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UW Election Eye 2012

Campaign 2012 through the eyes of UW faculty and students

February 16, 2012 at 6:30 AM

Rick Santorum hits one million…on Temple Run, or how presidential candidates now embrace video games

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On almost any smartphone or tablet, amid the e-mail clients and various apps, one is likely to find a mobile game or two. Look on Rick Santorum’s iPad and you will see Temple Run.

I discovered this about the presidential candidate’s gaming habits when I spoke to his eldest daughter and son, Elizabeth and John. They said that as a family they don’t have time to play a console game on Xbox, PlayStation, or Wii, so they gather around the iPad to play games while on the campaign trail.

Santorum is not alone in his fondness of the game. Temple Run was one of the 50 most-downloaded apps in the App Store in December 2011, and has over 1.8 million likes on Facebook. The game runs on Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, and, according to its creators Imangi Studios, it tests “your reflexes as you race down ancient temple walls and along sheer cliffs.”

Sounds like the perfect game for a presidential candidate.

I talked briefly with Santorum in Denver last week, and recounted my conversation with his children about Temple Run. Almost sheepishly, the presidential candidate replied, “When I go home my kids load all this junk on my iPad…I played it once and here I am….It used to be Angry Birds, now it’s Temple Run.”

His campaign manager later tugged his arm to direct him to the next interview, but Santorum wasn’t quite done yet. He asked, “Did they tell you what my high score was?” I said around one million, and he replied, “Yeah, it’s not very good.”

He’s right. Type in “highest score on Temple Run” on YouTube and one finds hundreds of videos with players getting into the multi-millions. To be fair, though, Santorum does have his hands full right now with things other than perfecting his gaming skills.

But there is a more serious aspect to all of this.

In 2004, just two elections ago, it would have been ridiculous to ask a presidential candidate about their gaming habits. Gaming on a console was still seen as a “geeky” thing to do — more indicative of tech leaders, not political leaders.

Two things have changed since 2004.

First, presidents have started to openly admit that they know their way around a controller. In 2007, George W. Bush played video games with wounded soldiers at a rehabilitation center. And in early 2009, Barack Obama said he had been getting in some bowling practice on his daughters’ Wii. (And Obama needs all the practice he can get — virtual or not. In 2008, while on the campaign trail in perhaps the worst photo opportunity of his campaign, he bowled a 37).

In addition to being players themselves, candidates have also tried to court players. In 2008 Obama was the first presidential nominee to place campaign advertising in video games. In Burnout Paradise his campaign placed a billboard in one of the racing scenes proclaiming “Early voting has begun” with Obama’s mug on it.

No one apparently tested the effectiveness of Obama’s advertising, but the actual impact might not have been all that important.

Michael Barthel, gaming expert and political communication scholar at the University of Washington, said, “The more important thing was that people knew Obama was advertising in games. Knowing the Obama campaign took games seriously enough to do something like that made both gamers and people who were generally technologically-inclined feel like the campaign ‘got’ them, that they were included in the effort.”

Many may assume that the ads were part of Obama’s effort to target a younger demographic. However, the stereotype that most gamers are teenage boys who care more about high scores than politics is a myth. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), as of 2011 the average age of a computer- or console-based video gamer was 37. In fact, only 18% of computer and console gamers are under the age of 18. Additionally, women 18 and older make up 37% of gamers as compared to 13% of males 17 and younger.

The older population of gamers makes sense. The teens that got into gaming in the 1980s and ’90s have grown up, but they haven’t stopped playing with their toys.

The second biggest change is the rise of of social and casual gaming. Games like Temple Run, Angry Birds, and Words With Friends, along with the hyper-mobile technology to support them, such as smartphones and tablets, have changed how society approaches and views gaming.

A quick game as a work break, during commercials, or on the bus is culturally common now and done by large segments of the population. Approximately 141 million Americans play casual, social, or mobile games. And gathering around the iPad for some bonding time, like the Santorums do, is no longer uncommon.

In addition to reaching a broader audience, Barthel also notes that another big difference is that we now see games as a “legitimate cultural form because they make so much money.” According to ESA, in 2010 in the United States video and computer gaming brought in $15.9 billion. Of that, $10.1 billion came from computer and video games, and $5.8 billion came from digital downloaded content, mobile apps, and social network gaming.

Whichever way you slice it, gaming is big business.

This, of course, is not news to many Seattleites. The Puget Sound area is home to gaming giants such as Microsoft’s Xbox team, Nintendo of America, and Valve, as well as gaming conventions such as Penny Arcade Expo, which brings in tens of thousands of gamers every autumn.

It may be, then, that sometime soon a presidential candidate will make a campaign stop at a gaming company, in addition to a location such as the Boeing plant in Everett, where the president will visit this Friday.

Corey Christiansen contributed to this post, including the production of the video.

Comments | Topics: Barack Obama, campaign oddities, casual games


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