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During the Games Developers Conference in downtown San Francisco this past Wednesday THQ partnered with GameStop to promote their upcoming game Homefront. The game has become quite well known in the gaming community for its fantastic viral marketing campaign.

Because Homefront is set in the near-future where the United States is invaded by North Korea, THQ hosted a mock rally against  the North Korean government, culminating in the release of ten thousand red balloons. While the stunt garnered THQ with quite a bit of attention for their upcoming title, it wasn’t as positive as they may have liked. San Francisco residents soon began complaining about the flurry of trash polluting their city and public waters.

Hit the jump for a full assessment of the situation and its potential environmental consequences.

Many residents expressed their outrage at the stunt, some going as far as saying it was a “stupid thing to do to a city surrounded on three sides by water”. Shortly after the release, wind and rain sent thousands of the balloons plunging into the nearby bay. Needless to say, San Francisco’s environmental group Save the Bay was less than pleased with the stunt.

A spokeswoman for the group was quick to comment on the publicity stunt, stating  ”Obviously, we have a problem with polluting of the bay and this is just polluting and littering”. The outrage from locals quickly sent the parties involved into damage control.

The balloons were branded with Homefront’s GameStop preorder bonus – the “resistance multiplayer pack”. While the balloons may bear their name, GameStop denies involvement in the stunt instead placing blame with the title’s publisher.

“We understand the concerns consumers have regarding the impact balloons can have on the environment. However, the balloon drop stunt in San Francisco was created by THQ, the publisher of Homefront, and GameStop had no prior knowledge of it. THQ has since informed us that they released soy-based, biodegradable balloons. Comments and queries should be directed to THQ media relations.”

The publisher soon confirmed that the balloons “were made from a 100% organic product and are 100% biodegradable”. What THQ didn’t tell the public is the rate at which things break down in a body of water.  Due a relative lack of “decomposer” microorganism’s in the ocean, like many biodegradable materials, these balloons can take up to six months to break down in open water. In the mean time the balloons have the potential be transported hundreds of miles from their source as they slowly dissolve, exposing the litter to large swathes of marine animal habitat.

Balloons have been found in the digestive tracts of several species of marine animals and have been linked with the death of birds, turtles, sharks, dolphins and even whales. While the material may have the ability to biodegrade over time under the right circumstances, creatures are oftentimes attracted to the bright colours and shape of the objects.

Biologists believe that balloons and other buoyant plastic material are oftentimes mistaken for natural prey such as jellyfish and cephalopods. As balloons have been identified in the digestive tracts of a number of animals, research points to the biodegradable latex either not breaking down rapidly in the digestive system or that death occurs shortly after the ingestion of the balloon.

Semi-inflated balloons have been found to block the valve between the stomach and intestine. This blockage means that food cannot pass through the full digestive system, causing slow and painful starvation in these marine creatures. With thousands of balloons being released into the Bay Area, THQ may have some blood on their hands.

The publisher’s public statement went on to say that they have “retained a clean up crew to remove any potential lingering debris.” Regardless, considering the weather and the rate at which balloons can travel by both air and water, it is highly unlikely that this crew will be able to fully clean up after the Homefront rally.

It’s nice to see that THQ is really throwing their full weight being Homefront, as it’s looking to be one of the most interesting mainstream titles they’ve published in years. While I definitely enjoy the enthusiasm they have for this release, maybe their execution was a little misguided in this instance. San Francisco, both from a political and geographic perspective, may not have been the best place for this type of promotion.

Regardless, the damage is done. I sincerely hope that THQ is doing their best to clean up after their mess, and that the concerns of San Francisco’s residents and the media is enough to make them think twice about doing anything like this ever again. Perhaps, this will serve as a wake up call to the industry regarding its environmental impacts.

  1. Poor planning on THQ’s or GameStop’s (whoever’s actually responsible) part. Balloons plus water = bad news for squidbears.

  2. avatar Ferahtsu

    Gamestop should be more careful what they put they’re name on. I wonder if THQ is mad at gamestop for pointing their finger at them.

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