Computer games are the new force for political engagement. Ignore them at your peril

Labour are the first party to embrace games as a way to spread a political message -- and it will pay off.

In 2017, two games, Fiscal Kombat and CorbynRun, kicked off a new interest in the value of using political games as campaigning tools in elections.

Fiscal Kombat, developed by Jean Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoumis team, and CorbynRun, developed by Labour’s Games for the Many, took both French and British general elections by storm, immediately going viral, garnering a huge number of downloads in short timeframes and exposing millions of players to the messaging of their respective parent campaigns.

Fiscal Kombat saw French presidential candidate Jean Luc Melenchon hustling his right-wing opponents of tax-avoided cash in order to fund his economic programme.

CorbynRun followed Jeremy Corbyn racing through British high streets, tackling Tory MPs and tax dodgers, launching Labour manifesto pledges, building a movement of nurses, Deliveroo riders, students and the low paid to overtake the Tory Battlebus and sweep Corbyn into Downing Street.

For a few weeks these games captured the mood of their respective elections.

CorbynRun spoke to thousands of Labour activists who’d seen the party’s fortunes rapidly improve in the space of just a few weeks where the upbeat movement focus of the game reflected the party leadership’s election strategy.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell hailed the success of the game as an effort to extend the range of political debate and activity beyond traditional forms of campaigning.

Where younger voters might easily dismiss and bin a political leaflet through the door, a short three minute game recommended by their friends on social media captures their attention in new ways.

Well designed political games open up a world of possibilities, a new frontier of political engagement. Games have the power to inspire, spark empathy and communicate complex political ideas in a fun and accessible way – and importantly, at massive scale.

CorbynRun was developed in just three weeks at the height of the election but resulted in engaging over two million people.

Fiscal Kombat and CorbynRun aren’t alone, Run it! Taipei! played a key role in the re-election of Taipei mayor Ko Wen-Je and a range of games came out of this year’s #ResistJam in response to the election of Trump.

We’re at the cutting edge of a new medium and we’re seeing more game developers and political groups take the jump and use games to get across their ideas.

Whilst this isn’t the first time political games are being developed, this is the first time major political parties have begun taking games seriously as a communicative medium.

Political games are growing in importance and reach due to the intersection of a range of compounding factors; it’s now easier to learn to code than ever before and increasing numbers of people are technically fluent.

The ubiquity of mobile devices and our changed relationship with technology has opened up the possibility space around digital campaigning – the success of Labour’s grassroots social media campaign versus the Conservatives negative social media attack ad focus is a testament to this new reality.

Fundamentally, the heightened political situation thanks to Brexit, Trump and the tenuous balance of forces in British politics has lowered the barriers to political participation. More people are getting involved in politics, joining parties, canvassing, creating political social content and now, making games.

Taking full advantage of this new development the Labour Party are now supporting Games for the Many to run a series of workshops bringing together games developers, designers and activists across the country to develop new games for the upcoming 2018 local elections and in preparation for another snap general election.

James Moulding is a political technologist and Co-Founder of Games for the Many. You can follow his work here.

Games for the Many are holding a political game jam in Manchester this February. See here for further detials.

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