Is your favorite presidential candidate a gamer? Do they spend time courting the gamer vote? When will they introduce video games as part of their official policy platform to improve the United States? If you follow US politics, you might find those questions a little absurd, given the other pressing issues the country faces. How can celebrating games and gamers possibly be as important as climate change, political corruption, rising inequality or dozens of other serious concerns? The truth is, games can help solve some of America’s worst problems, and gamers hold the votes.
It’s no secret that games have gone mainstream, but the most recent demographic data on gamers in America is particularly eye-opening. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s Essential Facts compilation of 2015, 155 million Americans play video games. Based on American census data from 2012, that’s roughly half of the entire nation. Even more surprising, the average gamer is 35 years old, and only 26% are under the voting age. That means there are approximately 115 million voting-age gamers in the country.
To put that further into perspective, the Federal Election Commission reported the total number of ballots cast in the 2012 presidential election was 129,085,403. If every gamer voted, they could account for almost every vote in the last election, save about 15 million. Quite a formidable bloc, don’t you think? And yet you have probably never heard of any candidates scurrying to secure the gamer vote like they do the white, black, Christian or women’s votes.
Should they? While gamers are obviously not a politically, racially, or economically homogenous group, what they all have in common is a love of games. To gamers, our very favorite games are often our favorite pieces of art, literature or music all rolled into an immersive gameplay experience. But games have much more to contribute to society than entertainment and escapism. In Jane McGonigal’s bestseller Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, McGonigal tells us how we can leverage the principles of positive psychology and social interaction infused in games to tackle our problems in the real world.
As McGonigal writes:
“A good game is a unique way of structuring experience and provoking positive emotion. It is an extremely powerful tool for inspiring participation and motivating hard work. And when this tool is deployed on top of a network, it can inspire and motivate tens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of people at a time…The great challenge for us today, and for the remainder of the century, is to integrate games more closely into our everyday lives, and to embrace them as a platform for collaborating on our most important planetary efforts.”
The time is ripe for games that focus our attention outward, to the problems in our society, rather than inward, on ourselves. Just earlier this week, a young high school student made news by hiding a Space Invaders-like game into Rand Paul’s presidential campaign app. Wouldn’t a more dedicated game that fostered grassroots activism or voter education be a huge boon to whichever candidate tapped into our huge population of gamers? So far there hasn’t been an attempt on such a scale, by ambitious game developers or savvy election candidates. But for the sake of argument, let’s take a look at some of the current presidential candidates and their histories with video games.
The Democratic establishment favorite actually has a noteworthy history of engaging games and gamer culture. A famous photo from 1993 shows her playing a Nintendo Game Boy on a flight from Austin, Texas to Washington, D.C. That doesn’t quite make her a stalwart defender of games, though. In 2005, she sponsored legislation called the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would have criminalized sales of Mature or Adults Only games to minors, lamenting “If you put it just really simply, these violent video games are stealing the innocence of our children.” The bill never became law. Since then we haven’t heard much from Clinton on the topic of video games, but it seems unlikely that we’ll hear anything now, given that she has been notoriously vague about her stances on issues as big as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Ah, The Donald. Bringing racism, sexism, and demagoguery back with gusto and bad haircuts, but without the blessings of the Koch brothers. Trump is currently smearing the rest of the Republican candidates in all kinds of polls, and he doesn’t like video games. A tweet of his from 2012 bemoans, “Video game violence & glorification must be stopped—it is creating monsters!” Clearly, Trump buys the idea that video games cause aggressive and violent behavior, but the public at large is much more skeptical of that claim. And, as it turns out, some game designers don’t like The Donald either. Mexican game developers KaraOculta recently released “Trumpéalo,” which allows the player to hurl soccer balls, shoes, tequila bottles and cactus plants at a cartoon likeness of Trump. I think it’s safe to say we won’t see any revolutionary game design coming out of the Trump campaign.
The self-avowed socialist and independent Senator from Vermont has been leading one of the more surprising campaigns thus far into the election season. While Sanders doesn’t have much of a history of commenting on video games, he commands the attention of some of the gaming’s most important age demographics. Sanders’ dominance on Facebook – where he has 2 million likes compared to Clinton’s 1.3 million – indicates he is becoming very popular with millennial voters, who are likely gamers. Though Sanders still trails Clinton’s lead in general election polls, according to The Guardian, Sanders “consistently has the highest level engagement on his individual Facebook posts,” meaning more people like, share, and comment on his ideas. I see Sanders’ energetic fan base as the one that would be most likely to harness to constructive power of games.
The junior Senator from Texas is perhaps most famous for his orchestration of the federal government’s shutdown in fall 2013, but did you know he’s also a fan of Plants vs. Zombies 2, The Creeps! and Candy Crush? The Tea Party icon is self-admittedly a “video game addict” according to an interview with The Daily Beast. Cruz says he doesn’t have a console, because if he did, he would use it “far too much.” Beyond his own affinity for games, the only reference he’s made to games when it comes to public policy is when he referred to the Obama administration’s drone program as “video-game warfare.” While Cruz may be more relatable as a gamer than the average candidate, his fiercely conservative political positions may ultimately prove too unpopular with the majority of young and middle-aged Americans for his gamer cred to matter.
While some of our candidates have crossed paths with games before, unfortunately, games and gamers have been largely absent from American political discourse. It’s time to show our candidates that the democracy-enhancing potential of good games and motivated gamers is too important to be ignored.