book by its cover” only insofar as they think the game will be cool, but not as an accurate representation of what the game actually delivers. Not only is this accepted by the gaming community as simply something marketers do, it might actually serve to make playing the games themselves more pleasurable and memorable.
The reason might have to do with a similar and well-known principle in the world of marketing & advertising called the generation effect: a phenomenon in which information is better remembered if it is generated from one’s own mind rather than simply read or seen. An example used in researching this effect compares those memorizing a list of words with those memorizing the same list of words but with letters missing. Those who have to “fill in the blanks” perform better at later recalling items on the list than the group who was simply given the complete words. Members of the successful group were using their brain not just to understand the information they were seeing but actually to process it, which formed longer-lasting impressions of the task. Advertisers exploit this effect by creating ads that ask people to imagine things or “picture this:”, hoping to gain more top-of-mind recall later in the day while shopping.
While this isn’t exactly what is happening in the case of video game cover art, I do think that there is some element of pleasure gained from players being tasked with ‘bridging the gap’ in their imagination from the evocative image of what the game is trying to conjure with the more pixeled/polygonal reality being experienced on-screen. In some vague, perhaps subconscious way, the simplified dolphin-shaped sprite you are guiding is being reimagined in your mind as the majestic hero from the cover, and game + cover give your imagination the scaffolding it needs to participate in the creation of the game designer’s vision.
A similar thing also seems to happen in reverse. Jane McGonigal pointed out (in her 2010 book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World) that after extended time inside a game world there is a kind of ‘spillover effect’ that lingers and stays with the player as they put down the controller and re-enter the real world. Those positive feelings of accomplishment and achievement, or the prosocial attitudes gained from cooperation or strategic planning, persist. Games actually prime us for the real world and equip us with emotional and cognitive ‘experience’ that can be more easily accessed after play has completed. In this way, a pixelated fiction — no matter how unrealistic — can inspire mindsets and feelings in the physical, felt world.
From my own experience, I distinctly remember exploring the forgotten caverns and temples in the original Tomb Raider games and, after several hours of gameplay, being inspired to take on similar expeditions outside in the woods of my backyard, dreaming of days when I could take on true international discovery missions of my own. I eventually did, exploring bat caves in Panama, ancient (hidden) Zapotec ruins in Oaxaca, and modern relics in Florence, Reykjavik, and Bangkok. I can’t say it was directly influenced by Tomb Raider, but I can say I get a similar tinge of fernweh when I play Skyrim or Breath of the Wild as they inspire in me a longing for exploration, discovery, and danger. They put me in the mood to travel. So unlike the video game box covers that take an aspirational vision and deliver mere seeds, games can also allow the player to take seeds and generate actual, future realities of their own.
The pixelated worlds depicted in our favorite games force us to use our minds in ways that generate possibility. This could partly explain the recent rise in modern ‘pixel art’ games. While certainly a testament to the power of nostalgia, there is no denying the appeal of simplified graphics as a way of rebelling against the pull toward realism in favor of abstraction, suggestion, and ambiguity. This could also explain the persistence of the printed word in a world of virtual reality and streaming movies. The pixels of books are letters, and the reader’s mind is expected to generate the vision laid out by the author on the reader’s terms. The reader is in essence their own director of the film version of the book (in case you’ve ever wondered why the book is usually better than the movie).
I don’t think the harnessing of “the generation effect” is an intentional effort on the part of cover art designers or marketers, but I do think there is some merit to the idea that fictional depictions cause viewers to consider possibilities they wouldn’t have otherwise imagined, and for those ideas to persist during and after engaging in the experience being sold. Which, when you think about it, is actually more than you probably bargained for.