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The gamer vote: Democrats lean into video games to aid Biden campaign

(Rob Dobi for The Washington Post)

On a Tuesday night, two weeks before the 2020 presidential election, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) “murdered” a star video game streamer in cold blood.

“It feels like an honor to get murdered by AOC,” said Imane “Pokimane” Anys, who played the murder mystery game “Among Us” with Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and a host of other notable streamers during an hours-long session on live-streaming platform Twitch.

At both the beginning and end of the stream, Ocasio-Cortez’s first on her newly minted Twitch channel, the congresswoman pleaded with viewers to register to vote and make a concrete plan to get to the polls on Election Day. The live video feed accumulated more than 1.5 million total views, according to stream analytics site Social Blade, with that number soaring to nearly 5 million less than a day later as more people watched the footage on demand.

While the stream was largely free of political commentary as Ocasio-Cortez completed the game’s tasks and mulled which players looked suspicious, she did take time to appeal to young voters on behalf of Democrat Joe Biden. “Please again make sure you register to vote, make your plan to vote,” she said.

It was the latest and most visible example of a concerted effort by politicians, the majority of them left-leaning, to tap into the voting power of video gamers, a group that includes a vast, young demographic that has stayed away from the polls in past elections.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez played ‘Among Us’ in a bid to get out the vote

A week earlier, the Biden campaign partnered with popular gaming news program KindaFunnyGames to provide a tour of a Biden-themed island in Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” Even before that, the campaign produced Biden yard signs players could use in the game.

The Democratic political action committee MoveOn has hosted Twitch streams featuring “Among Us” — a game in which voting is a core component — as well chats with the cast of “Hamilton” and left-wing mainstays like former Obama speechwriter and Crooked Media co-founder Jon Lovett. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James produced two video segments that will run in the video game “NBA2K21″ and feature animated appearances from ESPN host Maria Taylor and NBA all-star Trae Young as part of his broader “More Than a Vote” initiative. A number of others inside the gaming industry have catalyzed efforts to both register and turn out voters for the upcoming election, a movement reminiscent of MTV’s “Rock the Vote” campaign that began in 1990.

“The traditional methods we have to reach out to voters aren’t going to work this year,” said Rep. Josh Harder (D-Calif.). “We’re going to have to be a lot more creative about reaching out to voters and part of that is going to be connecting to them virtually.”

Harder, the top video game player in Congress based on his ranking in “League of Legends” and ongoing play of the games “Football Manager,” “Path of Exile” and “Crusader Kings,” knows the value of embracing new means to turn out young voters. He credited his use of Snapchat ads and outreach on other mediums frequented by younger voters for his narrow victory in 2018.

Within a week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and the Biden campaign held events in currently popular games. Coincidence, or trend that's here to stay? (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Then 32 years old, Harder flipped his central California district in an election he won by about 10,000 votes over Republican incumbent Jeff Denham. While his campaign employed traditional tactics like knocking on doors, he was also a consistent presence on new media. Young voter turnout in his district, defined as voters under age 34, more than tripled compared with the previous midterm election in 2014, rising from 15,566 to 47,353, according to figures from Political, Inc.

“It made all the difference in the world,” Harder said, referring to the increased turnout.

AOC playing ‘Among Us’ shouldn’t surprise you. Streams are a beloved pastime.

Though not previously thought of as a demographic to target, video game players constitute more than 163 million people of voting age, according to the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group for the gaming industry. Voting rates for people ages 18 to 24 have lagged behind all voters since at least 1966, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, but that cross-section can’t be ignored, since millennials are now the country’s largest generation and, combined with Gen Z, outvoted baby boomers in 2018.

Millennials are also the most Democratic-supporting generation, with a Pew study showing 59 percent of them “identify or lean toward” the Democratic Party.

“The biggest challenge we have reaching these voters is not someone else on the ballot, it’s cynicism and apathy,” Harder said, regarding how Twitch and similar platforms can be valuable to candidates. “We fight this by being authentic, the bulls--- meters for young people are extraordinarily high. Campaigns are pretty terrible at reaching those voters.”

Presidents, candidates and campaigns embracing video games is not new, with instances of placing campaign ads into games since 2008. In 2016, the Obama administration held an esports tournament in an effort to get people to sign up and raise awareness for the Affordable Care Act.

The latest efforts have co-opted influential video game streamers who have achieved their own measure of celebrity. Anys, better known to her 6 million Twitch and 2.5 million Twitter followers as Pokimane, is one such example. The close-knit relationships formed between streamers and their audiences, who can interact with them in real time via text chat and by making donations, help establish a level of access and trust most fans can’t achieve with Hollywood, sports or musical celebrities who are often cordoned off by velvet ropes. That difference in relationship could be particularly fruitful when it comes to voting.

The unique, unlikely celebrity of Tfue

Dan Schnur, a veteran of four presidential campaigns, including serving as national director of communications for John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, said that while innovative outreach moves can be helpful, the two most important factors that drive youth engagement are the candidates themselves, as well as direct appeals from people they know.

“The most effective way is through peer engagement,” Schnur said. “Research demonstrates that people are much less likely to be influenced by celebrity than by a friend or peer.”

Twitch, the most popular video game streaming site, claims 17.5 million average visitors and 600 billion hours watched last year. As such, it has been targeted by campaigns and PACs as a fertile space to promote their candidates. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) Democratic candidates Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang both launched channels on Twitch leading up to their party’s primaries. President Trump also launched a channel in October 2019 that accrued 143,000 followers despite a temporary suspension in June for what Twitch termed “hateful conduct.”

Jordan Uhl, who works with MoveOn and is a prolific left wing activist on social media, sees Twitch as uniquely primed to engage with young voters.

“I think that Twitch is different than other platforms because of the way you interact with your base there,” he said. “If I follow AOC on Twitter, I don’t feel like I know her. Even if she likes and replies, it’s separate and independent. It’s really siloed. But on Twitch, you see them, you hear them, they’re interacting with your messages. You really get to feel like you know the streamers."

Organizations more endemic to the gaming space have also plunged into voting-related causes ahead of the 2020 election. Gamers.Vote is a new, nonpartisan nonprofit created by World Poker Tour founder Steve Lipscomb and his son. The organization has partnered with streaming platforms and tournament organizers to direct gamers to state voter-registration sites. It has also teamed with the NBA and NFL, as well as Facebook, Twitch, Columbia Records, game publisher Take-Two Interactive and esports organization FaZe Clan.

“If you’re a gamer, you’re a voter — that’s my end goal here,” Christie St. Martin, the organization’s CEO, said. “And not just in presidential elections. We want those voices to be amplified in local and national races.”

While the most visible inroads into the gaming world seem tied to Democratic candidates, Republicans also reside in the space. Player nicknames or team tags featuring “MAGA” or “Trump” are readily found in the lobbies of multiplayer games like “Call of Duty.” Based on recent conversations with young voters across the country however, Trystine Payfer, communications director for the Young Republicans National Federation, says she believes those players would prefer politicians leave them alone rather than attempt to engage them in the gaming space.

“People are just tired of being forced into this same conversation no matter where they go: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the same [social justice] arguments are trending everywhere. … When they go on Twitch, they want this community that’s just for gaming,” she said, echoing a point that was raised by those on the left in response to the U.S. military streaming on Twitch. “It feels intrusive.”

Though different, the approaches of both the left and right toward the gamer vote seem to closely follow the overall campaign strategies for both Biden and Trump, according to Schnur.

“Historically, campaigns in both parties have tried to motivate their most loyal supporters and persuade undecided voters. That’s what Biden is doing,” Schnur said. “Trump’s campaign is almost singularly focused on turning out their own base.”

St. Martin, from Gamers.Vote, said she hopes her group can help make voting a “milestone experience, like turning 16″ and that her fellow gamers understand the role they can have in November. “I don’t think a lot of us knew how powerful our voice could be,” she said.

In Schnur’s eyes, that participation could be critical to the election’s outcome.

“Younger voters will be a key factor,” Schnur said. “The question isn’t whether young people will vote for Biden or vote for Trump. The key question is whether they’ll vote.”

Noah Smith is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and staff journalist for Direct Relief, a nonprofit. Follow his work on Twitter @Vildehaya.