If you’re not having fun this election season, Jane McGonigal wants to help.
When Pokémon Go launched two weeks after the Brexit vote this summer, McGonigal, a game designer, was struck by the difference in engagement between the game and the political discourse. People playing Pokémon Go–the fastest-growing game ever–were suddenly exercising when they hadn’t before, or meeting people despite social anxiety. The game was motivating people in ways and at a scale that seemed unprecedented.
In the U.K. vote, by contrast, people felt profoundly disempowered: The next day, many voters reported that they didn’t think their vote would actually count.
As she thought about the consequences of the U.S. presidential race, McGonigal started to wonder if she could create an experience for the election cycle that would replicate the emotional pull, and sense of empowered fun, of Pokémon Go. Shortly thereafter, she happened to get a call from MoveOn.org asking her to design a game for the election.
The game, which will be unveiled on October 10, does two things. First, it helps you find people in your social network who happen to live in swing states and who are undecided. Then it gives you dozens of new approaches to help convince them to vote–and to vote for the candidate you believe in (because this is MoveOn, that means not Trump).
At a recent presentation at Applied Innovation Exchange in San Francisco, run by Reinvent, McGonigal introduced the game. “The premise of this game is that your social network is full of swing voters,” she says. “We’re going to show you how to find them and influence them.”
Typically, people trying to influence swing voters go door to door canvassing or make phone calls to strangers. “The traditional response, as folks who’ve participated in election work know, is either make calls to voters you don’t know in those states, or you’re asked to hop on a bus or get in a car if you live here and drive to Nevada and talk to voters there,” says Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org. “Who again, you don’t know.”
Talking to a voter you know is more effective, but people often tend to assume–in part because of the filter bubble of social media–that most people they know already agree with them about the election.
“We surround ourselves with people like us, particularly online, and social networking tools like Facebook reinforce that,” says Sheyman. “You interact with content you’re familiar with, that you like. You’re shown more of that content, and eventually you’re shown only content you agree with. Through what I think is confirmation bias, we start to believe that everyone we know thinks like us.”
Of course, when people spend a little time thinking about it, they realize that’s not true. An uncle in Virginia might be planning to vote for Trump, or a friend in Ohio might not plan to vote at all. A relative in Iowa might plan to vote for a third-party candidate. With more tenuous connections, the list might be much longer.
“I was stunned to find that 30% of my followers on Twitter don’t know how they’re voting yet, which is astonishing,” says McGonigal. “All of those people, I now have a strategy to influence.”
A key part of the game is to try to make that experience fun–something it usually isn’t. “Imagine if I came up to you and said, ‘You know that Uncle Hugh you think probably disagrees with you and might be over for Thanksgiving?'” says Sheyman. “‘Can you call him and talk to him about the election?’ That doesn’t sound that appealing off the bat.”
Though the game is fully under wraps now, McGonigal says it avoids the gamification techniques that have been used in some attempts at voter engagement in the past–with incentives like points or badges or leaderboards, which may or may not actually motivate anyone.
“We’re not doing any of that,” says McGonigal. “This is a game; this is not gamification. What we’re trying to do is actually give people superpowers. When I design a game, I try to imagine what skill or power can I give people that will make them feel stronger, more capable, more awesome, than they have ever felt in that context before.”
McGonigal also spent the last few months studying what made Pokémon Go so successful–factors such as what she calls “on-demand chances to succeed” and a sense of abundance–and incorporated those into the new game. Like Pokémon Go, the game will let people play anytime, wherever they are.
“What if literally every moment between now and [November 8] I had a chance to do something that had an impact on the election?” she says. “Wake up, pull out my phone, swing a voter. Convince them to vote the way I want them to vote. That would feel good, right? Just like catching a Pokémon, I’m just going to walk around all day long swinging voters.”
Though it’s a new tool, MoveOn.org believes there’s evidence that it might work. One to one, authentic conversations with voters are proven to be powerful, especially with voters with someone knows. And in early tests of the game, the techniques have been successful.
“I’ve had some of the most amazing conversations with my parents, who vote typically in a way that I am not excited about,” says McGonigal.
The game–whose name will be announced on October 10–is temporarily called Top Secret Election Game.
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