Rob Schoon was born in Indiana, interned for On the Media, and is now a freelance writer on media and culture living in Brooklyn. His twitter is @rkschoon.
Watching Debates On Xbox Live
Friday, October 12, 2012 - 04:37 PM
As an experiment, I decided to watch yesterday's vice presidential debate on my video game console. This year, Xbox Live's new Election 2012 Hub is broadcasting the debates to subscribers of their $50-a-year online gaming service. Along with the live stream, the Xbox Live group teamed up with YouGov, an internet market research firm, to conduct polls during the debate, because why not? Anyone watching on Xbox already has a video game controller in front of them; instead of annihilating pixilated zombies, those controllers can help you voice your political opinions.
Before watching, I expected the debate and live polling to be like a video game—perhaps not the usual button-mashing epilepsy-inducing action, but a constantly interactive, highly distracting experience nonetheless. The gamer in me was to be disappointed, but I (media critic, citizen) was pleasantly surprised.
There were problems, of course. As many who tried to watch last weekend’s online-only Jon Stewart vs. Bill O’Reilly charity debate already know, massively popular, bandwidth-hogging live events can be glitchy. And if you’re unlucky, you get stuck at the back of the digital line and never get to watch. During the first five minutes of yesterday’s debate, I spent my time clicking buttons, connecting, being dropped off the live stream, rebooting, and reconnecting. Repeatedly.
Once I was really connected, I wasn’t looking at elaborate graphics, flashing charts, or continuous dial-a-polls (those political seismometers that track every twinge or tremor in the audience’s reaction). On screen was… the debate. And a tiny “Xbox Live” logo in the far right corner. That’s it. And for most of the debate, that’s all it was.
Xbox’s simple presentation was a surprisingly liberating, compared to watching on TV. I had been watching other channels that night, and all of them, even the broadcast networks, had some gimmick on the screen, whether it was split-screen “reaction” shots, twitter feeds, ubiquitous crawl at the bottom of the screen, or even just visually displaying the moderator’s question. Though it didn’t look revolutionary in the “digital age” sense, it was a quiet rebellion against the distracting visual packaging that all the news channels have seemingly decided upon.
Then the polls started popping up on screen. At about half an hour before the end of the debate, a little blue band appeared with a question and three choices. After choosing one, a bar graph would appear, giving instant results, in percentages, for each option. I counted at least fifteen questions before I lost track, and though the questions tracked well with the debate - foreign policy questions while Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan talked Afghanistan, questions about candidates’ religion during the abortion portion - the polling became so rapid-fire as to become distracting. Plus, they were beside the point, unless that point was to relentlessly confirm that roughly two-thirds of Xbox Live watchers are liberal and about ten percent had no opinion about anything.
Still, it’s a start. Perhaps Xbox can space the polls out next time. And the demographic uniformity - the reason why the polls were boring - can, and likely will, diversify, as the pool of participants expands. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the video game industry’s consortium which studies trends in home gaming, said that this year, nearly half of American households own a dedicated game console, with 37% of gamers over the age of 35, and the male/female ratio of gamers is nearly even. The definition of what game consoles do is changing - I watch Netflix, listen to music, and now participate in major public civic events on my Xbox more frequently than I play a video game. Changing along with it, so too is the stereotype of the gamer, away from the cliché of the white, male, acne-afflicted teenager.
The potential of Xbox Live’s streaming of the debates is more than just expanding the coverage of important public events to the “cord cutters” who have given up television, or others in areas that might not be within broadcast range, but have broadband internet. The greatest potential with this new media channel is in the voice-chat system. For those of you non-gamers, this is the (admittedly nerdy-looking) headset and microphone that is used in online games, ostensibly to strategize with members of your team. It also worked during the debate, and with a few simple clicks of menu options, I found myself (living in New York) watching the debate in a virtual living-room with my best friend in New Mexico, his brother in Arizona, and my brother in Indiana.
A few months ago, New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote—and chatted with On the Media—about the benefits of Twitter to the national water-cooler conversation. His point was that live events, in this age of DVR and on demand viewing, become important again if you have a whole community watching simultaneously. And he found that community in Twitter. But watching with a laptop computer or smart phone in front of you, constantly diverting your eyes to read reactions and type out responses, puts a certain level of detachment between you and the thing that you’re supposedly watching. But the Xbox voice-chat is as immediate as a conference call - and several orders of magnitude easier to coordinate and conduct.
Right now, my appreciation for the Xbox Live debate stream is more about the possibilities than the current reality. The connection problems will undoubtedly improve, and, while the demographic skew of the polling will eventually improve, right now it’s homogeneous and unrepresentative enough to be uninteresting. But there’s something to watching events with a small group of people from anywhere in the country, who can react together and discuss politics (and their lives) during, and after, the debate. I could see a system where Xbox puts strangers together from different places, and with different politics, for these debates.
Democracy is a process—at its most fundamental level, it's a conversation. Watching with others, and without the political news apparatus, felt like basic democracy. After the debates ended, instead of watching talking heads, we just talked.