Junk food for thought – why Microsoft’s Dew and Doritos deal is an insult to our industry

In a recently published blog post, Xbox Live’s Larry Hryb (a.k.a. Major Nelson) hails Microsoft’s new partnership with Mountain Dew and Doritos as “the biggest gaming promotion in brand history”. He stops just short of calling it a truly historic moment, but you know that’s what he means. He has two commemorative prize packs to give away later this autumn – an Xbox One console plus “limited edition DEW and Doritos products”. For a chance to win, just leave a comment beneath his blog post praising the Xbox One’s game lineup.

One suspects Microsoft and Mountain Dew have worked together long before this announcement. After all, the pigment used to create the neon greenish-yellow colour of Xbox’s game boxes surely uses no small amount of Mountain Dew in its formulation.

There are a million ways to skewer this partnership, not least of which being the fact that nobody at Microsoft seems to have considered the extent to which it belittles your product when the most suitable way of commemorating its launch involves eating a bag of tortilla chips and tipping back a can of soda. (Champagne toast, anybody? Hell no, slamma-jam a Dewski!)

But these are limited edition snack food products, you say! They’re not intended for consumption. They’re collector’s items, showpieces to display on your shelf next to the plastic action figures you’ve amassed from other videogame collector’s editions you’ve purchased. You can almost imagine a situation like in Spinal Tap where Nigel Tufnel is showing off his none-more-black limited edition bag of Doritos and chastising someone for attempting to open it, for even looking at it. These must not be eaten!

There is nothing inherently evil about corporate partnerships, nor is there anything evil about occasionally savouring the citrus bite of Mountain Dew or munching down a salty bag of Doritos at a Bank Holiday picnic. What’s most depressing about Microsoft’s partnership is how enthusiastically it seeks to enshrine the very perceptions the videogame industry has been trying to shuffle off since its inception – that videogames are the junk food of the entertainment landscape, empty calories for the human intellect, designed for slovenly basement dwellers, ready to be discarded as soon as one matures enough to be concerned about adopting a healthy lifestyle.

On the promotion’s website, you see the Xbox One console posing for a photograph between a can of Mountain Dew and a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. It’s proudly posing, that unblinking Kinect eye staring directly into the camera, not sheepish at all about the products its tapped to be its running mates in the campaign to win your vote in the next-gen console race.

Part of me hoped that the next console generation would take the idea of generational passage seriously. Since the launch of the Xbox 360, I’ve had two children. In a very concrete sense, I’ve crossed a generational divide and even celebrated that progression. Last year the ESA announced that the average age of videogame players had dropped from 37 to 30, most likely due to the smartphone revolution and the accessibility its touch-screen interface provides to younger players. However, if you ask a member of the general public where they’d peg the average age, I’m guessing you’d hear something in the mid to high teens or early 20s.

Mobile games have been training younger audiences to expect games to be packaged in snackable units, micro-levels that can be completed across the span of a five-minute bus ride. If anybody should be partnering with snack-food companies, it should be studios like Rovio, GameLoft and Halfbrick. Consoles are where most of us expect videogames to deliver something like a main entrée course, something substantial. Linking the Xbox One so closely in people’s minds with Dew and Doritos aggressively undermines one of console gaming’s most central differentiating features – depth and substance.

For all the reasons cited above, the biggest gaming promotion in Xbox brand history may be baffling in the extreme. But what’s most lamentable is that one of the most influential videogame platform holders seems intent on making sure that, even as gamers grow up, the hypothetical demographic perceived by the wider public can’t grow facial hair and must content itself with a patchy stubble of orange crumbs.

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