By Michael Kielstra
The Saviour of Rhodes Island
This is what happens when you turn off advertising personalization on YouTube
By MICHAEL KIELSTRA
Rhodes Island is in danger. You must understand this fact, or nothing I am about to say will make any sense at all. Rhodes Island—no, not Rhode Island—is in terrible danger, and only you and your team of “operators” can save it. Some of the operators also work for Penguin Logistics. This may or may not be important. I don’t know.
At this point, lest my editor think I have gone stark raving mad, I should mention that I am discussing the YouTube advertisements for Arknights, which seems to be some sort of mobile game. Further research indicates that the game is in fact properly capitalized ArKnights, and is, according to the Wiki, “a mobile science fiction tower defense gacha video game.” I didn’t know up until recently what a gacha game was, but it turns out to be a genre based completely around loot box mechanics, where you spend either in-game or real currency, often both, to get a chance to receive a random character or item. In this case, that would be an operator.
Gacha games have been around on the mobile scene for quite some time, but I only recently started seeing adverts for them on YouTube. Two things had to happen first: I turned off advert personalization, and YouTube started showing static image adverts in between recommended videos. Most of these image ads were for perfectly innocuous things, from Facebook to online therapy, but sometimes they were for mobile games. Some were gacha, and some weren’t. Many were weird. These, I started collecting.
My introduction to the world of weird mobile adverts, and the first entry in my collection, was for a game called Royal Family. You play as a king who looks like a bewildered Jason Statham with a waxed toupée, and, judging by the image in the ad, make choices in order to move the story along. The choice shown is between which of two women you want to pursue a relationship with: you may either, and these are direct quotes, “Take care of the pregnant” or “Have fun with the blonde.” The game, which is free-to-play, had 4.2 stars out of 5 at the time I saw the ad.
Choosing how to treat one’s women, and I use the possessive and the plural intentionally here, is something of a theme among these advertisements. Girls X Battle 2, which calls itself the “Best anime game of 2020” and might be another gacha, promises functionality by which the same woman can be made to go from “Age 16 Classmate,” through “Age 18 Girlfriend” and “Age 20 Wife”, to “Age 22 Mom of Baby.” Each variant is accompanied by a star rating: the classmate is one star, the mother, five. All but the mother wear professional clothing; the mother wears only a dressing gown. Strategically date this woman, the advert shows, and you can take her out of the workforce and reduce her identity to that of being the mother of your child.
Some go further and just offer straight-up sex. The advert for Call me a Legend – Game of Battle & Love promises “Money, Power, Love Affairs.” The image shows a scantily-dressed Snow White, carrying a banana, saying something crude about how you compare to “7 dwarfs altogether.” Royal Family has another advert, featuring the blonde woman from the previous one, in which you can decide if you want to marry her. Even Arknights, with its focus on being “the tactician of Rhodes Island,” appears from the adverts to have only female operators, and conventionally beautiful, large-chested ones at that.
I would hesitate to call any of them pornographic, though. While Snow White’s outfit in Legend is clearly meant to be sexy, it shows much less than many swimsuits. The audience is not just sexually-frustrated men. Instead, it is lonely men, the sort of people who want a woman whom they can take from girlfriend to wife to mom of baby. Snow White isn’t just talking dirty for the sake of it: she’s reassuring you that you’re good in bed. Arknights’ copy text never mentions sex or relationships at all, putting the player instead in the position of a trusted commander. That you are a trusted commander of gorgeous women is icing on the cake.
This is all for the static image ads. The video ads are completely different, and often contain no female characters at all. Instead, they usually consist of idealized gameplay, either in the form of a Let’s Play by a streamer or just by a montage of scenes from the game. These are often for city-building or tactical games: one common variant consists of building towers with guns to shoot down a seemingly infinite horde of enemies. The games themselves need not match up with the gameplay shown at all. Gardenscapes, a match-three game, has adverts which instead show physics puzzles involving sliding rods in and out of structures to guide water, lava, characters, and dangerous animals around the level. These rod-sliding puzzle adverts have become popular in the last year or so, although the functionality was rarely implemented in the games that they advertised. One developer did in fact build it and started advertising “the game from all the fake YouTube adverts,” but this quickly disappeared. In terms of subject matter, the images and videos could not immediately be more different.
There remains one common denominator, however. Both the static image ads and the video ads fit squarely into the power-fantasy genre. Even the rod-sliding puzzles are set up to be insultingly simple, but the moving finger on-screen fails to solve them. City-builders promise towns spreading to empires practically overnight, and tactical games promise machine-guns that kill zombies wholesale. You, the player, can be in charge. Whether through companionship or command, YouTube’s low-budget game adverts offer a universe in which you are listened to and valued. These are the same traits which most YouTubers strive for in their relationships with their fans, and I do not believe that this is coincidence. It is a very particular type of escapism, one which appeals to the stereotypical heavy YouTube user: the fantasy, on a fundamental level, of mattering to somebody. Rhodes Island looks to you for help, and you can save it. That’s got to mean more than watching YouTube all day.
Michael Kielstra ’22 ([email protected]) thought the original Girls X Battle was better.