Student Well-Being

MTV Digital Game Models a Fantasy Presidential Election

By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times — September 11, 2012 5 min read
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Hangovers, breakups, Katy Perry lyrics—millennials are notorious for posting information online that older generations find either too personal or too trivial to share. But there is one topic where young people cry TMI—politics. At least that’s what MTV found in a 2011 poll of some of its 15- to 24-year-old viewers, only 36 percent of whom said they would post a political opinion on a social-media site. By contrast, 64 percent said they would share an opinion about a movie, song, or piece of art.

Their reluctance to engage politically online reflects a larger generational ambivalence about government, and one that could reverberate at voting booths in November: Eighteen- to 29-year-olds helped drive Barack Obama to victory in 2008 through record turnouts. According to the U.S. Census, this group made up 17 percent of eligible voters in 2008; it now makes up 24 percent.

Aware of its audience’s hesitance to talk politics, MTV has set about crafting a novel way to draw in the demographic this election year. The youth-oriented cable network recently launched MTV Fantasy Election, an online political game modeled on fantasy sports leagues.

Players will draft a team of candidates vying for the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives and earn points for how the politicians perform on a number of criteria. Using data from nonpartisan organizations such as PolitiFact,, and RealClearPolitics, candidates are awarded or deducted points on issues such as the transparency of their fundraising, the accuracy of their campaign statements, and their place in the polls.

Playing Politics

A variety of interactive games and online resources are available to spark student interest in issues that will be front and center during the fall’s presidential campaign. Here is a sample of some of those games and online resources.

Budget Hero—Produced by the St. Paul, Minn.-based American Public Media, this free Web game allows players to create their own federal budget based on data and information from forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office. Players control each piece of the budget, keeping an eye on the values that they’ve chosen to focus on—such as energy, national security, the environment, or school funding—as well as the debt meter, to track progress.

MTV Fantasy Election—Based on the popular Fantasy Football leagues, this free MTV game for youths allows them to choose political teams made up of the real candidates for this year’s presidential and congressional elections. Each team earns points based on how candidates behave in the real world throughout the campaign. Players also earn points by reading news articles and attending political events.

Rand McNally’s Play the Election—This free online tool introduces students to the election process through online games and resources. Created for students in grades 7-12, the collaborative resource includes 13 lesson plans, an interactive electoral map, short games, and a platform that enables teachers to create their own election-related games for students.

U.S. Political Conventions and Campaigns Open Course—This course, created by the Boston-based Northeastern University on an open-source platform for anyone to access for free, aims to inform students, educators, and members of the public about presidential campaigns and political conventions. The website is divided into five sections—history, campaign finance, nominations and conventions, policy and platforms, and media and technology—all of which include videos, lists of key players, lesson plans, and a quiz.

Youth Leadership Initiative—This website was created by the Charlottesville, Va.-based University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and includes access to an interactive online legislative simulation and online mock elections, as well as lesson plans about civics topics for teachers to help get students involved in the political process. All resources are free with registration.

SOURCE: Education Week

In a beta version of the game that MTV began testing this summer, the Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, collected points for engaging with constituents in a town hall meeting, but lost them for failing to disclose more information about his finances. President Obama, meanwhile, gained points for interacting on Twitter and Facebook, but lost them for a campaign video that claimed Mr. Romney would replace Medicare with “nothing but a voucher.”

The aim of the game, MTV President Stephen Friedman said, is to grab the attention of a generation that has soured on the political process. After turning out for the 2008 election at the highest rate since 1972 (the first year 18-year-olds could vote), 18- to 29-year-olds were hit especially hard by the flagging economy. Young Americans suffer a worse-than-average unemployment rate and the heavy burden of student-loan debt.

“This audience has got a complicated relationship with politics,” Mr. Friedman said. “Right now, politics for them is a bit like the third rail. Four years ago, [youth] engagement levels were at record highs. The level of expectation and hope was so high that our audience, as they hit the wall of this economy, were like, ‘What happened?’ They’re very disengaged and disillusioned.”

According to a poll conducted in June by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 59 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they “have given quite a lot of thought to the election"; that’s down from the 67 percent who said that at the same point in the 2008 race, the biggest drop of any age group.

The Power of Play

To get millennials, generally defined as the generation born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, thinking harder about the election, MTV has turned to a format the age group is very comfortable with—games. Mr. Friedman said MTV was inspired by the success of the online game Darfur Is Dying, which MTVu, the network’s college channel, had helped sponsor in 2006.

In that game, which was designed by students at the University of Southern California, players are refugees looking for food and shelter and trying to avoid militiamen. Despite the serious content, the game managed to attract more than 1 million players from around the world, and prompted discussion and publicity about Darfur.

Critics, however, worried that the game oversimplified the crisis, which also is potentially an issue for a game that deals with complicated election-year issues such as health care, taxes, campaign finance, and fiscal policy.

The first order of business, though, is to get young people to pay attention at all, Mr. Friedman said. “We’re hoping we can harness the power of video-game play in a way that gets this election under the skins of our audience,” he said.

For 20 years, MTV has played a big role in the political education of young people. In 1992, the network launched its Choose or Lose campaign to register young voters, and it was at a 1994 MTV town hall that President Bill Clinton answered the question “boxers or briefs?” In 2008, MTV began accepting political advertising, and it was during the MTV Movie Awards in June of this year that the Obama re-election campaign debuted its first national TV spot, featuring actress Sarah Jessica Parker. According to Mr. Friedman, the network has reached out to both the Obama and Romney campaigns about future candidate spots, as well as interviews and town halls.

‘Tough Times’

In 2008, Mr. Obama was the chief beneficiary of the high youth turnout, and his campaign has made efforts to reignite that enthusiasm this year, including launching campus-based get-out-the-vote initiatives, putting the president on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” where he “slow-jammed” his policy on student-loan interest rates with a backup band.

Republicans have been trying to appeal to millennials’ fiscal woes, with the youth-focused GOP super-PAC Crossroads Generation soliciting videos online from young voters, “who have faced tough times in the Obama economy.”

“Even if we know it’s going to be tough to win the youth vote, it’s important to try to make that case,” said Kristen Soltis, the vice president of the Winston Group, a Washington-based opinion-research firm, who is serving as a consultant to Crossroads Generation.

“Winning young voters is an investment in your future,” she said. “What happens in November will reverberate for decades to come.”

Copyright (c) 2012, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2012 edition of Education Week as Online Offering Aims to Spark Political Engagement


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