227 million Americans play video games. That includes a grow number of US lawmakers, who are not only embracing video games as a hobby but incorporating them into their campaigns.
Video games come to Washington. A Politico Magazine article published in 2018 profiled a few members of Congress and their interest in video games. Reps. Scott Peters (D-CA) and Darrell Issa (R-CA) indicated video games provide a way for lawmakers of different parties to bond, while Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), now Governor of Colorado, said video games improve critical thinking skills.
- Polis isn’t wrong: Studies show moderate use of video games have cognitive benefits like enhancing mental agility and strategic thinking.
Politicians haven’t always liked video games, to say the least. In 1993, then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) first suggested banning violent video games, while then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) introduced legislation to add more restrictions to violent and sexually explicit games in 2005. Over the past 20-plus years, many politicians have at least partially blamed video games on mass shootings, including then-President Donald Trump with the 2018 Parkland High School shooting, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (D-CA) with the 2019 shooting in El Paso.
Video Games on the Campaign Trail
However, lawmakers’ changing attitudes on video games has coincided with political campaigns’ increased use of video games. In September 2020, the Biden-Harris campaign made available virtual yard signs that players of the game Animal Crossing could download and place in their virtual front yards. The COVID-19 pandemic may have also inspired the Biden-Harris campaign to dive into the world of virtual organizing, as many Democratic campaigns had suspended in-person events and shifted online due to the virus. But, the Biden-Harris campaign wasn’t the first political campaign to use video games – in 2008, the Obama-Biden campaign placed ads on virtual billboards in Madden NFL 09 and NBA Live 08.
Given the large number of Americans that play video games, it’s hard to deny the potential video games offer politically. Campaigns can use video games to target specific demographics such as men aged 18-49, who are disproportionately more likely to participate in gaming. And unlike print, radio, and television ads, video games offer an interactive format that can be potentially more persuasive than traditional forms of media.
That doesn’t mean video games are the new frontier for campaigns. Instances of campaigns ads in video games appear to be the exception, not the rule, and it’s unclear to what extent politics will encroach on the world of gaming. Most video game developers prefer to keep their products apolitical, largely to avoid pushback from their (mostly male) customers. Additionally, many people turn to video games as a way to take a break from aspects of the real world – like politics. While politicians may see video games as fertile ground for outreach, fear of backlash from developers and gamers could slow down the adoption of virtually campaigning as a major way to reach potential voters.