The game industry is riddled with tales of ill-advised public relations stunts, as companies try to push the envelope in order to seem edgy and get the attention of jaded gamers. In the latest of these tales, Square Enix landed in hot water with the public when it released a “Hire Hitman” Facebook app to celebrate and promote Hitman: Absolution. The app was produced by advertising agency Ralph, and was supposed to be humorous in nature. A quick look through its features, however, revealed many objectionable choices in how it was put together.
Opening the Hire Hitman app allowed somebody to put out a fake hit on a Facebook friend. Drop boxes allowed the user to select how the target could be identified, with some rather personal descriptions like small penis or breast size, strange odor, hairy legs, terrible makeup, etc. Possible reasons for putting out the hit also included fairly un-funny options like the target having cheated on his or her partner.
Once deployed to its target, the Hire Hitman app would send the target a message on Facebook with an accompanying video. The video showed an image of Agent 47 acquiring a photo of the victim and shooting out towards the screen. The company's press release for the app even bragged that the victim would see a video of Agent 47 assassinating them with “cold, clinical precision” before viewing a collage of their own Facebook photos. Right, because that's not creepy at all.
Perhaps with a different setup and vastly different drop-box options, Hire Hitman would have worked as intended. Instead, it prompted gamers and members of the gaming industry to register their disgust that Square Enix would advertise a game with an app that seemed tailor-made for cyber-bullying. The focus on hurtful target identification options was deemed particularly abhorrent.
The app only lasted three hours before this barrage of complaints caused Square Enix to take it down and issue an apology. The company highlighted the fact that the “hit” appeared privately and would only work between confirmed friends, showing a rather naive view of how Facebook is used and how online bullies operate. While it's good that Square Enix acted quickly in removing the offending app, it boggles the mind that it was released as it was designed in the first place.
How do these kinds of things get greenlit by companies? The Hire Hitman app in particular seems like something that would raise the eyebrows of anybody with common sense. Did the ad agency that produced the ad spend too much time around the worst of the gaming community when determining how to target gamers? Were the app's creators somehow unaware of the fact that cyber-bullying is a major problem for young people today, and that releasing a program that could easily be used for online bullying isn't a good idea?
While I commend Square Enix for acting quickly to remove Hire Hitman and disable any threats that were sent while it was active, the fact that it was released into the wild in the first place indicates a bizarre tone-deafness amongst a large number of people involved in the creation and approval of the app. While humor, including dark and sarcastic humor, is a great tool for marketing, it ought to be deployed carefully. Effective forms of dark humor are rooted in a sense of compassion for humanity and require a skillful touch in order to work well. Putting a death threat app into the hands of the Internet-dwelling public isn't effective or funny; it's just boneheaded.
We don't want our industry to “focus group” everything into bland mediocrity, but we should also expect companies to be thoughtful about the material they release to the public. Good on Square Enix for pulling the plug on this ill-advised campaign, but we hope this incident causes the company to examine why the app was originally approved. Hopefully the next time an ad agency brings something like Hire Hitman to a game company, that company will be wise enough to put it out of its misery before it ever sees the light of day.
Date: December 6, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*