Liz Elsewhere

The Hill , November 18th, 2009
“Gaming the system”
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During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama, to a then-unparalleled extent, leveraged the most cutting-edge technologies to reach potential supporters, organize them, raise money from them, and ultimately, get elected by them. MyBarackObama and mobile were two such groundbreaking technlogies, and with over a year having passed, many in the political world are contemplating what the “next big thing” might be. The answer could be something you’ve only vaguely heard of, it at all: Video game advertising.

Obama used it in 2008 for a couple of weeks only, and to a limited extent geographically, just before the election. As of mid-October 2008, Obama ads were running in 18 video games. Those games included “Guitar Hero,” “Madden ’09” and “Burnout Paradise.” According to Obama campaign officials, the ads were targeted to gamers in 10 swing states: Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Montana, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Colorado — so if you lived elsewhere, you likely would not have seen them. Even if you heard about them, however, you might not have taken them seriously. 

At the time that the ads popped up, some political operatives wondered whether they would in fact help Obama win or just help him raise awareness of early voting with 15-year-old boys. Undoubtedly, adolescents did see the ads, but those quick to deride video game advertising or dismiss it as a frivolous expenditure might want to note that Obama’s campaign specifically chose games that, in its assessment, would enable them to reach 18- to 34-year-old men.

But they might have targeted other groups as an alternative. A huge diversity of gaming platforms now exists, ranging from home consoles like the X-Box to hand-held, portable consoles like the DS or the PSP (with even the iPhone fitting that loose description) to online platform games, such as those on Facebook. They attract a large number of gamers with various preferences. According to a February 2008 CNN report, “Studies and sales data have shown that women are more likely to play hand-held casual games, such as the Nintendo DS, along with social oriented games such as ‘The Sims.’”

Indeed, in the case of “The Sims,” women reportedly make up more than 55 percent of players.

Some political new-media consultants have been thinking for some time about leveraging video games for political messaging. Michael Turk, who was the e-campaign director for Bush-Cheney ’04 and an adviser to former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), began considering it in 2004 when he returned home from work on a Friday night and sat down to play an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) called “Ultima Online.” Says Mr. Turk:

“One of the skills you could develop … was animal taming. Once you tamed the animal, the game allowed you to rename them. So I get home that night and log in. Surrounding the areas I would normally travel were all these cows named ‘Vote Kerry!’ Someone had taken a lot of time to tame them, and given them all that name.”

That made Mr. Turk think about the potential presented by games: “Here is a political advocacy message, being spread in a purely non-political environment. Would it be tremendously effective in that particular election? Absolutely not. But could the idea be effective? Absolutely.”

Mr. Turk says that during his time with the Republican National Committee, advertising in games was discussed but not done. He believes the Obama campaign’s use of it helped, and provides a valuable case study for new-media advisers.

Adam Conner, associate manager for privacy and public policy at Facebook, says, “There’s an entire world of social gaming on platforms like Facebook with millions of players that most people never even think about. More than 60 million people have signed up to play “Farmville” on Facebook and more than 22 million log in once a day. There’s huge potential.”

He does, however, issue one note of caution regarding attempts to reach voters and activists through ads in video games: For sound counsel, “ask gamers and not just political consultants.”

Given Obama’s experimentation with video game advertising last year, and the desire on the part of Republicans, especially, to match or outpace him in 2012, you can bet at least a few strategists will be heeding that advice. [intro]

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