The industry has begun to tackle the issue. This year Nielsen Entertainment formed a partnership with Activision Inc. to develop standards for measuring audience behavior and demographics, and it announced a pilot in October to assess the effectiveness of Chrysler's Jeep ads in the computer game Tony Hawk's Underground 2.
Also in October, Massive Inc., a start-up based in New York City, launched what it billed as the first video game advertising network, unifying space across different game titles so advertisers can make a single buy and have their messages appear in multiple titles. Ads can be delivered on any game with an Internet connection. They can also be changed every 15 seconds -- similar to what happens in the TV world. So far Massive has signed up 19 game titles, including ones by Ubisoft, Atari and Vivendi Universal.
"We allow agencies and advertisers to buy into video game advertising the same way they buy into television, which is critical," said Nicholas Longano, chief marketing officer for Massive. "You buy with audience reach and frequencies."
Already, games appear to be diverting audiences from television and movies: Last year, for the first time, game sales exceeded box office receipts. And while young men spent 12 percent less time watching TV last year, they spent 20 percent more playing games, according to Nielsen Media Research.
WildTangent has been one of the more aggressive experimenters with "adver-games'' -- one-of-a-kind games customized to feature products and brands in the action. The company recently created a skateboarding game to promote Fox TV's show "The O.C.," which lets gamers skate around a virtual version of the show's back yard. It also created a game for Nike (www.nikegridiron.com) in which players get to be the Atlanta Falcons' Michael Vick and run a football offense.
McDonald's went wild with Internet games last month as part of its long-running Monopoly contest, giving away 6 million Internet prizes, including 300,000 WildTangent games and many demo games from Electronic Arts. In addition to traditional prizes, players won digital goodies by visiting a special Web site and keying in numeric codes from Monopoly pieces handed out with McDonald's food. Among the prizes were four games WildTangent redesigned to feature McDonald's products and logos.
A version of Polar Bowler, for instance, involved a polar bear as a bowling ball scooting across ice and crashing into bowling pins marked with the golden arches.
"It was part of our attempt to re-image the brand and be forever young for our customers, to be more contemporary, relevant, edgy," said Brian O'Mara, McDonald's senior director of U.S. marketing. "With young adult consumers, the Internet is such an important part of their media mix that we think we need to be there."
Not everyone is gung-ho on games-as-advertisements. PopCap Games, creator of the popular game Bejeweled, just started experimenting with banner ads last summer. Marketing manager Jill Ginsberg said the company isn't sure gamers want product placements and custom adver-games. "It is time-consuming to develop games," Ginsberg said. "It has not been proven to us yet that it is worth it."
But St. John regards Internet games as a natural advertising medium, one that could grow bigger than television because it adds interactivity -- the ability for players to get involved in the story and in realistic commercials.
"As the game incrementally gets more challenging, it requires your brain to go to deeper and deeper levels of concentration, and it happens so gradually as the game gets more advanced that you don't realize you are being led into almost a hypnotic state," he said.
So move over, couch potatoes. Here come the gamer zombies.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.