In-game advertising: the role of game control (Herrewijn & Poels, 2014)

A colleague of mine is researching advertisement in videogames, he and I happened to be involved in a videogame advertisement study currently in progress. It’s an area of research that has a high value in application since game companies can offset development cost to advertisers, but this area is not really in my portfolio which is best left in the more capable hands of my colleague and others.

Nevertheless, there is no reason to keep this research area unattended from the public. I picked an article published in Frontiers in Psychology written by Laura Herrewijn (University of Antwerp) and Karolien Poels (University of Antwerp). This study examined how game controls affect brand awareness.


Digital gaming has become one of the largest entertainment sectors worldwide, increasingly turning the medium into a promising vehicle for advertisers. As a result, the inclusion of advertising messages in digital games or in-game advertising (IGA) is expected to grow steadily over the course of the following years. However, much work is still needed to maximize the effectiveness of IGA. The aim of the study was to contribute to IGA effectiveness research by analyzing the impact of two factors on the processing of IGA in terms of brand awareness. The primary objective was to investigate the effect of a person’s sense of involvement related to the control and movement mechanisms in a game (i.e., kinesthetic involvement). A within-subjects experiment was conducted in which control over a racing game was varied by manipulating game controller type, resulting in two experimental conditions (symbolic versus mimetic controller). Results show that the variation in game controller has a significant effect on the recall and recognition of the brands integrated into the game, and that this effect can be partially brought back to players’ perceived control over the game: when a game is easier to control, the control mechanisms require less conscious attention, freeing attentional resources that can be subsequently spent on other elements of the game such as IGA. A second factor that was taken into account in the study was brand prominence. The influence of both the size and spatial position of in-game advertisements was examined. Findings demonstrate that there are significant changes in effectiveness between different types of placements. Spatial position seems to be the most important placement characteristic, with central brand placements obtaining the highest recall and recognition scores. The effect of ad size is much smaller, with the effectiveness of the large placements not differing significantly from the effectiveness of their smaller counterparts.

The paper also happens to be found at a conference.

In-game advertisement had existed for a very long time going back as early as the 1970s. Some notable examples include some first-person game promoting whatever cereal that it was stuffed into (e.g. Chex Quest). The forms of in-game advertisement change over time in line with the capabilities of information technology. Advertisers paid game companies to make games around their product (e.g. Cool Spot) to something more dynamic akin to youtube targeted advertising. A more recent example is the Obama campaign in Need for Speed: Carbon where in-game billboards displayed Obama election ads.

There is still work to be done as videogames are more recent and more complex than the well-studied domains of television and radio. The effectiveness of in-game advertisement by attracting the audience’s attention depends on many contextual factors and the authors examined two such factors in their study. The Limited Capacity Model of Motivated Mediated Message Processing would tie those factors together. This theoretical model explains that a person’s total attention capacity is limited, an analogy is like a computer’s ability is limited by the amount of RAM.

The first factor is involvement. The construct is game-specific and it is formed from a combination of six components of engagement:

  1. Kinesthetic involvement: control and movement in the game.
  2. Spatial involvement: the navigation and exploration in the game.
  3. Shared involvement: the awareness of other agents (human and non-human) in the game.
  4. Affective involvement: the emotions generated in the game.
  5. Narrative involvement: the story elements and emergent narrative resulting from the game’s interactions with players.
  6. Ludic involvement: The pursuit of goals and decision-making within the game.

Gordon Calleja (IT University of Copenhagen) published a book called In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation which pretty much forms the theoretical basis for involvement. I am unsure whether Dr.Calleja is aware of similar psychological constructs to his six involvement components, such as the various forms of presence, transportation, arousal, and self-determination. The authors examined kinesthetic involvement as there are many ways to play a videogame and how much experienced in a control can influence in-game involvement and in turn in-game advertising.

Kinesthetic involvement concerns about the players’ agency in the game environment, and how they control the player character in such environment. There are various levels of kinesthetic involvement and is dependent upon the controller. The symbolic level is your traditional gamepad or keyboard where a button symbolizes an action, it could be a simple to complex action, such as hijacking a car in GTA. The mimetic level is your wii-motes, playstations wands, joysticks and steering wheels where you mimic real life actions through those peripherals. Players mimic because they can sit on the couch and wave their wii-motes using their wrists which does not correspond to the player character who might be standing or doing physically exhaustive movements. The symbiotic level is your kinect and playstation eye/camera where your movements are replicated in the game, you make a swinging motion and the player character replicates it. It can be said to be the most natural and intuitive control scheme.

A symbiotic and mimetic control schemes may seem like a no-brainer in playing videogames as it is believed to be easier to master and intuitive. But the players’ sense of kinesthetic involvement is dependent on how easy the controls actually are. A new player learning the controls would devote much of their attention at the controls rather than what is happening in the background of the game, much like learning to ride a bicycle. When we master the controls, we devote less attention on the controls and devote to the game itself, much like how we devote our attention to the streets when riding the bicycle. The problem with symbiotic and mimetic controls are the lack of precision and responsiveness that could hinder players’ sense of kinesthetic involvement and the symbolic controls are more familiar to players. These problems would make symbolic controllers giving a greater sense of control whereas the mimetic controls gives a greater sense of naturalness. Differences in control scheme might affect their attention capacity and in turn affect how players notice in-game advertisement.

The second factor in the study is the prominence of the advertising. It is defined by many characteristics, such as size, color, attractiveness and where it is positioned. A more prominent ad is most likely to gain the audience’s attention and is mot likely to be remembered, in the short term. The authors examined how big the ad is and where it is located might affect how players would notice them.


Participants: 31 people from Belgium, average age is 22.6 (SD=2.9). 24 male and 7 female. Participants were recruited if they have basic experiences with videogames since the sample played videogames for at least 6 years and played videogames on a weekly or daily basis.


Kinesthetic involvement: 14 items answered on a 5-point intensity scale. 12 items asked about perceived control (e.g., “The game controls were easy to pick up”) and 2 items asked about the controls’ naturalness (e.g., “The actions necessary for controlling the game were very close to that in the real world”)

In-game advertising awareness: There are three measures for awareness of advertising. First, free recall where participants were asked to remember brand names shown in the game. Second, participants are given a list of brand names and asked if it they remembered them in the game. Third, participants are given a list of brand logos and asked if they remembered them in the game.

In-game advertising effectiveness: There are two measures for brand effectiveness. First, brand attitude where participants rate each brand on a 7-point on how much they like it, how pleasant it is and how good or bad it is. The second is purchase intention where participants rate on a 4-point likelihood scale of buying the product from each brand. The authors noted that nothing significant came out from these measures because you can’t really form attitudes on well-known brands and in such short period of time.

Game Performance: the researchers noted the participants’ score or finishing place and lap time.

Videogame used: LittleBigPlanet Karting, a Playstation 3 exclusive videogame. They choose it because it has customization capabilities. Relevant to the study is making their own tracks, which they can incorporate billboard ads in their race tracks. They created two identical racetracks with seven computer opponents, each associated to a condition, that is the type of controller players used (the gamepad vs. the playstation move’s steering wheel), but contained different brands. Play time is 5 laps for each racetrack, so it varies.

Brands used: There are two racetracks that containing different brands with different size and position in the track. Racetrack one has Twix (large-central), Snickers (Small-central), Canada Dry (Large-peripheral) and Schweppes (Small-peripheral). Racetrack two has M&Ms (Large-central), Kit Kat (Small-central), Dr. Pepper (Large-peripheral) and Orangina (Small-peripheral). I don’t know which racetrack is associated with which controller because I couldn’t find it.

herrewijn and poels

Left: Peripheral-Large. Right: Central-Small


Participants play through the game’s tutorial using one of the controller (starting either the gamepad or the steering wheel). Then, they play the racetrack associated with the controller. When they are done, they complete the questionnaire about their kinesthetic involvement with that controller. They replay the tutorial, but with the other controller type and play its associated racetrack. When finished, they again complete the questionnaire about their kinesthetic involvement with that controller and complete the brands questionnaire.


Participants played the game twice using different controllers each time, therefore their own performances can be directly compared serving themselves as a control group. This allows the researchers to use a smaller sample.

The authors started examining the impact of the game controllers using a one-way repeated measures ANOVA on kinesthetic involvement. The gamepad controller led to greater perceptions of control whereas the steering wheel felt more natural. There were differences in players’ in-game performance, playing the steering wheel led to poorer lap times (M=366.065 seconds, SD=18.41) and finishing place (M=5.258, SD=2.93 or fifth place on average) versus playing the gamepad (M=330.51 seconds, SD=20.805; M=2.032, SD 2.213 or second place on average). So, giving the steering wheel to your friend or little sibling will give you an unfair advantage, unless they’re good at it. The authors found that perceptions of control weighs more heavily than naturalness in predicting kinesthetic involvement.

Their results about game controllers effect on brand awareness revealed that playing the gamepad led to greater recall, name and brand recognition than the steering wheel.

So far, we have seen a direct and causal relationship between brand awareness and controller type, but we have yet determined its psychological mechanisms. Would kinesthetic involvement mediated this relationship? The authors determined this mediation through linear mixed model analyses and found that game controller is still predictive of brand name recognition when perceived control is included into the analyses. Furthermore, game controller is mediated by perceived control in predicting brand logo recognition. Reading this right, playing the gamepad led to greater perceptions of control which in turn led to greater brand logo recognition.

The authors examined how brand prominence (i.e. size and placement) in the game would affect brand awareness. They found that large-central advertisements elicited the greatest recall and name and logo recognition, significantly greater than small-peripheral advertisements. Further analysis showed that positioning mattered more than size.

Finally, the authors examined the interaction between controller type and brand prominence through a two-way repeated measures ANOVA. They found that playing the steering wheel has no effect on brand prominence. But, differences arise compared with the gamepad as brand name recognition is greatest with large-central advertisements when playing with the gamepad, followed with small-central advertisements. No effects were found for peripheral advertisements. As for brand recall, the pattern is the same, except the interaction effect is non-significant. As for brand logo recognition, they found that playing the gamepad affects all brand placements, except for the small-peripheral advertisements.


The take-home message is that playing a videogame with controllers that afforded a greater degree of involvement, through kinesthetic involvement, increases the brand awareness, especially when these advertisements are big and in center view. Well, as long as it is in plain and center view. The player would at least remember or recognize the brand’s name and logo at a later time.

This study has demonstrated partial support that being involved in the game can affect brand awareness, researchers have five more components to complete this argument (i.e. spatial, shared, affective, narrative and ludic involvements).

Symbolic control (i.e. gamepad controllers) led to greater recognition of name and logo brands. Would these results suggest that advertisers should drop their efforts for the kinects and playstation moves? This would be jumping to conclusions. The authors argued that easier to control and faster mastery of controls would free up players’ attentional capacity from the controller unto the screen. So, targeting this involvement by increasing perceived control in the game would in turn increase brand awareness. IMO, this will take some creative efforts on the developers and time for players to grow on to the kinects and playstation moves, similar to how touchscreen technology on mobile devices evolved and grew to ubiquity.

The authors noted some limitations in their study. First, the small sample size that consisted of experienced gamers. Perhaps, there are differences with less experienced gamers. Although, it was found that gaming expertise can affect how fast one can learn new controls. They have not found it to be the case. To me, it is clear. It’s like someone who drove a car on manual transmission is suddenly asked to ride a horse. Other factors of kinesthetic involvement includes perspective point-of-views (i.e. first- or third-person perspective), number of player characters, and pacing among other things.

Herrewijn, L., & Poels, K. (2014). Recall and recognition of in-game advertising: the role of game control. Frontiers in Psychology, 4 . DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.01023

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