Around the web today, much discussion of Obama ads placed inside the virtual worlds of video games. This story at Gigaom was ground zero for the news.
Most of the chat is simply acknowledgment of the coolness and breadth of the Obama campaign apparatus. See e.g. Sullivan and TPM. But the significance of the move goes a bit deeper than mere cool, and its import extends beyond those one of John McCain’s people derided as “mere” dungeons and dragons types.
First, as the blowback that forced Michael Goldfarb to retract his snideness aimed at the MMORPG crowd illustrated, there is substantial, diverse and dedicated subset of the American electorate who takes what goes on in virtual very, very seriously indeed.
This is where I’d like to shout out to my MIT colleague Henry Jenkins, who really knows this stuff. Henry, this is a time for Aca-Fan. The questions — how, why and what-kinds-of messages work (or don’t) inside the arena of digital games is one of the key areas of interest in the emerging field of media studies — or Comparative Media Studies as the MIT-verse terms it.
To the extent that some of us now locate our human experience, and not just our “leisure,” or “entertainment” in contacts with others that are entirely digitally mediated, this interpenetration of meat-space politics into the metaverse is a notable milestone. Henry — could you please take it from here?
Second, here in the world with which I am personally much more familiar,* this move illustrates again the fact that one side in this election understands something critical about modern technology, and one, by and large, does not.
To be fair, the McCain campaign is not totally out of the digital media wars. McCain’s big tech move of the day was to send a letter to Youtube complaining that the copyright policy employed by the video-sharing site is too constricting, and impinges on fair use principles in exercising free political speech.
I don’t want to belittle this. It’s significant that the McCain campaign has expressed a view on one of the major content issues in the developing digital media world. (I’m not sure how far I trust this conversion to the side of those whom many in Congress view as pirates, but the precedent is now on record.)
But contrast this legal argument about the extension of a well established tradition of law into a novel area with the Obama campaign’s relentlessly disciplined use of the actual technological tools available to advance their cause.
First to be noticed was the impressive peer-peer apparatus mediated through Obama’s national campaign website. That application has been much discussed, and each time the campaign extends its reach — to the iPhone, for example — it reinforces fact that Obama and his people have mastered the political applications of technology in a way that the McCain organization has not.
Now, with Obama appearing in Xbox games, I think we can extend the argument to the question of what such mastery implies not just for the campaign, but for an Obama or a McCain presidency. And here, the Obama grasp of modern technology attacks the the core of McCain’s argument for himself, that he has the experience the next president will need.
Digression alert: a bit of happy trash reading memory offers some context. Back in 1971, James Michener published his “hippie novel” — The Drifters. It ain’t great literature, but it is a document of the times. I think I read it a year or two after its release, and I don’t remember much except for a tag-line offered as an epigram somewhere in the middle of the book. Quoting from distant memory, it ran something like this:
My old man says he’s got fifty years of experience. What he’s got is one year of experience repeated fifty times.
McCain’s got more than one year of adult knowledge under his belt, of course, but the underlying point is obvious.
Consider the areas that both candidates have promoted as targets of both opportunity and necessity for the future of the economy: clean energy, biotech, communications and high tech always among them.
Consider the problems of fighting small wars against non-state enemies, using the most advanced technical means we can dream up to separate signal — our adversaries — from noise, the background of civilian life within which non-state fighters exist.
The experience you would want, I would think, is not that of someone coming to maturity at a time when a computer was an occult mystery, one which could terrify even the redoubtable Katherine Hepburn into the arms of efficiency expert Spencer Tracy.
Rather, it would seem to be that life history which leaves its possessor comfortable — pro-active –in using tech.
Put it another way: looking forward, our national security and future economic success both turn on the masterful exploitation of technological opportunity. The seemingly giddy act of posting a billboard in a virtual playground is a bellweather. It isn’t proof in and of itself, but it offers a powerful hint as to which candidate is best poised to manouver through the circumstances in which we live now.
Games are serious business — and we learn, as we watch Barack Obama and his campaign operate, that on one side at least, we have a choice of some very serious people indeed as the potential leadership of a 21st century nation.
Update: Speaking of campaign mechanics, however — a quick Google News search shows in excess of 200 articles talking about Obama’s Xbox push. Not a bad real-world, free-media multiplier for what I’m guessing was a non-huge cash outlay to buy virtual world advertising real estate.
*By choice, this willing procrastinator has imposed an individual prohibition on modern video games to avoid the death of my personal productivity. I topped out at Galaxian, and, to quote Grandpa Abe McCain, I like it that way.
Image: William Hogarth, “Canvassing for Votes,” from the Humours of an Election series, 1754-1755. Source: Wikimedia Commons.