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Obama's Virtual Ad-Buy and the Gamer Constituency

BY Michael Connery | Wednesday, October 15 2008

As Game Politics broke last week, and Gigaom confirmed yesterday, Barack Obama is buying in-game advertising on X-box Live. The ads are photo-realistic and announce the start of early voting and promote Vote for Change, Obama's one-stop-shop for registration and voting information.


So far, the ads are appearing in the following games:

  • Burnout Paradise
  • Madden 09
  • Nascar 09
  • NBA Live 08
  • Need for Speed Carbon
  • Need for Speed Prostreet
  • NFL on Tour
  • NHL 09
  • Skate

According to the Seattle Times, the ads were sold by Massive, a Microsoft-owned ad agency (Microsoft makes the X-box, for the non-gamers here). The ads are also highly targeted and are only visible to gamers in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin.

There's no word as to how much these ads are costing or whether or not the Obama campaign pursued similar deals with PlayStation or Nintendo. I spent a good chunk of time yesterday trying to get someone at the Obama campaign to answer some basic questions, but ran into the PR wall. Here's all that the campaign is saying:

"Voters have a clear choice between Barack Obama and the change we need, or John McCain and more of the same failed Bush policies. These ads will help us expand the reach of, so that more people can use this easy tool to find their early vote location and make sure their voice is heard."

Over at ePolitics, Colin Delaney is skeptical about the efficacy of such ads:

Now let’s be realistic: these ads are in the middle of a racing game and are going to blow right by players, though they must be up long enough to register if people are going to bother paying for them. And they’re aimed at a shiftless-young-male demographic notoriously resistant to political messages, unless delivered by the Swedish Bikini Team. But thinking about it, the Obamans have probably bought about as many battleground-state TV commercials as they possibly could by now, so why not try using games to try to break through? What do you possibly risk? They certainly have the cash.

More broadly, this tactic reminded me of what folks from the abortive Mark Warner presidential campaign said a couple of years ago about his appearance in Second Life: very few people actually saw Warner there, but many more talked about it, and they talked about it on tech sites and gaming sites that are normally tough to break into. In the case of Obama’s gaming ads, besides the usual political suspects, they’ve now been covered in tech blogs, gaming sites AND car sites like this one. Multiplier effect!

I'm much more optimistic about this. Yes, it's true, that racing games like Burnout Paradise and Grand Turismo might not make the best vehicles for these ads, but sporting games offer much less hectic game play where ads could be more visible. Imagine little cartoon Obama ads in Wii tennis. Or imagine playing Gears of War II and seeing a faded-out, ravaged Shepard Fairey poster of Obama on the wall of a shelled-out building. . .

I also grate against the Second Life comparison. I was never on the Second Life bandwagon for a lot of reasons - janky interface, absolutely nothing interesting to do except attack people with penises, and lack of critical mass of users being some of the biggest. Above all, Second Life was a dead end. You could walk around a virtual campaign office, but you couldn't do anything. You had to leave Second Life if you wanted to take action. None of these are the case with XBox Live.

With users numbering in the millions, XBox Live certainly has the critical mass of active users to make such advertising attractive. In comparison, Second Life never had more than a few thousand active users at any given time. And thanks to their partnership with Rock the Vote, it's possible for any XBox Live user to actually start the registration process right on their XBox. As more states like California and Arizona pass laws allowing complete online voter registration, it's going to be possible to go from seeing one of these in-game ads to registering to vote before you put down the controller for the night.

The opportunities for reaching an audience and inspiring action are even greater on a platform like Nintendo Wii, which has a much more social element to its games than PlayStation or XBox. Imagine hosting a dinner party and busting out the Wii to play some tennis or Dance Dance Revolution, and seeing an in-game ad. We know that peer to peer is the surest way to get someone to register and then vote. So maybe one person at the party then asks if everyone is registered to vote. Those who aren't face some intense peer pressure, and with online registration through the console, everyone can register to vote right then and there. We aren't too far off from being able to do that and this is one of the first steps towards getting there.

Most of all, what I like about this ad buy, is that it shows some cultural respect for a growing and important constituency: gamers.

We know that all the stereotypes about gamers are false. Video games don't cause violence, and violence among youth has declined since the advent of games like Mortal Kombat and Halo. We know that young gamers are not civically challenged introverts, but are just as likely to vote as any other young person. And we know that most gamers aren't even teenagers. By PEW's reckoning, 35% of adults play video games, and the average age of a gamer is 33 years old.

Despite that, the Democratic Party of the last 15 years is rife with politicians who have used gamers and violent video games as their own personal Sista Souljah to navigate the culture war and appeal to "the center." It is in part thanks to Holy Joe Lieberman's crusades against video games, and the well-intentioned but misguided efforts of Tipper Gore and Hillary Clinton to regulate video games, that gamers are now an oft-maligned constituency in America, more likely associated with Columbine than with civic participation.

In reality, gamers are be a valuable, and sizeable, constituency to be courted by politicians on both sides of the aisle. What the Obama campaign is doing with this ad-buy is reaching out a hand to recognize gamers as an important piece of American culture and a group that needs - and deserves - to be brought into the public debate. That's what I love most about this move by the Obama campaign. It shows a cultural fluency with 21st Century American life that most politicians lack, and a willingness to reach out to all Americans in the places they live and socialize. I can't wait until the campaign is over and we can get some real data on what this cost and how effective it was. I think this is just scratching the surface of something that will grow to become a common occurrence in politics.