Fantasy Election ’12: Is MTV’s Gamification of the Youth Vote Itself a Fantasy?

 


Via Anthony Kosner @akosner, forbes.com

One of the disruptive trends that Marc Andreessen has identified in his Five Big Ideas is that, “Software will eat the world.” And one of the ways that this is playing out is in the social media-izing of everything, from friendship to shopping, activism to politics.

A related trend is the “gamification” of everything. Look at MassiveHealth’sEatery app that makes sharing what you are eating a constant social contest. MTV is trying something similar for politics with the launch today of their fantasy sports inspired game, Fantasy Election ’12.

As with any invasive trend, there is a period of percolation where the new idea establishes feeder roots in its attempt to consolidate as large an area as possible in the meme-space. We have been seeing this in the push and pull between social media companies (i.e., Facebook) and the public over online privacy. How much sharing is helpful to consumers and how much is just creepy and invasive? The lines keep moving.

“This can be a crash course in what people should demand from those pursuing the privilege of elected office,” Jason Rzepka, MTV’s vice president of public affairs, told CNN as he discussed details about the game prior to today’s launch. Fantasy Election ’12 will use the techniques of fantasy sports leagues to encourage civic engagement and voter participation in the upcoming election. Is this a glib fantasy, or could some serious good come from obsessive social gaming fun?

To get a read on the likelihood of success of the MTV effort, I reached out to Ben Sawyer, the founder of the Serious Games Initiative. In a recent interview,VentureBeat described Sawyer as, “is the co-founder of game-consulting firm Digitalmill and one of the pioneers in the field of Games for Health. He founded the Serious Games Initiative a decade ago as part of a U.S. government research effort into how games can accomplish useful ends beyond fun. In 2004, he also co-founded the Games for Health project, which seeks to use games to improve the state of health. The Games for Health project receives major funding from the Pioneer Portfolio of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.”

I asked Sawyer the simple (perhaps too simple) question posed in my headline and got back (almost instantly!) a very detailed and well considered response:

Well Jason Rzepka is an innovator. He’s constantly trying new ideas and getting things done. Not everything will have the final scale that is initially imagined I’m sure, but as a person, I wouldn’t bet against Jason himself.

The design sounds interesting and the analogy to fantasy sports I think is strong. One of the big opportunities with fantasy sports is it requires you to learn the players much more broadly then you would otherwise (having played fantasy sports I know this all-to-well) and so applying that same idea to legislative politics seems interesting to me. I’m not sure it’ll be a big element to presidential politics, but legislative politics could be really interesting here.

We did Budget Hero with American Public Media through the Serious Games Initiative housed at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in DC (www.budgethero.org) and it has similar goals of getting people to understand more about government and politics through games. Others like Ian Bogosthave done various types of candidate games, or news games about politics.

Another title I worked on was The Redistricting Game which focused on what happens when doing reapportionments (I served on a caucus reapportionment staff in ’93) and again we focused on the system vs. people.

The challenge MTV has, is that learning about people (i.e. candidates) is good—and the fantasy sports play pattern might work well there—but the goal should be for people to understand some of the underlying systems that will make up the rankings. If that begins to happen, you could really find more informed citizens, not just more informed fans of a particular candidate.

Interestingly, one of the issues in politics (having worked at it a bit as a national staffer) is that a lot of it is straight-forward math, and there is a system of math that underlies campaigns that goes beyond $ raised. So far, I’ve yet to see a game explain this very well. Not that this game should, it’s differently focused, but there is still a larger opportunity for people to understand campaigns, especially national and state-wide races better based on my experience both in campaigns, and in games.

Obviously at one point with the Choose or Lose efforts in the ’92 election MTV had a slightly more monolithic platform to use, so it’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison these days. But what they’re doing with games and social media not only seems better suited to the dispersed nature of media and their multitude of platforms, but also, perhaps, to helping people understand things more deeply then the infamous “Boxers or Briefs” question in the ’92 campaign.

The opportunity to use games and engage gamers (and non-gamers) through them around civics is fairly active. I’d look at the Pew research on gamers and civics for further insight in terms of numbers and data points.

There have been a series of commercial entertainment games about elections for years in the games space most notably The Political Machine from Stardock Systems but while good for political junkies, they’re not necessarily built on the mathematical models that we use in campaigns. They depict the facade of the system decently enough, but not necessarily the underlying math that drives campaign operations.

Like all of the encroachments of social media into real life, the question is not if, but how. Sawyer identifies the areas of civic engagement that he thinks games can help the most with. It’s not all or nothing. As with the social media activism of Invisible Children’s KONY2012 campaign, the question is not if it can be effective (clearly it already has) but how can it be the most effective. Similarly, MTV has an opportunity here to shape the expectations and, to a certain extent, the behaviors of young voters. Will this game make better citizens? Place your bets on how this fantasy will impact reality.

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