Microsoft to Stream Debates on Xbox Live, Giving Gamers a Chance to Weigh In

Adam Mazmanian
National Journal

Microsoft is hoping to turn its Xbox Live audience into something approximating the world’s largest focus group during the three presidential debates and the vice presidential debate this month. Primarily known as a gaming platform, Xbox offers live programming and video on demand, and it is using the election to try to raise its profile as an interactive news source and test some new technology.

Beginning with Wednesday’s debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney on domestic policy, Xbox will be streaming the events live with interactive poll questions for the millions of U.S. households (a precise number is not available from Microsoft) who own an Xbox console and subscribe to the Xbox Live service. Responses to the questions will be tabulated in real time on screen. Polling partner YouGov will weigh the responses to bring the overwhelmingly male and more educated and affluent Xbox population in line with the overall demographic profile of likely voters, and release results after each of the debates. It's not clear yet if the overall "turnout" will be among the information released.

Interactive polling being done on the Xbox election hub, which appears prominently on the network’s starting page, is already providing a look at a difficult-to-target subset of undecided voters—those who change their mind several times throughout the course of an election season. Xbox users are rewarded for their participation with a virtual gift—a suit of armor for an online avatar. Microsoft plans to release data from its polls during the debates. 

David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research, said that the audience of “tens of thousands” of Xbox users who are providing responses to daily questions about the election reveal hundreds of potential voters who have changed their minds from undecided to supporting one of the two candidates, or flipped from President Obama to Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Rothschild says that a typical survey group for a national poll might only contain a handful of respondents who switched their vote. The Xbox polling, Rothschild says, could potentially yield a new level of “granularity” about the hard-to-track and little understood subset of persuadable voters. 

Xbox voters are disproportionately undecided, according to polling commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by StrategyOne. When the poll was conducted in June and July, 40 percent of Xbox owners had yet to make a choice in the election. Participants in the daily Xbox polling are invited to answer a mix of new and running poll questions when they log on to the service. For instance, on Monday users were presented with a series of questions about taxes, Medicare, Social Security, and the national debt, as well as a running question on presidential preference.

For Microsoft, it is the “biggest-ever live interactive TV proof of concept,” says Jose Pinero, a company spokesman. Microsoft has a long history of experimenting with interactive television products, but here, Pinero says, the company is “breaking the fourth wall” by allowing a real-time connection with live programming on a single screen. Microsoft tested the technology at both party conventions, inviting users to participate in polls during key speeches.

Live, interactive voting can be a “powerful market-research tool,” Pinero says, with applications for a wide variety of programming. On an American Idol type program, for example, it could be used to record viewer preference, and even register approval or disapproval throughout the course of a single performance. TV shows offer online voting, text-message based feedback, and Twitter voting, but Microsoft thinks that putting interactivity on one screen “is the future of TV.”

Whether it represents the future of polling remains to be seen. The methodology has some flaws that could skew results. For example, the programming only accepts answers from one user ID per Xbox console, so that in households with multiple accounts only one vote will be recorded. Pinero says that Microsoft’s polling suggests that adults in Xbox households tend to vote the same way. Rothschild says it’s a “tricky question” as to how to attribute a result when a whole family is in front of the TV.

The effort is also a way to build buzz for Xbox itself. While Pinero says the company is looking to “motivate more people to be engaged in civic processes,” it is also planning to launch the next installment in its wildly popular Halo franchise on Election Day.