The range of reactions to the news last week that Barack Obama’s presidential campaign had taken out online ad space in nine games on Xbox Live has been fun to watch. While political advertising is nothing new, and in-game ads are barely worth a raised eyebrow these days, it turns out that mixing the two together adds up to a whole different kettle of fish.
Some forum-goers, both at The Escapist and elsewhere, have decried the intrusion of politics into their games and their otherworldly escape from the banalities of everyday life, while others were offended by the unadulterated political opportunism of Obama’s sudden embrace of gamers. Still more viewed his grinning mug in Burnout Paradise as nothing more than a natural and inevitable evolution of advertising, and a few seemed to actually welcome the ads as a new revenue stream for the game industry. There were even suggestions that the game industry itself was somehow responsible for the placement of the billboards, and that equal representation laws meant a similar program for the John McCain campaign would have to run as well.
Of course, that’s not the case. As it turned out, both the Obama and McCain camps were approached by online advertising company Massive, but McCain passed on the opportunity to put his message out into the virtual world. That was an interesting decision in itself, and in the eyes of many game-savvy voters it reflects poorly on the man regardless of the rationale behind it. Did McCain’s people believe the millions of voting-age adults who also happen to spend time on Xbox Live weren’t worth reaching out to? Or was it based on the assumption that the audience in question wasn’t of voting age in the first place – the “videogames are for kids” position – and therefore, again, not worth the effort? Either position would betray a remarkable ignorance.
There is a third option, I suppose: That despite the numbers involved, a careful analysis of the situation by McCain’s people determined that in-game advertising would simply fail to reach the desired numbers and demographic, and therefore not be justified by the expense. But I’m not buying that. Occam’s Razor is pretty clearly at work here, and the McCain campaign has staked its fortunes, rightly or wrongly, on people who tend not to be fans of Need For Speed: Carbon.
But McCain’s choice is McCain’s absence, and nobody seems to have a problem with that. The bigger questions swirl around Obama’s presence. Despite the fact that an informal Xbox Live poll of 100,000 users found a majority of respondents favoring Obama over McCain, 31 percent to 43 percent (with the balance choosing “other” or “undecided”) gamers seem less interested in how the virtual campaign affects Obama’s chances than they are about how it impacts their gaming experience. Meanwhile, outside the boundaries of the “politically-aware gamer” demographic, the ads have caused barely a ripple. In fact, as GamePolitics reported, in the last debate between the candidates, Obama again repeated his famous “put away the videogames” line while calling for greater responsibility from parents, and McCain, instead of questioning Obama’s criticism of games while at the same time campaigning through them, let the remark pass untouched.
Maybe McCain, at 72 years of age, isn’t as mentally nimble as he used to be, and failed to see an opportunity to hammer Obama at a potentially weak spot. More likely, however, he just doesn’t think the matter is sufficiently relevant to mention, even in the all-or-nothing slugfest of the final debate between the candidates. And it’s very possible that he’s right.
There are an awful lot of Xbox Live users out there, yes, but as a percentage of U.S. voters, their numbers are still very small, and while it’s easy enough to throw your weight behind Obama while you’re sitting on the couch waiting for the next round of Halo 3 to start, it’s another matter entirely to get up off that couch and actually go vote. It may be an unfair stereotype, but I don’t think it’s entirely off-base: Election-day indifference is going to be far more prevalent among Xbox-playing Obama fans than among staunch Bible-belt Republicans who will actually cast ballots for their man on the big day.
Yet I do think gamers have a gut-level desire to be viewed as politically relevant, and Obama’s online campaign has gone a long way toward fulfilling that dream. No matter what you think of him or his ads, there’s no question that gamers are being very specifically targeted. But before we start feeling too self-satisfied about ourselves and our political heft, there are two points we need to keep very much in mind.
1. Obama’s use of ads in videogames is not an endorsement of those games anymore than his use of ads on television is an endorsement of, say, Full House reruns. It’s a means to an end, nothing more. Obama’s strategists believe there are enough potential voters whose primary means of entertainment is Xbox Live that burning some cash on them is justified. Barack Obama, the world’s most famous Pong player, is making no claims to gamer cred, and it’s foolish to ascribe any to him simply because he’s ahead of the curve in recognizing the value of alternative means of advertising.
2. This is what we wanted – to be accepted as legitimate, grown-up adults, with jobs and families and enough years under our belts to participate in the democratic process. We wanted our political clout to be recognized, and now it has, with all the baggage that entails. Don’t like politicians hopping on your nuts by plastering their faces across Liberty City? Go play some Hello Kitty Island Adventure. We’ve been bitching for years about the average gamer being 33 years old; can we really complain now that someone is finally listening?
Whether or not Obama’s in-game ads, or McCain’s lack thereof, has any impact whatsoever on the outcome of the election will likely never be known. But what we can take from this is that finally, videogaming has grown up. Gamers are being seen as adults by the institutions of power, with all the benefits that entails: Being manipulated, lied to, used, abused and bombarded with mind-numbing negativity by people who neither know nor care about who we are or what we do beyond hopefully throwing a few votes their way. Congratulations, folks. Hope it’s everything you wished for.
Andy Chalk is firmly convinced that democracy does not work, but he votes anyway.