It featured minimal graphics, no sound effects, and deeply flawed gameplay. Yet one of the most important game titles of 2008 was played by thousands and helped change the face of American politics. I’m writing about My.BarackObama.com.
Game designer and scholar Ian Bogost considered it a washout election cycle for political games. McCain had his “Pork Invaders” arcade gimmick, and Obama bought ads in Xbox Live (largely an indulgence). But I would argue that 2008 represents a watershed moment for video games, a moment when the medium showed that it can, indeed, change the world. My.BarackObama.com (“MyBO”) didn’t just communicate ideas. It encouraged people to go and do something.
MyBO awarded Obama supporters with points for taking real-world actions that would likely help the candidate win the primaries and the general election: making phone calls to voters, hosting gatherings, and donating money. MyBO wasn’t the first website to use game mechanics to stimulate real-world action. In 2004, ILoveBees sent thousands of players on a worldwide treasure hunt to promote the traditional console game Halo 2. In 2007, World Without Oil had participants imagine a world where oil prices become astronomical, then adjust their lifestyles in response. Over 18,000 people joined in, recording changes large and small that prefigured what people really did do in the actual oil shock of 2008. These Augmented (or Alternative) Reality Games all found ways to blend the virtual and real.
MyBO was the first serious ARG deployed by a political campaign. Sure, I’m stretching the term “augmented” a bit (unless you’re one of those who believed that all Obamabots lived in an alternate reality). And aren’t fundraising thermometers also a reality-based game where putting in $50 makes the mercury rise? I suppose – but what made MyBO revolutionary, and what puts it in the same category as World Without Oil, is that it also asked participants to engage in non-digital, non-virtual activity. You can donate money without leaving your bed or interacting with another human being. But calling voters requires an authentic human touch, even if the medium is digital (as it was for a colleague who Skyped voters on November 3 from Cairo, where she was at a conference).
Gameplay on MyBO was far from perfect. Part of the problem is that the boundary between digital and real remains only semi-permeable. For example, in January, my partner and I drove down to South Carolina and spent a week in the trenches, eventually helping to run a staging location in a bellwether precinct. For this – and for our subsequent work in MA, VT, and PA, we scored a big fat zero, because there was no way to let MyBO know what were doing. Meanwhile, others were apparently gaming the system by hosting bogus events or flipping through phone numbers without actually calling anyone, perhaps hoping to win various awards. (The site did limit the number of numbers it would give you within a specific period of time to limit this kind of abuse – or, I suppose, wholesale data-mining).
A typical quest (note the in-game manual):
Perhaps the biggest problem of MyBO as a game was its failure to scale. It was disheartening to log in and see that you were in 266,442nd place. True, the points and ranking were meaningless (except for the ten lucky phonebankers who got to meet Sen. Obama), as they are in any game, and I suppose you could argue that the fact that there were 266,441 other people doing more work than you also said something important about the campaign. But the system would have been far more motivating if your cohort group was more local: all Obama supporters in your state, city, or your MyBO groups. After all, the strength of the grassroots resides in its person-to-person connections.
The scoring system never did go local, but in early August 2008 the developers swapped out points in exchange for an Activity Tracker. Instead of winning absolute points, supporters “leveled up” the ranks from 1 to 10 (10 being highest). Groups as well as individuals also scored points, which helped people find others who were actually doing real work. Previously, it was hard to get a sense of how you compared to other volunteers: 266,442 sounds pretty low on the totem pole, but not if there are over a million registered users!
Some were upset by the change, which demonstrated that the points really did motivate some. Wrote one of the top 500: “GIVE ME MY POINTS BACK!!!! THEY DO NOT BELONG TO YOU!!!!!” – words not unlike an MMO player whose epic weapon has been nerfed. But for those lower on the scale – which would include all n00bs, the lifeblood of any campaign or MMO – the switch removed the sense of futility that pervaded the game before. (Points also decayed over time, which also gave n00bs a fighting chance. Consider it an estate tax for scores).
For most supporters, the points likely functioned as a curiosity. Still, the point system helped signal what kinds of activities really mattered, and it probably had something to do with the over 200,000 events hosted and 27,000 groups created on MyBO – an impressive number even after you discount some set of bogus ones put on to game the system. And then there’s two other scores to consider: 203 and 8,481,030, the margin of victory for Obama in the electoral college and the popular vote.
A resounding victory for President-Elect Obama. And, I suspect, for the future of reality games in political and civic campaigns. (Full disclosure: including one I’m now working on a civic engagement game for Fair Trade).