Online gaming: it's time to get real

Rupert Goodwins: With fast food advertising in online games, do our children have a fat chance of learning the truth?

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: online gaming is the place to be. Proof of inherent life in the genre comes with the news that Electronic Arts has sold advertising space in its upcoming Sims Online world. Multimillion dollar deals with Intel and McDonald's will place their products in your virtual world. Intel's getting a relatively straightforward ride -- expect those blooming chimes and branded computers popping up in the Sims living rooms and offices. But McDonald's is wired into the game -- not only can you buy the burgers but you can run a franchised store and earn money. And, if you do succumb to temptation and consume the goods, your status in the game will rise.

Excuse me? Since when has real-life status gone up when you eat a Macdonald's burger? Perhaps it's true when you're seven, but it's the last place on earth you want to be seen once you've worked out what happens if you put the word bad in front of taste.

The real fun will come if EA -- or the players -- franchise out shops to whoever comes up with the clams. The McDonald's in the game shouldn't improve your status, it should get blown up by anti-globalisation rioters and suffer from the same meat pathogen scares as the real thing -- and should compete against Burger King, KFC, the Crystal Charcoal House Kebab Shop on Holloway Road (which in a sane world would run Conran into the ground), and so on.

Of course, the game will be target number one for hackers. Defacing NASA and ripping off five million credit card numbers -- how lame can you get? Lacing those virtual burgers with software strychnine and causing a global epidemic will be worth far more bragging rights. It might even qualify as genuine terrorism under the new world order.

But then, with obesity taking over from smoking as the Grim Reaper's combine harvester of choice, such terrorism may be the only moral response. I know that McDonald's claims to be a perfectly healthy source of good food, and that there are other options far worse -- I can't even contemplate the calorific load of a stuffed crust pizza without my left arm going numb. But nonetheless, presenting a faceful of burger as a pure force for good is increasingly untenable. I know what the TV adverts say about fast food, and I know what Fast Food Nation says in return. And I know what the statistics say about all us sedentary calorie hoovers in the developed world.

The big problem with lifestyle diseases is they creep up on you. You might be feeling fine one day, then blooie -- high blood pressure caused by all those lagers and Marlboro Lights finally breaks through the calcified cranial arteries and it's goodnight from him and goodnight from me. The only way to get the message across is propaganda at the young -- by the time your friends start dropping dead around you, it's hard work to undo the damage of half a life of corrosive fun. Harder yet if you're the one heading feet-first into the flames.

Of course, no company in its right mind wants to be associated with ill health. And the essence of the video game is that once you're dead, you reincarnate and pop back like an eager puppy for another go -- hardly a recipe for drumming the grotesque facts about mortality into young heads. EA's job isn't social engineering, and corporate morality as a whole is as moribund as an Enron executive's CV. But governments and health organisations have long been used to competing in an open market for advertising slots and column inches in the press -- why should virtual-reality games be any different?

So let EA sell space in its virtual world to companies like Macdonald's -- just let it offer the same chance to those who compete not just for gullets but for minds. Get those consequences factored into the game. Nobody would support a game where smoking made you more attractive to the opposite sex, gave you extra vitality and a longer life, or one that said that unprotected sex was as risk-free as playing hop-scotch, but only the irredeemably politically correct would object to one that presented such things in their proper context. Video games are a big part of our lives. It's time to take them seriously.

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