[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
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
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.