Parker directed my attention towards this post by Jared Hendler in which he talks about how gaming can be a legitimate venue for brands to communicate. Here are some thoughts on it. The main advantage of digital games compared to other forms of media is – you guessed it – that they are simulational. That is what anyone who wants to communicate a message with them take advantage of: the one factor that differentiates from merely representational media. A spot on TV gives you an idea how a car looks like, a game (ideally) let's you know how it drives.
(Also: A game that does not simulate the qualities of a brand runs the risk of not being associated with the brand but just being something fun in its own right. Just look at the popular Moorhuhn series – no one remembers that this was originally designed for Johnny Walker)
Someone in the comments mentioned the PSone game Porsche Challenge. Despite already being more than 10 years old it is a very good example of the advantages games have over traditional communication forms. Coinciding with the release of the Boxster it let you burn rubber with on several tracks, including Porsche's official test track in Stuttgart, giving you a good idea of what to expect of Porsche's latest model.
Compare this to the Yaris game, Toyota's miserably failed attempt to persuade you of the merits of their small car via XBox live. From the official description:
Hop into a Toyota Yaris and drive it on crazy tracks loaded with stubborn obstacles, cool powerups, and intense enemy action. The relentlessly twisted courses in Yaris might have loops or even be tube-shaped, but the Yaris never has to worry about sliding off track, as it defies gravity by scaling side-walls and going all topsy-turvy. Equip your Yaris with an arsenal of weapons to take out your adversaries, but be careful to avoid enemy fire, because once your shields are depleted, so is the game.
A failure on all levels: The game wasn't any fun but essentially broken and didn't communicate anything about the Yaris' abilities, except for its ability to fight aliens, which might be a useful feature some postapocalyptic future but in this day and age is largely irrelevant. We don't learn anything about what might make the car special or superior to its competition. Maybe it has a extraordinary fuel economy, maybe it corners well, things that would have been easy to simulate – some simple racing game would have done the job. That said, such a game would still require some effort. Says the commentator who also mentioned Porsche Challenge:
The thing is, gaming is an excellent medium for firms to communicate, however, like most communications and line extensions, if it's lame, top-down, marketing based, instead of being genuinely interesting, then it'll fail.
(Or it will be another Ford Racing…)
Developing your own game does not even have to be necessary. Take the Nissan Skyline in Gran Turismo for example. I'm pretty sure that the somewhat cult status it achieved, despite not being available out of Japan, is closely related to the popular game series. The game demonstrated the driving abilities of the car, its comparatively low price and that fact that if you want more power that can also be had for cheap. It made the car known on other markets, it's been in the game since its beginning and now can actually be purchased by players who ten years ago could only dream of owning it in the real world. It's associated with the Playstation brand and its technicity and with the impressive quality of the game. Consequently Gran Turismo creators Polyphony Digital were themselves involved in the development of latest Skyline, the GT-R, having been contracted to design the GT-R's multifunction display.
Now cars are easy to simulate. But how do you simulate other brand characteristics? How do you simulate style? How do you simulate the gaining of social capital through aesthetic choices? All the while keeping the game genuinely interesting? This indeed might be very challenging.
Maybe in game advertising is an option, e.g. offering a (free?) download for a pair of Nike Sneakers which give the avatar certain advantages like being able to access parts of the game that were closed before (possibly combined with the gaining of an achievement or something of similar nature). Or would that be too discriminating against other players and cause a backlash? (Just like the real life where you won't get into a club if you don't have the "right style" – although this seems to be more accepted in the real world).