Using Video Games in Political Campaigns: Reaching Voters Using In-Game Marketing

In the last post, I started to explain how politicians can use video games to help connect with voters.

As I pointed out, just being a gamer can help establish rapport with their constituents.

The people working on the campaigns can also get creative and connect with voters who use their smartphones to play augmented reality (AR) games like Ingress and Pokémon Go. These games bring players to specific geographic locations that can be used to help get them registered to vote and/or encourage them to vote for specific candidates.

However, this is very labor-intensive.

And, given the fact that we are living through one of the worst global pandemics in recent history, offline techniques might not work as well for candidates this year.

Therefore, in-game marketing tactics might be a better way for politicians to invest their time and money to connect with their constituents this year.

As I will explain, some of the different ways that politicians can reach voters while they play video games include participation and engagement by actually playing online multiplayer video games and interacting with other gamers, buying in-game advertising, and offering downloadable content (DLC).

Let’s briefly look at each of these individually.

Participation and Engagement – AOC Played Animal Crossing During the Pandemic

No matter what you think about the political views of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), you have to admit that she knows a thing or two about connecting with potential voters using digital media.

Whether its dancing her way to work on Twitter or using Instagram to document her first week in Washington, she is adept at using social media to spread her message.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that she was able to combine social media and video games to get a lot of positive coverage in the press earlier this year.

When many people were sheltering-in-place to help flatten the curve during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, AOC did something that many other people did… she purchased a Nintendo Switch and a copy of the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Then she made an ingenious move. She went on Twitter and asked for advice about how to visit other gamer’s islands in the game.

What happened next is documented in several online articles published by the mainstream press and casual bloggers, alike. This positive earned media coverage is something that public relations professionals dream of!

The Washington Post describes her visit to Justin Mirsky’s Animal Crossing island.

According to the article, she left proof of the visit by leaving a thank you note to Justin and his family.

How cool is that?

This is proof that Governor Jared Polis was correct when he said that people get excited when they get a chance to play against their congressperson in a video game. Or, in this case, get a visit from a famous congresswoman on their Animal Crossing island.

Paid In-Game Advertising – President Obama’s Campaign Team Led the Way in His 2008 Presidential Campaign

In the 2008 Presidential campaign, Barack Obama and his campaign team chose to take a risk and place the first presidential campaign ads in online video games.

Part of the alure for using in-game advertising is the fact that this advertising can be targeted to specific geographic regions and individual demographic characteristics.

According to an article on the Reuters website, Obama’s history making in-game ad buy placed advertisements “in 18 games through Microsoft Corp’s Xbox Live service, to promote his online voter registration and early balloting drive in 10 battleground states, a campaign spokesman said on Wednesday.” The games included “Guitar Hero 3,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “NASCAR 09,” “NBA Live 08,” and “NFL Tour.”

Regarding specific demographic characteristics, the Obama campaign was trying to reach younger voters.

At the time, 18-to-34-year-old males were their target audience. According to the Reuters article, Van Baker, an analyst for Gartner Inc., is quoted as saying, “They’re hard to get to because they don’t watch much TV and they don’t read a lot, so it’s a good venue to get that segment.”

And, as Indiana University’s Patrick Walsh points out in an NPR article, in-game ads reach a captive audience.

“You have someone there that’s captive; they’re typically not multitasking; they’ typically just playing the game,” says Walsh in the NPR article. “So they’re not on their computer, they’re not on their phone, and it’s a very desirable demographic.”

It appears that Obama’s team made a great choice in 2008. According to a 2012 article on The Daily Beast, “In 2008, surveys found that gamers who saw political ads were 120 percent more likely to have a positive reaction to the candidate, and 50 percent more likely to consider casting a vote for him.

Therefore, it is not surprising that they tried the to replicate this success in the 2012 election. In my online research, I was unable to uncover an analysis of the effectiveness of 2012 in-game ads for the Obama campaign.

However, I did find some negative feedback, which I will briefly write about later in this post.

It should also be pointed out that according to the NPR article, “A spokesman for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said his campaign has advertised in video games as well, but did not provide any examples or information about the ads.”

Downloadable Content (DLC) – Joe Biden’s Campaign Team Creates Yard Signs for Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Given Barack Obama’s success with in-game ads, it only makes sense that his former running mate is trying something similar in his 2020 Presidential campaign.

According The Verge, on September 1, 2020, gamers playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons were able to add official Joe Biden yard signs to their island homes.

“The Biden-Harris campaign released four sign designs for players to download, featuring the official Biden-Harris logo, Team Joe logo, the “Joe” Pride logo, and an image of aviator sunglasses shaded in red, white, and blue,” The Verge article explains. “Players will be able to access the designs in-game by scanning the design QR codes through the Nintendo Switch Online app.”

As Christian Tom, director of digital partnerships for the Biden campaign, explains in the September The Verge article, “This is just the start of how we plan to engage players ahead of November as we’re already looking forward to rolling out more digital swag, voter education tools, and organizing efforts on Animal Crossing and other platforms.”

In fact, just few days ago Mashable reported that Joe Biden’s campaign added additional campaign swag for gamers who want to show their support of the Biden/Harris campaign in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

All of the Biden/Harris downloadable content can be found on the Joe Biden store website.

It will be interesting to see if offering this downloadable content to potential voters will help get out the vote for the Biden campaign.

The Potential Downside of In-Game Marketing

As already mentioned, President Obama had success with in-game ads in 2008.

However, as a Forbes article reported in 2012, some voters expressed dissatisfaction when they saw the in-game ads for Barack Obama during his reelection campaign.

The main complaint that gamers reported was that they play video games for an escape from reality and these ads make that more difficult.

The author of the Forbes article writes, “That escape, according to Aaron Delwiche of Trinity University, is referred to as the ‘magic circle of the game.’ Delwiche, an associate professor, explained that “The magic circle is an illusion that is willfully created by players and game developers. When they meet in this space it becomes a sort of artificial fantasy space and some gamers are very resistant to any attempts to introduce the real world.” Others though, Delwiche added, want to bring these two spaces together and are less vitriolic with their opinions.”

Should Candidates Use In-Game Advertising?

As we have seen, in-game marketing offers many different ways for politicians to connect with their constituents.

By actually playing video games and connecting with other gamers in their voting district, politicians can establish a rapport and maybe earn some additional votes. And, as AOC found out, it can also lead to a lot of free earned media when the story gets covered by the press and personal bloggers. However, this won’t happen every time. So, you need to consider if the time playing will actually give you the return on investment needed.

The in-game advertising President Obama’s campaign team used in 2008 helped them achieve some of their goals. However, it’s unclear if they were able to replicate the results in 2012. That said, this type of advertising can be used to reach many more voters without investing as much time. The cost will vary.

Since Joe Biden’s campaign is ongoing, we don’t know the results yet. However, some of the current feedback on Twitter seems to be rather positive.

In the end, video games probably shouldn’t be the only way that politicians try to reach their constituents. However, when it is seen as one tool in the marketing toolbox, it can be an effective way to connect with voters who the politician might not otherwise be able to reach.

Chad Thiele

Chad Thiele

I am a marketing analyst and strategist. I earned my master's degree from West Virginia University in Integrated Marketing Communications in 2023. I also hold a bachelor's degree from UW-Madison in Sociology with a Concentration in Analysis and Research, and I completed the Mobile Marketing Professional Certificate Program from Auburn University in 2015.