Gamified advertisements have been around for decades, from the loyalty punch cards and complicated reward systems that turn the act of going shopping into an opportunity to work towards earning a “free” prize to the branded arcade and console video games that enable players to experience a synergy-filled adventure in the world of their favorite movie or to step into the cartoonishly over-sized shoes of a corporate mascot like Domino’s Pizza’s puckish Noid or the wall-bustingly enthusiastic Kool-Aid Man. In recent years, major players in the fast food industry have wholeheartedly jumped onto the advergaming bandwagon; for example, the fried chicken franchise KFC tried their hand at two different “advergames”: The Hard Way (a “virtual training escape room” that puts players into the shoes of a new employee who must internalize Colonel Sanders’s exacting instructions in order to produce the perfect batch of fried chicken) and I Love You Colonel Sanders!: A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator (which enables players to romance the titular fast food icon in hopes of discovering a few of his patented blend of secret herbs and spices). And before that, Burger King got into the gaming market with Sneak King, Pocketbike Racer, and Big Bumpin’ for the Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles. Even MacDonald’s has gotten in on the act, releasing an app called McDonald’s McPlay in 2013 that allows kids to scan a QR code on the back of the toy that comes with their Happy Meal to gain access to a suite of digital games that changes with each new promotion.
In recent years, marketers and brand experts have also been turning to analog games as a potential new frontier in advergaming. For example, in February of 2018, Old Spice released a “Gentleman” character class for Dungeons and Dragons to go alongside their viral ad campaign featuring Isaiah Mustafa. And in October of 2019, the fast food burger chain Wendy’s delivered by releasing Feast of Legends, a 90-page long, lavishly illustrated, fully-playable tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) as a free downloadable PDF on their website. The latter advergame, which I will be focusing on in this essay, relies on several different kinds of rhetorical appeals: first, the game directly depicts the product itself via in-game mechanics designed to showcase the superior qualities of Wendy’s food in comparison to that of their competitors. Second, the game helps position Wendy’s itself as a “gamer savvy” brand, one that gamers should therefore seek out as a signifier of their own subcultural status, via the process of “associative advertising.” And finally, it invites players to actively help construct the company’s image via their own fannish transformative works via a practice called “participatory branding.” However, as the reception of Feast of Legends within the tabletop community in the wake of its release demonstrates, when corporations invite gamers to play along and contribute to the branded narratives that they are trying to create, they leave themselves open to the possibility that their audience will not cooperate and will instead use the opportunity to tell stories that are critical of the brand or of corporate capitalism more broadly.
All Hail Queen Wendy: An Overview of Feast of Legends
Feast of Legends takes place in the fantastical world of Beef’s Keep, where Queen Wendy, “first of her name, breaker of fast food chains, defender of all things fresh, never frozen” reigns in the kingdom of Freshtovia and “defends the realm from the treacherous evils of those who practice the dark art of frozen beef.” At the beginning of the game, Beef’s Keep is in turmoil, as the rival kingdoms of Creepingvale and the United Clown Nations “continually disrespect their citizens by taking the easy way out,” plunging their people “into a collective darkness known as The Deep Freeze.” Further exacerbating matters, the Ice Jester has been sending frozen minions across the realm to spread icy havoc. And now there are rumors that the Ice Jester has found a powerful magic device capable of throwing all of Beef ’s Keep into a new frozen age. The fate of the realm rests in the hands of a few fresh, never frozen heroes.
As an allegory for the competitive fast food marketplace, Feast of Legends is hardly subtle. The Ice Jester, of course, is a not-so-subtle reference to rival mascot Ronald MacDonald. His minions (the mini-bosses that the player characters encounter along the way), the Beef Bandit and Constable Von Freeze, are evil versions of the Hamburgler and Officer Big Mac respectively. Even the innocent, Muppet-like Fry Kids are transformed into “Fry Fiends” that the characters must defeat if they are to prevent Beef’s Keep from plunging into icy darkness. Sharp-eyed players might also notice other figures from Wendy’s marketing history showing up in the story as non-player characters or in-game Easter eggs, like Emperor Dave (the in-game version of Dave Thomas, the founder, long-time CEO, and star of many a Wendy’s television commercial), who has a statue commemorating him in the capital city of Freshtovia, Prince Carter of Retweet Tower in Nuggeton (whose description closely resembles that of Carter Wilkerson, a 16-year old whose real-life quest to get enough reTweets to earn a year’s worth of free chicken nuggets turned him into a viral media sensation), and the women of Peller Stables (named for Clara Peller, the “Where’s the Beef?” lady from Wendy’s famous 1980’s television campaign).
Feast of Legends will feel quite familiar to anyone who is familiar with tabletop role-playing systems like Dungeons and Dragons, but for the unfamiliar: players begin the game by choosing a character class or an “order” (such food-related jests are numerous) associated with a Wendy’s menu item such as the Order of the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, the Order of the Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, or the Order of the Baked Potato. Each of these classes empower players with a suite of punny abilities that they can use to fight back against the frozen scourge. They must also use dice to randomly generate a series of Stats that describe the basic competencies of their character with regard to Strength, Intelligence, Charm, Arcana or magical power, and Grace. When a character encounters an obstacle related to one of these stats, they must roll dice to determine whether or not they successfully navigate the challenge. The higher their stat, the more likely they are to succeed. For example, if a character needed to lift up a heavy object, they would roll a Strength check. Or if the character needed to balance on a narrow tightrope, they would roll a Grace check. The crux of the game, therefore, lies in players creatively deploying their stats and abilities to overcome obstacles, defeat enemies, and solve puzzles on their way to defeating the Ice Jester and restoring freshness to Beef’s Keep.
One unique addition to the traditional TTRPG rule-set is the inclusion of rules related to the snacks that the players themselves choose to eat while the game session is taking place. According to the manual, food is a major aspect of Feast of Legends. As such, what you’re eating in the real world will create direct buffs that affect your character in the game. Each of these buffs will go into effect for the entire duration of play for the day. So you might want to swing by your local Wendy’s or hit up delivery real quick.
For example, any player who scarfs down a Wendy’s cheeseburger during the game session will have their in-game character granted with a +1 bonus to their Strength stat for the day while those who slurp on a Frosty get a +1 to Charm. Furthermore, “if you are eating the item that matches your Order (e.g. You’re eating a Baconator, and your character is the Order of the Baconator) you’ll gain advantage on all attack rolls for the day,” meaning that any time you enter into battle, “you will roll your d20 (a 20-sided die) twice, using the larger of the two numbers,” essentially doubling your chance at achieving a success. Conversely, the manual warns players that “if you’ve settled for something other than Wendy’s, it can cause your character to weaken.” So, for example, players who arrive at the game session bearing burgers from a competing chain like McDonald’s or Burger King that (the game constantly reminds us) serves frozen beef to their customers will “suffer +1 Ice Damage to all attacks for the day” while those who choose pizza delivery or tacos or other kinds of snacks are all afflicted with various other ailments or stat deductions.
At first glance the marketing strategy underlying Feast of Legends seems obvious: if succeeding in the game becomes more likely when you consume Wendy’s food, then playing the game will motivate people to buy more Wendy’s so that they can give their characters a competitive edge. As such, Jane Chen and Matthew Rengel might call Feast of Legends an example of a “demonstrative advergame.” Such games, they argue, are more effective than mere product placement-style advergames because they can leverage the full arsenal of interactivity by allowing the consumer to experience the product within the virtual confines of the gaming space. Whereas some advergames feature the product or brand name in incidental ways, demonstrative advergames boost messaging effectiveness by presenting the product in its natural context and inviting the consumer to interact with it.
When the character eats Wendy’s food within the game and when the player eats Wendy’s food in real life, their effectiveness within the game increases. Of course, as Ian Bogost points out, the kinds of “natural contexts” that advergames provide are often somewhat fantastical in nature, as when, for example, a digital advergame for Nike shoes allows players to participate in a virtual slam dunk contest, an activity that relatively few players are ever likely to be successful at in the real world no matter what kind of sneakers they are wearing. Such an advergame, Bogost argues, is more about enabling the player to act out a “fantasy of sports prowess” (and thereby coming to associate the product with the positive feelings that such wish-fulfillment enables) than it is about helping them make practical purchasing decisions based on how they would actually interact with the product in their everyday lives. It helps them to project themselves in a role that it would be fun to inhabit and presents the product as, if not the way to achieve that role in real life, an imaginative vehicle that will allow them to live the fantasy through gameplay. As such, we can imagine Feast of Legends as an attempt to recontextualize Wendy’s burgers as tools that enable players to access a magical world of knights and rogues in their minds rather than as literal vehicles for the development of physical prowess.
Furthermore, a careful reader will note that beyond the instrumental uses that Wendy’s food has during gameplay sessions themselves, the game’s narrative is expressly set up to create an association in the player’s mind between Wendy’s food and the concepts of freshness and quality. For example, when describing the political climate of Beef’s Keep and the various threats to Queen Wendy’s reign, the rulebook states that:
The realm of Beef’s Keep is in much conflict. Throughout the nations of Beef’s Keep, leaders continually disrespect their citizens by taking the easy way out. There are many dark, cold places in this world. But not in Freshtovia, the home of your players — it’s the lone beacon of hope in these desperate times.
In fact, at one point during the quest, Queen Wendy herself gives a rousing speech explaining why it is so important that Freshtovia resist the machinations of the evil Ice Jester by invoking one of their famous advertising mantras: “We do not cut corners.” “For 50 years,” Wendy tells a crowd of her adoring subjects, we have strived to accomplish things the other nations of Beef’s Keep could not do, or chose not to do. We have maintained the one tried-and-true fact of our people. In Freshtovia, we do not cut corners — we will not cut corners. As The Deep Freeze continues in the south, just know we will not succumb to the pressure of some clown. Because we are fresh.
In other words, the entire justification for Queen Wendy’s reign and the motivation for the quest at hand is tied into the brand identity that the Wendy’s restaurant wants to project. According to the campaign, Wendy’s isn’t the kind of fast food joint that you swing through for a cheap, quick bite. It invests care and attention into the product it sells, even if that means foregoing convenient short cuts (like using frozen meat). In fact, the elaborate nature of the advergame itself, the huge outpouring of time, energy, and creativity that went into the sourcebook’s creation and the effort that players must put in to experience the campaign (seeking out the book, creating player characters, making their way through multiple play sessions, strategically navigating battles and solving puzzles) also reinforces this brand identity. Just as Wendy’s refuses to cut corners with regard to its food, so too does it go the extra mile when coming up with its marketing campaigns. As such, the marketing team behind the game seems to hope, the repetition of this positive message about Wendy’s never-frozen ingredients and commitment to customer service (and the corresponding negative messages about its competitors) will persist in the minds of players long after the campaign is finished.
A Brand for Gamers Everywhere
And yet, a close reading of the sourcebook seemingly indicates some doubt about whether this strategy will actually be effective. The tone of the materials is quite wry, constantly lampshading the mercenary motivations behind its own existence and winking at the reader about the fact that, at the end of the day, the game only exists in order to sell them something. For example, during the character creation process, players are told that they will determine their starting stats by rolling four d4s (four-sided dice) and adding up the total to receive a score between 4 and 16. “We call this roll the 4 for $4” (named after the restaurant’s combo meal deal), the author declares. And then, further calling attention the intrusive nature of this branded content, the author sarcastically brags: “Nailed it.”
One might think that this intentional foregrounding of the game’s true purpose as an advertisement would be a turn-off, undermining the player’s ability to maintain the suspension of disbelief that enables them to act out the fantasy of being a heroic warrior or a crafty magician and thereby ruining the experience of fantasy fulfillment that the game’s designers seem to hope will eventually become associated with the product (I am reminded of the classic holiday film A Christmas Story in which a young Ralph is excited to role-play as a member of the “Little Orphan Annie Secret Circle,” only to be disappointed when he discovers that the secret message his favorite radio program has asked him to decode is nothing more than “a crappy commercial” for Ovaltine). In fact, the self-depreciating nature of the sourcebook’s prose and its willingness to invite the player to be “in on the joke” with the creator suggest that the true strategy of this campaign doesn’t lie in demonstrative advertising at all. Rather, I argue, the true goal of Feast of Legends is to function as an “associative advertisement,” a means through which a product can become symbolically linked to a particular lifestyle or subculture such that the purchase of that product becomes a way for a community member to express their affinity with the larger group. And the lifestyle with which the Wendy’s brand wants to become associated is that of gaming culture itself. As Bogost puts it, “understood in this way, advergames themselves become a type of associative marketing strategy: an attempt to reach a niche market of ‘gamers,’ a meta-advertisement” that a brand can use to demonstrate that they “get” gamer culture and are willing to speak to that particular market segment using their own language and in their own preferred spaces. In other words, this game can be read as an attempt to turn Wendy’s into the fast food restaurant of choice for gamers by demonstrating their authenticity, their gaming culture bonafides, and their willingness to translate their message into a format that gamers understand and enjoy.
In fact, Feast of Legends is not the first attempt that Wendy’s has made to try and position themselves as a gamer-savvy brand. For example, earlier in 2019, the restaurant instigated the “Keeping Fortnite Fresh” campaign, an “in-game demonstration of the evils of frozen beef.” The campaign featured “a digital avatar in the hit multiplayer battle royale videogame that looked suspiciously like Wendy’s own namesake.” However, rather than participating in the game, this avatar simply entered burger joints inside the game’s unpopulated cityscape, located the freezers, and destroyed them. Wendy’s, after all, never uses frozen beef. This destructive escapade was streamed on Twitch where millions could watch, and the community joined in the rampage with glee. Eventually, the game’s developers swapped out all of the freezers with facilities for fresh burgers.
Much like “Keeping Fortnite Fresh,” Feast of Legends is designed to spread by taking advantage of gamer-centric platforms like Twitch. In fact, Wendy’s arranged to sponsor a special episode of the popular Dungeons and Dragons web series Critical Role to be featured on the platform, presumably in hopes that these popular figures in the role-playing game community would serve as brand ambassadors in the same way that a professional athlete or an popular actor might in more mainstream markets. Furthermore, the interactive nature of the gamified advertisement seems tailor-made to encourage gamers to further disseminate Wendy’s message through fannish practices like the creation of fan art and cosplay based on the game’s source materials. By offering gamers a way to do the ad rather than simply a way to see the ad, they create further opportunities for gamers to act as vectors to spread that ad within their own communities.
This practice is called participatory branding and it relies on “a changed view of the producer-consumer relationship” that emphasizes information exchange and cooperation rather than a hierarchical system of information dissemination. According to Sarah Banet-Weiser, “participatory branding “is perhaps most starkly demonstrated in the increasing corporate use of social media, such as when a corporation has a ‘personal’ Facebook page… where consumers and marketers engage in ‘authentic’ exchanges that help to build corporate brands” but it also includes a wide range of other activities as “individual make YouTube films, create online communities for the brands they love, provide reviews for books, hotels and restaurants, help define the meaning of ideas on Wikipedia and support cultural and product innovations through crowd-funding.” These activities are “self-organized, emergent, bottom up phenomena that are not primarily motivated by monetary concerns” which means that “from the point of view of companies, such customer cooperation is generally seen as a free resource that has no, or virtually no, cost.” That is to say, fans use the brand as a platform that allows them to show off their creative talents, build relationships with fellow fans, or express something about themselves (in this case, their gamer cred) in exchange for helping that brand sell their product.
Hacking the Advergame: The Risks of Participatory Branding
And yet, not everyone who played Feast of Legends used the game to help build a positive brand image for Wendy’s. As anyone familiar with gamer culture knows, one of the primary pleasures of playing a game can be searching out the boundaries of what that game will allow, hacking into its structure and subverting its intended patterns of play. Such modifications make possible the opening of “a space for critical interrogation of [an advergame’s] claims” as well as “the social conditions they assume, represent or accentuate.” They might even allow for the creation of “anti-advergames,” games that “speak against the colonization of [games] by advertisers” or that “actively advertise against specific products and services, singling out companies by name.”
When a company invites gamers to help contribute to their brand’s narrative through their play, they risk those players deciding to monkey around with the messages that they are trying to convey. Those players could even choose to “hack” the foundational assumptions of the virtues of capitalism itself, using their play to advocate for more equitable social systems and to point out the abuses that corporations are wont to commit in pursuit of profit.
In the case of Feast of Legends, such “critical play” centered around an aspect of Wendy’s business dealings that they typically do not care to emphasize: their refusal to participate in the Fair Food Program to benefit agricultural workers. The Fair Food Program, which is run by the nonprofit organization the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, currently benefits about 35,000 laborers, primarily in Florida. Over the last decade, it has helped transform the state’s tomato industry from one in which wage theft and violence were rampant to an industry with the some of the highest labor standards in American agriculture. When large companies like McDonald’s or Walmart join the program, they agree to pay 1 to 4 cents more per pound of tomatoes. The growers, in turn, agree to pay farmworkers at least the local minimum wage, to which the premium adds a bonus, and to meet a set of labor standards like providing shade and water for workers and ensuring freedom from physical and sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, Wendy’s remains “one of the most prominent holdouts” who refuse to participate in the program, resulting in a campaign by activists at several universities to call for the fast food restaurant to be removed from their campuses until they sign on.
As such, when Wendy’s invited players to participate in constructing the branded world of Beef’s Keep, some players used the opportunity to draw attention to these labor practices and to incorporate them into the stories that they were telling. For example, in response to Critical Role’s featured play session, another role-playing podcast, Of Dice and Dens, played a modified version of Feast of Legends in which the virtuous Queen Wendy is reimagined as a callous dictator who was only interested in fighting with the dreaded Ice Jester because she wants to ensure that she maintains control over an enslaved labor force. Throughout the game, the podcasters constantly remind the listeners to go to the Fair Food Program’s website to learn more about the difficulties that real-world farmworkers face and urge them to donate if they can. Another group of RPG enthusiasts responded to Feast of Legends by creating their own game called Silence, Brand, “a tabletop game about combating corporate pandering.” According to the manual, which, notably, begins with a link to the Boycott Wendy’s website, “it is the aim of each player to shut down or hijack social media campaigns, steal money from the corps, encourage mass boycotts, and expose corruption.” The creators even included modules that would allow Game Masters to create campaigns critiquing other corporations besides Wendy’s including Amazon, Nestle, Monsanto, Wal Mart, Coca Cola, and Uber (and providing handy summaries of the various kinds of unsavory practices that each corporations engages in to kickstart these new storylines) as well as a bibliography of “Useful Resources” including links to websites for consumer advocacy groups and activist collectives and a digital archive of the works of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels.
In fact, even the podcasters at Critical Role, who, as noted above, were sponsored by Wendy’s to produce a video of their playthrough, ultimately decided to take down their archived stream from their website and donate the proceeds to the Farmworker Justice advocacy group in the wake of criticism from fans.
Gamification and participatory culture are powerful tools for marketers and brand experts precisely because they tap into the pleasures associated with play and with creative expression. When done well, advergames offer unique rewards such as engaging stories, challenging puzzles, or an opportunity to be included in a player community that many feel are worth pursuing even if they are required to engage with a few promotional messages to get at them. However, as the case of Wendy’s Feast of Legends demonstrates, gamification in advertising can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, marketing campaigns that harness participatory culture can provide corporations with subcultural credibility by enabling community ambassadors to interact with a brand and by encouraging community members to extend and augment a marketing campaign with their own fannish contributions.
On the other hand, by inviting players to participate in crafting the story of their brand, corporations risk those players taking the narrative in unexpected directions, including ones that could be considered harmful to the brand. After all, when advertisements become games, then consumers are transformed into gamers, and gamers have been taught to value experimentation and modification as foundational to the way in which they engage with media. They are constantly looking for ways to push the boundaries of the systems in which they are participating, the better to exploit that system’s various weak points and contradictions, whether that means finding ways to achieve a faster speed run through a video game or coming up with a combination of statistics and abilities that can render the challenges of a tabletop campaign trivial. So when the system that they are asked to play inside is actually functioning as an advertisement for a multinational corporation, is it ultimately surprising that players might start to look for exploits that they could use to undermine that corporation’s image and to expose the seedy business practices that they would prefer remained hidden?
Featured image is the cover of the “Feast of Champions” Player’s Guide. Image used for purposes of critique.
Megan Condis is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Texas Tech University. Her book, Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture, was published in 2018 by the University of Iowa Press.