What is changing is advertisers' targeting of games, and the regulation being applied. Since February, sponsorship of computer games has fallen under advertising regulations. It is governed by the Advertising Standards Authority, which also covers press, cinema and video adverts, rather than the ITC, which deals with TV. Alcohol and tobacco are banned from sponsorship deals, although condoms are not.
Advertisers find sponsorship appealing because it is increasingly hard to capture the attention of today's youth. Children can choose from more TV channels than their parents did, and other media compete for their "screen time" - such as videos and especially computer games.
Research commissioned by Microtime Media, a leading company in matching games writers and potential sponsors, found that more than 80 per cent of children aged between five and 19 play computer and video games regularly. This is an age group that is hard to capture through TV advertising but once they buy a game, they will play it (and see an advert) many times, providing the sponsor with a captive audience, at no extra cost for repeat showings.
Equally, the companies developing the games are ready to welcome adverts. A development cost of pounds 1m is not unusual for a modern game. To see some return, either the consumer must pay a high price (and risk disappointment) or someone else must help defray the cost. Enter the sponsor.
Some of the big names have put their name to games. Mars sneaked Snickers into Biker Mice from Mars, McVitie's Penguins were an integral part of the scenery of James Pond - Codename Robocod, and Midland Bank provided its "sofa" in sponsoring Theme Park, a strategy game.
Just as in their conventional advertising, Mars and McVitie's aimed for a young audience and chose games that would appeal to them. Theme Park, by contrast, is a strategy game, a format popular among adults and older children, whom the bank would want to interest. The archetypal strategy game is SimCity, in which the player build and maintain a city's infrastructure, finances and population. In Theme Park, a bank manager is available to provide advice and money. Rumour has it that Midland wanted the manager to be available at all times - only to be told that this felt unrealistic.
Microtime Media was formed by Daniel Bobroff, formerly of ad agency Young & Rubicam, who has drawn up a voluntary code of practice for sponsorship of video games. He has told the ASA that any deal struck with sponsors will be indicated on the packaging. The aim is to minimise "potential moral conflicts", as the actual purchase is usually made by parents. Sponsorship will not be accepted simply to promote a brand or name; the product and game must have a clear link. The sponsorship activity should also be "realistic" - hence a constantly available bank manager would not fit in.
The acid test is: does it work? After the Penguin sponsorship, 50 per cent of children aged between four and nine were "aware" of the product, which placed it ahead of Kit-Kat for the first time in living memory. Perhaps the key is how the product is integrated in the game, in which penguins had to be rescued, while the scenery in each level of difficulty was "constructed" from the biscuits, making them integral to the game experience.
The author works for Zenith Media in its TV buying department.