IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Ready politician one: How the election made its way into video games

"What's kind of great about games is how many different kinds of modes of expression of play there are," said professor Laine Nooney.
An image of Biden Island in "Animal Crossing: New Horizons."
An image of Biden Island in "Animal Crossing: New Horizons."Courtesy of Biden for President

On Tuesday evening, more than 400,000 people tuned in to watch Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., play the video game "Among Us" on Twitch.

The stream was reported to have become one of the most-watched by a single broadcaster in the platform's history.

"First things first, if you are able to vote, we are here — — make sure that you make your voting plan. … So that's really what tonight's all about, and, of course, we're here to vote blue," Ocasio-Cortez said at the top of the stream.

As the presidential election approaches, politicians and gaming companies alike are using video games to promote both voter education and turnout in November.

IMAGE: Biden Island in 'Animal Crossing: New Horizons'
An image of Biden Island in "Animal Crossing: New Horizons."Courtesy of Biden for President

"They're a primary way people of all ages kind of interact socially and entertain themselves. And so it seems quite obvious in the way that Rock the Vote, when it was developed in the 1990s, organized itself around music that we would see similar kinds of interventions happen around games," said Laine Nooney, an assistant professor of media industries at New York University.

The objective of the online multiplayer game "Among Us," recently profiled in The New York Times, is to determine who among the four to 10 players on an alien spaceship is an impostor and who isn't. (In her first round, Ocasio-Cortez was assigned the impostor role.)

"Maybe it's Ilhan, because no one's dying, and she's just as inexperienced as I am," Ocasio-Cortez said during a round about an hour and 10 minutes into the gameplay, referring to fellow Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who was also playing.

Ocasio-Cortez decided to take on the approximately 3½-hour stream of "Among Us" to promote voting next month. In addition to promoting, a website paid for by the Democratic National Committee to encourage a voting plan, Ocasio-Cortez pushed viewers too young to vote to encourage those around them to make voting plans.

"AOC has more followers than the president on Twitch. … She can go on Twitter and, just like she did a couple of days ago, recruit people to play a game with her. She was like, 'Yeah, it's to get out the vote.' It's simply to sort of be with people where they are," Nooney said.

Ocasio-Cortez's gameplay is the latest example of video games' increasing role in voter outreach.

The recent political foray into gaming — such as former Vice President Joe Biden's island on "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" or a recently released series about voting in "NBA 2K21," produced in partnership by NBA 2K and LeBron James' SpringHill Co. — acknowledges both the reach of video games and their movement into the mainstream.

An image of Biden Island in "Animal Crossing: New Horizons"
An image of Biden Island in "Animal Crossing: New Horizons"Courtesy of Biden for President

But even before the lead-up to the election, there were signs that politicians were exploring video game-adjacent avenues to spread their messaging. Biden, President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have begun to explore Twitch, a platform that has historically serviced video game streams.

A way to reach voters of all ages

For nearly a decade, Katelyn Lippert, 21, of Georgia, has loved the games in Nintendo's "Animal Crossing" series. When the latest game was released, around the beginning of the Covid-19 quarantine in March, she couldn't wait to get her hands on it.

So, recently, when she saw an article saying Biden had created an island that players could visit, she knew she had to check it out.

"I actually thought it was really cool. It's better than my own island. I can willingly admit that," Lippert said.

The island, which players can visit by entering a code, features a red, white and blue rose garden, ice cream trucks, voting booths, an outreach center and other Biden-themed attractions.

Lippert, who voted for Biden by mail before she visited the island, said she appreciated being able to experience a type of voter outreach that is unique to her generation — although she said she's confident that Biden himself didn't build the island, which would have taken dozens of hours.

"I wouldn't expect it to happen, but I'm happy it did," Lippert said of the voter outreach in "Animal Crossing."

IMAGE: Voter education billboard in 'NBA 2K21'
A billboard in "NBA 2K21" that reads "Vote" as part of a voter education initiative.Courtesy of NBA 2K

While "Animal Crossing" may appeal to voters like Lippert, Nooney said that because of the diversity of games and gamers, no one game will work as outreach for all players.

"'NBA 2K' and 'Animal Crossing' are two pretty different constituencies. We also have to remember that not all games attract the same kind of gamer," Nooney said. "What's kind of great about games is how many different kinds of modes of expression of play there are."

Although some politicians might look at video games as a way to reach younger and first-time voters, Nooney said it's important to remember that gaming encompasses a wide age demographic.

"Because games have existed as commercial properties going into their fifth decade, gamers are adults now. They're elder millennials. They're some kind of younger folks on the Gen Z scale. Gamers are adults, and the average age of a gamer is someone in their mid-30s," Nooney said.

Voter education

While some games might encourage players to vote for certain candidates, others work to educate potential voters ahead of November.

IMAGE: Voter education billboard in 'NBA 2K21'
A billboard in "NBA 2K21" that reads "Vote" as part of a voter education initiative.Courtesy of NBA 2K

More Than A Vote, an organization of Black athletes and artists like James, Odell Beckham Jr., Kevin Hart and others, created an educational series for players of "NBA 2K21" to watch while the game loads.

The first episode, which was released Friday and featured ESPN analyst Maria Taylor, a More Than A Vote member, discussed voter suppression Taylor witnessed in Georgia during the primary in June.

The series is produced by the game's parent company, 2K, and SpringHill, James' production company.

"With so much energy around the nation around the upcoming election, we really just wanted to do our part and encourage our fans, the aforementioned gamer community and our U.S. 2K family to vote," said Alfie Brody, NBA2K's vice president of global marketing.

In addition to the videos played in-game, players will also see in-game billboards with the word "VOTE" on them. The game's social media will also promote the message of voting, Brody said.

"The mission is to empower hundreds of millions of gamers around the U.S. to register and to vote. All of it's nonpartisan. It's just focused on that civic duty and the power of what a vote can accomplish," Brody said.

Brody said the effort to educate voters is a first for NBA2K but one that he believes the company will take on in the future.

Before the advent of YouTube and Twitch and a game world that is interwoven with social media, advocating for voter education the way "NBA 2K21" is going about it might have been a challenge, if not impossible. But experts like Nooney said it appears this moment is ripe for the marriage of politics and video games.

"It's hard to not reckon with the incredible cultural force that they are and the way they're changing the way our platform economies work right now," Nooney said. "They're very obviously a place where lots of young people, especially, spend their time, so if those are the demo you're looking to turn … then that is a primary place to raise awareness."