Politicians Join Voters in Virtual Escapism - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Political organizers may have a new playground — the virtual ones that gamers have flocked to amid the pandemic.

The old election adage is “go where the people are.” And with the pandemic limiting physical rallies, politicians are beginning to join voters where many of them are most engaged: gaming.

New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has professed her love for League of Legends in the past, recently opened up her Twitter DMs for four minutes to let followers send her their Animal Crossing island codes — basically allowing her to visit them with her digital avatar, which she promptly did.

Lis Smith, the former Democratic operative largely credited with Pete Buttigieg’s overnight rise to major presidential contender status, recently outlined a strategy in which Joe Biden could rent space on Fortnite. It would essentially allow players to parachute around a giant, floating Biden hologram while on their way to a shootout in the world’s most popular game (although that tactic could be complicated given Biden’s gun control rhetoric). President Donald Trump’s reelection team has partially “gamified” its mobile app by giving points to users who share content and bring in new supporters.

Any attempt to engage with them will need to be authentic and relevant, particularly for young voters.

Mata Haggis-Burridge, Breda University of Applied Sciences

Such massive multiplayer online role-playing games could become a staple of future campaign rallies (or mass protests). But it comes with risks. “Any attempt to engage with them will need to be authentic and relevant, particularly for young voters, or it risks doing more damage than good for a candidate’s reputation,” says Mata Haggis-Burridge, a professor studying games and entertainment at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

Someone like Ocasio-Cortez has a natural fluency with new media platforms, Haggis-Burridge notes, while the 77-year-old Biden will face the challenge of not appearing to try “too hard” to stay “young and relevant.” If he can tread that line, campaigning virtually could make a big difference, with many voters homebound or nervous about gathering in public.

There are some examples of past organizing using gaming: To support Republican Ron Paul’s presidential run in 2008, gamers staged a march through Azeroth, the fictional realm of World of Warcraft. Maine state Senate candidate Colleen Lachowicz, a Democrat, was “outed” by the GOP as a level 85 orc rogue in 2012 (conservatives argued that her stab-happy alter ego made the peace-espousing social worker unfit for office). Lachowicz won her election, a sign that playing in the virtual world doesn’t necessarily have to hurt candidates in the real one.

Ocasio-Cortez, Biden and Trump will hope it actually helps them.

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