Francisco Villasenor

Microsoft’s Xbox Live political coverage is invasive, unwelcome, and largely promotional

Microsoft’s Xbox Live political coverage is invasive, unwelcome, and largely promotional

Microsoft isn’t shy about the fact that real estate on the Xbox 360 dashboard is for sale, and in a previous story we were able to show you just much revenue comes into Microsoft from the sale of ads on your Xbox 360. A newer section has been added to the dashboard of the entertainment device, however, and in my eyes it’s even worse:

Political coverage.

The creepier side effects of Microsoft’s political coverage

There is now a section of the Xbox Live dashboard dedicated to political news and information, which seems pretty innocuous, but this political focus is also part of a larger data-finding initiative for Microsoft.

“To understand more about the political attitudes, behaviors and issue priorities of Xbox LIVE members, Xbox commissioned StrategyOne to conduct a survey of 1,678 Xbox LIVE households,” Microsoft said in a press release. “The survey, which was conducted June 19 to July 3, 2012, found that 40% are swing voters: Those who are not firmly committed to a presidential candidate.”

Let’s take a step back here, and realize that Microsoft is sharing your information with polling organizations so you can be invited to take part in surveys. “The survey was conducted June 19 through July 3, 2012 and included 324 landline, 684 cellphone and 670 online interviews,” the statement explained. So if you’ve received a landline or cell phone call asking for your political views, there’s a chance they’re using the information from your Xbox Live account, and it was directly provided to the company by Microsoft.

That information was then collected into a branded data set about voters and used to promote Xbox Live and push Microsoft-curated political news to users who are given no way to opt out. This is a very troubling area for a platform that is sold as pure entertainment.

Microsoft is also not going to provide the video coverage to every Xbox user.  “Through this innovative platform, U.S.-based Xbox LIVE members, part of a large, diverse and actively engaged audience of more than 40 million members worldwide, will be able to interact in real time throughout the three scheduled presidential debates, as well as enjoy live feeds from the Republican and Democratic national conventions,” Microsoft stated. That’s wonderful, until you get to the bottom of the press release.

“Xbox LIVE Gold membership required for some events and features, including live coverage and select video content.”

You didn’t expect Microsoft to give this away, did you? Now shut up and fill out your survey.

Even more important, this removes a pleasant escape

There are some upsides to election coverage on the Xbox 360, including giving young voters a new way to get information, and a simple way to register to vote, but the reality of turning on your video game console to see a smiling Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, the current lead image for the content, waving to you is unsettling. Microsoft may have good intentions with this coverage, but I question whether or not it’s necessary.

I hope you’ll allow me a bit of editorializing, because the rest of my complaints are more person preference; this isn’t how I want to learn political information. We live in an age of 24-hour news, constant coverage from any number of media outlets and blogs online, and computers we carry in our pockets that can keep us up to date on every aspect of American politics. It has never been simpler to consume news, nor has there ever been more available. If a voter is willfully ignoring every other means of learning about the candidates, I don’t believe they’re going to click through an image of a politician on their video game console and begin to educate themselves.

Living in a swing state means that I’m assaulted with political information. Signs cover neighborhood yards promoting favored candidates. Television is flooded with negative ads against both parties.  The radio is dominated by chatter about the election, which is painful when you’re sitting in traffic because a candidate is visiting. The amount of coverage given to the election doesn’t make me feel engaged, it makes me feel numb. It’s the last thing I want to see before I play a video game.

This is why Steam can feel so relaxing compared to Xbox Live. When I log into Steam, I see… video games. Nothing but video games. I can look at new releases, check out the spotlighted games, or simply see what my friends are playing. It feels like an escape that allows me to get away from politics, instead of a company using my love of video games as another way to show me political content. I enjoy a focus on video games when I want to play video games, and I don’t think I’m alone.

Hell, even the single movie Steam sells is about video games! While non-gaming programs are coming to Steam, we can only hope they will be easy to avoid, tucked away in their own corner of the service.

Having politics moving into what should be a stress-free and often escapist pass time makes me less inclined to spend my leisure hours and money there. Having Microsoft insert curated political information into my game console, with no way to avoid it, is creepy and invasive. The fact that our information is also used to drive survey calls to cell phones and landlines is even worse. Keeping streaming content exclusive to those that pay for Xbox Live makes it easy to dismiss Microsoft’s claims that this is a public service.

Political content on Xbox Live isn’t about helping young people vote, or become more politically aware, this is about Microsoft overstepping its bounds.