Politicians Among Us: how games are being used to reach out to potential voters

Benthe Noijons is a Global Sustainability Science student and soon to be graduate at Utrecht University, who partook in the 2021 Sustainability Game course. This course is centred around gaming and game development in the context of a new design paradigm, for which Benthe wrote the following opinion piece.

Screenshot from SuperKlaver (2017), retrieved from superklaver.nl

Especially in times where physical encounters are limited, it comes as no surprise that politicians are not rallying on the streets, but on the internet. One might be familiar with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, a young, green member of the United States Congress, that uses online gaming as a way to get in touch with her followers and potential voters. In the midst of campaigning for the 2020 US elections, she hopped on the trend of a very popular game at the time, Among Us, and spent 4 hours streaming her playing with people from all over the world on Twitch.

For gamers, it is almost impossible to not have heard of the game Animal Crossing, of which a new version, “New Horizons”, was launched at the end of March, just when COVID-19 measures around the world mandated people to stay at their homes. This timing, and the low-key character of the game made it surge in popularity. It comes as no surprise that campaign teams of the progressive politicians Joe Biden and Kamala Harris seized this opportunity, and created an island in the theme of voting, and especially voting “blue”, the Democratic Party.

The online presence of politicians in the game scene is not limited to young politicians in the United States. Jesse Klaver, the party leader of the Dutch green, progressive party, GroenLinks, even had his own game just before the 2017 elections in the Netherlands. It is called SuperKlaver, and is based on the popular game Super Mario. The game is simple and is focused on disabling pipes excreting coal-like “fumes”. After finishing the game, you reach the iconic Dutch parliament room “Het Torentje” and a sound plays of a speech from Klaver, talking about the importance of green energy and closing coal fired power plants. Then it redirects the player to the website of GroenLinks.

There are many more examples of political influences in games or other parts of pop culture, such as the nudging towards climate change awareness in the popular TV show Game of Thrones [1]. This type of impact is gained through showing phenomena in the background, and not making it the main focus. This way, the medium is considered to be more likable, as the applied goal is not as obvious as for example in the SuperKlaver game. Another example of this background nudging is the game NBA 2K21, in which billboards and posters can be seen in the surroundings of the game, urging people to vote.

A billboard in NBA 2K21 urging people to vote (by 2K Games).

Now why do some of these methods work better than others? Up until a certain point, it can be linked to credibility and intentions. While watching AOC live on Twitch, it is very clear that she has the best interest at heart with her viewers and prospective voters. Not only is she playing as part of her campaign, she is also visibly enjoying the game and interacting with the other players and viewers. When Trump made an attempt at reaching out to his followers via Twitch, he reached an audience of about 6000 viewers at maximum, which will not be growing as he has been banned from Twitch, compared to AOC’s 439,000 live viewers and a whopping 5,2 million in total. The same goes for Joe Biden, whose streams also grossed around 7000 viewers, although the strategy of AOC seems to work better. Here, she authentically plays the game Among Us with other players and later uses the attention drawn to her to talk about political issues such as making a plan to vote and the climate emergency. Generally speaking, people are more inclined to believe words of someone they trust and can relate to [2]. In this case, reeling in followers by engaging with them and then educating them and expressing your political views seems to be the way to go.

This could be a reason why the SuperKlaver game is nowhere to be found on the GroenLinks website anymore and was not revived for the 2021 elections, and why followers saw right through Biden and Trump’s attempts at Twitch. Another method to appeal to this target group is the background advertisements like in NBA 2K21. When Barack Obama ran for office in 2008, his campaign team invested in in-game advertisements that did not take away the fun of the game, but did succeed in reaching this unique audience. While this is a less personal method, it sees games not merely as a tool to reach a goal in an applied setting, but as a means of communication.

While the phenomenon of political campaigns targeting gamer communities is not limited to young, green political parties, these do seem to have the largest share. For younger politicians it is easier to engage with gamers, as they are able to relate to this demographic more, and are more comfortable navigating new software and game worlds. Also, the most important reason to target gamers as an audience is that this demographic is known to sit out elections. For example, in the UK, the age group 18–24 year-olds has had the lowest voter turnout rate for decades. Using games as a gateway into the world of eligible voters is attractive to progressive politicians, as young voters tend to vote green. Take the results from the “youth elections” in the Netherlands; young people are inclined to steer towards politics that take into account their future climate, housing market and pension situations. This is why there is such an opportunity here for green, progressive politicians, and why it makes sense that they are considered to be most successful in this regard.

It is clear that many politicians have tried to conquer votes from young gamers, but that genuine, young and progressive politicians have proven to be most successful. In the next Dutch elections, there is an opportunity to be taken by parties such as GroenLinks, Volt and Partij van de Dieren to use this to their advantage, without making it obvious. Vulnerability, realness, and most importantly enjoying the gaming community plays an enormous role in this. In order for Jesse Klaver to actually reach the iconic “Torentje”, he needs to be less “super” and more relatable.

[1] Milkoreit, M. (2019). Pop-cultural Mobilization: Deploying Game of Thrones to Shift US Climate Change Politics. International Journal of Politics Culture and Society 32(187). DOI: 10.1007/s10767–017–9273–7

[2] Manning, N., Penfold-Mounce, R., Loader, B. D., Vromen, A., & Xenos, M. (2017). Politicians, celebrities and social media: a case of informalisation?. Journal of Youth Studies, 20(2), 127–144. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13676261.2016.1206867

Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!

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An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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Anticiplay

Anticiplay

An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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