I don’t know about you but I am almost always late for movies. Like, really late. Typically it’s because I think I live closer to the theater than I do, so I leave five minutes before the movie starts. Then I go to unlock my bike and find that the chain has fallen off, so I have to fix that, which makes my hands greasy, so I have to run back inside and wipe them on something or if I’m feeling fancy, wash them. When I arrive at the theater there is usually a long line where the olds have bottlenecked trying to buy tickets at the automated touch screen vending system. Once inside I have to go to the bathroom, yet another line. Then, in the theater I have to find a seat and when I do, I will remember an important phone call I forgot to make, so it’s back out to the lobby where I multitask making the call and ordering popcorn or candy or something. Back in the theater, I try to remember where I was sitting but since I have a bad memory, it takes a while. BUT! Lo and behold, even when I think I am so late that I should just turn around and stream the damn thing at home, turns out the pre-movie ads ran for thirty minutes and the previews, which are also ads, have just started.
Last week, something strange happened. I was walking around downtown Toronto and was like, “Hey, here I am, right by the Scotiabank Cineplex and there’s a movie starting in fifteen minutes, how about I go see it?” I went in and with zero stress and almost no lines, made it inside, early. There was barely anybody else in the theater; the screen was dark and the house lights were on. I sat down, took out my phone and in an effort to kill time, checked Twitter. The WiFi options popped up and since one entitled TimePlay had no lock, I logged onto its free WiFi. “Thank you TimePlay, whoever you are, now I can check my Internet and—” the house lights dimmed. Something was happening on the movie screen. Exciting graphics followed by a pretty young woman with big breasts and long hair appeared in a highly stylized window.
“Hey everyone, I’m April,” said the smiling face, “and I want to tell you about a great app called TimePlay. It lets you use your smartphone to interact with the screen, play games and compete with other people in the audience to win prizes. We’re going to start in a few minutes, so to get your free app, right now, just join the TimePlay WiFi network and go to m.timeplay.com. You start the download and I’ll be back in a minute to show you how to play.” The screen went dark again. I looked around to see the reactions of other audience members but none seemed interested that they were in a movie theater from the future. Curious, I opened the webpage and downloaded the TimePlay app. It was still downloading when April reappeared, as promised.
“Hey! Are you ready to play?” She asked.
“No.” I said, trying to open the app and make up a username.
“Great! Remember, the faster your answer, the higher your score.”
“What are you even talking about?” I had a lot of questions for April but she was eager to get started.
The screen changed and the music of an upbeat game show played on repeat. The text on screen was asking a question: Which of these movies is based on a true story? The screen then showed the poster for Catch Me If You Can. I looked down at my phone. I was being given two options, a big green check mark for “Yes” and a big red X for “No.” I quickly hit the green check and by the time I looked up, a new poster was on screen. This went on four or fives times before the game changed. The screen was posing a new question: Which of these actresses will score highest? Pictured on screen was Natalie Portman opposite Emma Stone. I looked at my phone and, assuming the question was a popularity contest, hit the button that corresponded to the image of Natalie Portman. This line of questioning continued until the round was over and TimePlay reviewed the submitted answers, giving the audience a look at the leaderboard in progress. Despite a few missteps I saw my username ranking near the top and felt both excited about the possibility of winning and confused about what it was I was playing.
“Time for the final round!” April was back on screen, cheerily pushing the game on. The question this time had nothing to do with film trivia: Which of these outfits is more popular? Pictured on screen was a young woman in a polka dot dress and opposite her, a woman in a coral blouse. How could one even judge such a question? Then I realized, it wasn’t a question at all. It was an ad. With this realization, came a wave of disgust, “Am I actually participating in a shitty clothing ad?” I asked as, unable to stop myself, I selected the polka dot dress.
I typically accept the barrage of ads we’re fed during the “movie-going experience” as annoying or benign, but TimePlay seemed different. They were using gameplay as a tactic to create a participant consumer and the manipulation felt offensive. It’s not the combination of games and advertising I dislike; when I play Lego Batman 2 on the Wii U I know I am being fed explicit product placement, but I’m happy to play it because the game is fun (don’t even pretend like it’s not). When the bounding box that separates advertisement from everything else in a game is so porous as to not exist, it is imperative for advertisers and game designers to insure the commercial time doesn’t overshadow the playtime. In-game ads have the real potential to detract from a player’s experience, which brings me back to TimePlay.
TimePlay is a bad game. Its subject matter is trivial and banal; it provides little challenge and the rewards come heaped with fine print. Furthermore, the blatant use of in-game advertising impedes the player’s enjoyment by shoehorning in ploys to make you buy jeans or whatever. With TimePlay, what is essentially a dual-screen gaming experience played with a captive theater audience is a sad embassador for both games and ads.
Don’t waste my time, TimePlay. I can do that perfectly fine on my own.