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Playing The Election Game

I spent most of yesterday at George Washington University for the Politics Online Conference, co-sponsored by Google and Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive - the Web site of the Washington Post that is a separate company from the newspaper. The focus of the two-day conference, which continues today, is about the influence of technology on the 2008 presidential election and how to leverage that power in the Internet age.

I have to admit that I expected to hear a lot about blogs and podcasts and You Tube and video embedded into Web sites. But I also saw that some of the companies there were going well beyond that and talking about all of the different high-tech facets of an election campaign and the cutting-edge technology that could be used to better connect candidates with voters.

Salesforce.com, for example, hosted a morning panel session of executives who shared how they use the Web and other tech tools to manage their business. Their message: A campaign can be a lot like a business. It's all about managing money, managing hot-topic news and delivering the right message to the public. They talked about database software that tracks who donated how much and what issue was of greatest concern to that person. If the campaign wanted to know which donors in Maryland gave have given more than $1,000 and are primarily concerned with Social Security, it should only take a few clicks of the mouse to generate a list.

One of the more interesting conversations I had was with a guy named Scott Randall , who is the President of a company called BrandGames in New York. Randall's a younger, long-haired guy who was on a panel about online games becoming the new Town Hall. He's trying to sell Washington on the idea of building a video game around the candidate, making him (or her) the video game hero that people will rally around in hopes of victory - both in the video game and in the election.

There were two myths that he was trying to break down as part of his pitch. The first is that gamers are all a bunch of 15-year-old couch potatoes who don't vote. Not true, he said. Many of them are in their 20s and 30s, educated and passionate about issues that affect them. Second was the idea that money spent on a 30-second TV commercial was a better investment than a video game. Video gamers, he said, will spend far more than 30 seconds with a game. If it's truly engaging, they'll spend hours with it. They'll create an emotional connection to it. And they'll come back to it - again and again and again.

There's a reason that companies such as Cingular Wireless (now AT&T) and Taco Bell have already invested in video game advertising. The audience is engaged for a long time and - given the cost of gaming systems today - they're not afraid to spend. From an election standpoint, creating an emotional connection between candidate and voter through a video game is a interesting concept. So far, no one has called Randall to create that first game. But I wonder if it will ever happen and if so, how long it will take until one of the candidates - maybe one who is looking to get out of the shadows of a higher-profile candidate - starts looking for some sort of unconventional way to reach potential voters and create a different kind of buzz.

"If the candidate becomes the Good Guy Rambo of the video game, there will be all these potential voters out there, cheering him on," Randall told me.

Maybe Washington isn't ready to see Hillary Clinton in camouflage gear trying to work through various levels of game play. But somewhere out there, there's got to be some gamers who would. No one knows whether a Presidential candidate as a video game character would be enough to translate into votes. It makes you wonder... could it just be crazy enough to work?

By Sam Diaz  |  March 16, 2007; 3:01 PM ET  | Category:  Sam Diaz
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