[Author and game designer Bogost examines the role of video games in 2004 and 2008's U.S. Presidential election, seeing a sharp decline in games used for political means this year, and asking a simple question -- why?]
The 2004 election cycle saw the birth and quick rise of the official political video game. While election strategy game have been around since 1981's President Elect, that title and its followers were games about the political process, not games used as a part of that process.
2004 marked a turning point. It was the year candidates and campaign organizations got into games, using the medium for publicity, fundraising, platform communication, and more.
That year, I worked on games commissioned by candidates for president, for state legislature, by a political party, and for a Hill committee. And that was just me -- other endorsed political games abounded, from the Republican Party to the campaign for President of Uruguay.
It was easy to get public attention around such work, and indeed one of the benefits of campaign games revolved around their press-worthiness. By the final weeks of the last election cycle, all signals suggested that campaign games were here to stay.
Drunk on such video game election elation, I remember making a prediction in a press interview that year: in 2008, I foolishly divined, every major candidate would have their own PlayStation 3 game.
MSNBC writer Tom Loftus made a similar, albeit wisely milder prediction in late October 2004: "Already tired of hearing politicians say 'visit my Web site' every five minutes? Wait until 2008, when that stump speech staple may be replaced with a new candidates' call: 'Play my game.'"
We couldn't have been more wrong.
Looking back on the 2008 election, video games played a minor role. In terms of officially created or endorsed work, only a few examples appeared. The McCain campaign served up Pork Invaders, a Space Invaders clone in which a McCain "ship" fires vetoes at pig "aliens" as a demonstration of how McCain "would exercise the veto pen to restore fiscal responsibility to our federal government."
The game boasts higher production value than the GOP's similar 2004 offering, Tax Invaders, but is considerably less sophisticated as political speech.
Tax Invaders cast taxes in the role of the alien enemy and George W. Bush as the executive-hero who would save the people from them, an apt characterization of conservative tax policy that actually benefits from having been cast in a video game.
By contrast, Pork Invaders struggles to connect gameplay to political message; it's mostly a curiosity.
The most visible video game politicking of 2008 came recently, in the form of the Obama campaign's decision to buy dynamic in-game ads in console games like Burnout Paradise. Gamers welcomed the buy; it appeared to suggest that Obama at least did not intend to vilify their medium, despite having previously encouraged parents to "turn off the television set, and put the video games away."
Given Obama's enormous war chest, the move must have looked like a risk-free experiment to the campaign. Still, the Democrats didn't make any games of their own, a feat met (even if barely) by McCain's hammy offering.