Life’s pretty dull for California in an election year. Our 55 electoral votes don’t get any bluer, so we’re spared the constant bombardment of political ads from both official and Super PAC sources. On the other hand, presidential hopefuls only ever show up here for $5,000-a-plate fundraisers. We miss out on all the hands-on politicking, and we never get a chance to voice an opinion directly to the candidates.
So you’ll just have to excuse a political junkie’s excitement about the election coverage streaming on Microsoft’s Xbox Live service.
I’ve heard the detractors who claim video games should be a “stress-free” and “escapist pass time [sic]” unsullied by the real world. Cry me a river. I’d bet serious money that a majority of PC gamers use their tricked-out gaming rigs to consume news, quite possibly some on the 2012 presidential campaign. Xbox Live’s NBC News app — and specifically its Politics tab — now brings that option to a console platform.
It’s about time. In fact, if anything, that option doesn’t go far enough.
Believe me, I like to occasionally shift my brain into neutral and just have lots of explosions and gunfire amuse me for a while. And if you live in a swing state, you probably deserve a safe haven from the unending onslaught of attack ads and counter-lies. Video games do that admirably.
But I also demand complexity, things that make me think, and the games we love most have increasingly reflected this in ways both thematic and political. Since the first Modern Warfare, Call of Duty has proudly championed the Bush Doctrine of preemptive warfare and unilateral action, accent on “action.” On the other end of the scale, BioShock denounced the same Ayn Randian philosophies written into the GOP platform. Spec Ops: The Line threads the needle admirably, open to both conservative and liberal interpretations…and choices.
You don’t have to dwell on those ideas while gunning down terrorists and/or mutants, but you’re voluntarily exposed to them all the same, and they frequently elevate your experience.
Anyway, game consoles stopped being simple disc-players a long time ago. I can stream Frontline specials, TED talks, Michael Moore documentaries, or Captain America. I can watch anything on HBO and a lot of what’s on commercial television. A game console delivers the bulk of the content I want and consume on a daily basis. Real, live, up-to-date news belongs there in a very big way, and the election deserves to be front and center on that page.
It doesn’t hurt that, so far at least, Xbox Live nails the presentation pretty well.
Anybody who reads my Twitter feed knows I don’t think highly of Mitt Romney, but I’m watching the Republican National Convention live, without commercials or ads, on my Xbox 360, and that’s awesome. I can also take it in bite-sized pieces, accessing interviews, commentator segments, or convention highlights like pieces of Governor Chris Christie’s keynote speech (entire speeches would be better) from the familiar Xbox menu trees. The Democratic National Convention will get the same treatment when it rolls around in a few weeks. I only wish NBC had done this good a job on the Olympics.
Not to say it’s perfect. For one thing, I need more perspectives than NBC News alone can provide. Get BBC World News up there, maybe Bloomberg, the PBS News Hour, CBS, ABC, CNN…we can probably do without MSNBC and Fox “News,” I believe, though the former does have a tab on Live’s NBC app.
More importantly, the NBC News app limits access to election coverage to paying Gold members only. On one hand, you can see why. Microsoft would charge you for oxygen if they could, but this is network coverage. Unless you’ve got a pair of rabbit ears duct-taped to your HDTV, odds are you pay someone a fee to watch NBC. This isn’t so different. It’s also why Sony’s PlayStation 3 — with its free online service — got left out in the cold.
That’s not good enough. The debate going on in our country should be open to everyone who wants to participate in it, and placing an economic barrier on that participation is not acceptable.
If you prefer to disengage, by all means, do. Don’t download the NBC app. Fire up Halo: Reach, Skyrim, or any of the triple-A games due out between now and Election Day. I guarantee I’ll do that, too. But if the content is available, people will access it…maybe even people who normally wouldn't. I like that. More people should take notice, get involved, become informed, and make their voices heard. That’s why I’m particularly interested to see how Live’s interactive presidential debates shake out. They plan to crowdsource an opinion poll in real time, so potentially millions of users will register their agree/disagree level as the candidates speak.
Democracy in action, friends.
So I reject claims that political coverage on Xbox Live is invasive. I scoff at assertions that Microsoft’s overstepped its bounds. I laugh at anyone who calls it unnecessary. It engages (though not yet to the proper extent). It expands boundaries. It is necessary. This marks our political process’s first tentative step into the 21st century and our gaming hardware's first real signs of adulthood. Not so much that we can't still be gleefully immature when we want, but now the big picture's included.
Given that the majority of gamers are old enough to vote, that's a welcome change.
Top image by Samir Torres.