Feedback Loop: How Halo Could Improve Democracy Forever

It turns out that the characters we play and the stories they’re in can change our patterns of behavior and our attitude towards others. Armed with better stories, game developers can change the world.

Imagine the latest Halo game with an all new DLC. As Master Chief during election season, it’s your civic duty to get to a voting booth, no matter how many Grunts get in your way. This could be the near future if game writers decide to embrace the responsibilities that come along with the latest research from Tiltfactor’s Geoff Kaufman and OSU’s Lisa Libby.

Kaufman’s recent study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examines the phenomenon of ‘experience-taking.’ The principle is that certain types of fiction, specifically those where the participant can take on the identity of the protagonist, push the participant to merge the character with their selves, “feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own.”

One particular part of the study shows promise to provide a solution to the alleged political conflict arising from Halo 4’s scheduled release date. In the study 36% more college students voted on election day after reading a story about a character who had to overcome obstacles in order to vote than those who did not. A pretty sizable increase, especially when applied to the numbers for AAA video game audiences.

Halo 4 is scheduled to be released on November 6 of 2012, the same date as the national US presidential election. Conspiracy theories about Microsoft’s selection of the date abound, but they are all pretty well shot down by MovieBob’s recent Big Picture video on The Escapist. It may be unlikely that the release date has been scheduled as a strategic distraction for the 18-29 (youth) demographic, but that doesn’t mean its scheduling is a good thing for voter turnout.

The problem is multiplied by the historical disinterest of the age group and the consequences of civic disengagement in the future. The youth vote has hovered around 50% since 1976, dropping to 40% in 1996 and 2000. Though interest peaked for President Barack Obama’s election, with 2008 seeing the 18-29 demographic more than doubling the number who showed up to polls over 2004, recent studies show it dropping more than ten percentage points and likely to fall even further.

It is more important than ever for gaming’s prime market to participate in the democratic process. Kaufman’s experience-taking may be the way to turn the additional problem of Halo 4’s release date and turn it into an overall solution for the dropping youth vote numbers. Consider the 3.3 million copies of Halo 3 sold in the US. Now apply the 36% increase discovered in Kaufman’s study and you get about 1% of entire US popular vote in 2008. Not enough to have changed that year’s election, but more than enough to have turned the tide in 2000.

With 343 Industries and Microsoft’s resources at hand, it shouldn’t be difficult to create an experience-taking phenomenon. A Halo 4 election DLC should have all the necessary ingredients. The sequence could either be a prelude or an interlude to the Master Chief’s storyline. It’s easy to get more elaborate, but at its most basic the player would have to fight through Covenant forces in order to reach a terminal to vote for the United Earth Government. Victory would be when the player casts their vote. “I Voted”-style achievements would apply greater motivation. Co-op play could be implemented. The storyline would provide an opportunity for new and old players to be introduced and caught up with the increasingly complex Halo universe.

Halo Live Action Web Series

Image of the Halo Live Action Web Series via Film Junk

It’s an excellent opportunity that fits well with the preexisting brand and property. Few games do a better job of allowing the participants to become the player character like the Halo series does, and its first-person perspective should increase the chances of experience-taking success. As a bonus, an election-focused DLC would serve to further the nationalistic tones that have been a prominent part of Halo’s marketing in America.

There’s no reason that the gaming industry should stop at 1%. If other developers embraced the civic responsibility of creating an experience to encourage people to vote, the gaming possibilities are enormous. Popular multiplayer games could replace, flags, areas, or moneyballs with voting booths and terminals to capture. That would just be a few thousands of players. The effect if Massively Multiplayer Games chipped in could be enormous.

Large scale server-wide events have been successful in MMOs in the past and continue to be part of the experience. Creating a quest to get to vote could go a long way. The same can be done in the casual games that are netting huge swaths of the online population. Combine the subscriber base of top MMOs with the peak Daily Average Users of the immensely popular CityVille and you get around 103.6 million users. 36% of that number comes out to about 37.3 million otherwise un-engaged voters. That’s 29% of the total popular voters in 2008.

Of course, not every subscriber is American, but it would have taken only 9.6 million votes to change the results of the 2008 election.

That’s world-changing stuff.

The process of experience-taking is important to consider for reasons beyond America’s politics. Addressing and creating player empathy within pre-existing game structures allows direct access to the huge audiences of MMOs and casual games and bypasses the challenging process of creating and marketing serious games that tend to address only a single issue.

Narratives that address a sense of self, a changing sexual identity or a different gender identity can leverage experience-taking to create greater understanding and empathy. While Mass Effect 3 isn’t going to ‘turn you gay,’ the study found that “reading about a character who was revealed to be of a different race or sexual orientation showed more favorable attitudes toward the other group and [readers] were less likely to stereotype.” Other games, like Labyrinth, could create better global understanding by putting you in the shoes of your ideological opposition.

Game developers have the power to change the very fabric of our society for the better. It would  be nice to see them do something with that power other than slo-mo ass blasting.

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  1. ScottHammond

    This is a horrible idea. I mean, seriously, read this sentence back again: “As Master Chief during election season, it’s your civic duty to get to a voting booth, no matter how many Grunts get in your way.” Does this sound like a fun game? Now I know you were just using a random example, not trying to script the next gen Halo game, but I think you are unintentionally advocating for games this blockheaded. Let’s face it, Hollywood has been doing this for years, trying to generate messaging through film and tv that pushes a specific political ideology, oh wait, sorry, I meant promotes civic virtues (yeah, right). It almost always either totally sucks or backfires. Heavy handed self righteous preaching just isn’t that entertaining. This isn’t a recipe for better games with life enriching content, it’s an invitation for game developers to start expressing their fervent beliefs instead of creating better games. People don’t get into games to learn about Obama vs. Romney, they play them to avoid them. Gaming is one of the very, very few spots in our culture that hasn’t been infected by the constant animus of political infighting. Why ruin a good thing?

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