Can online gaming influence a US presidential election?

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Media captionEngage President Patrick Ruffini explains how political gamification and Multiply engage voters in a social media world

First came Farmville. Then came FourSquare. But can games played online actually shape an election?

Political games have been around as long as politics. But advances in technology and social media could make them a huge factor in the upcoming US presidential election.

Gamification sounds like the latest in high-tech digital campaigning. In fact it's a centuries-old strategy taking on new life in the age of social media.

"Gamification is taking the rules of games - whether it's levelling, prizes [or] achievements - and the psychology of playing games and applying it to something that doesn't have that dynamic," says Peter Corbett, CEO of iStrategiesLab, a Washington DC-based interactive firm.

Consider FourSquare - the social media app asks users to "check in" at their current location using geotagging software. Users are rewarded points for each check-in, earn 'badges' for frequenting certain types of places (the JetSetter badge, for instance, is earned after checking into multiple airports), and compete against their friends to see who can rack up the most points each week.

In exchange, businesses lure patrons with FourSquare-specific specials and use FourSquare's data to learn about their customer base.

In the same way that FourSquare makes buying a cup of coffee a competitive event, political operatives are trying to harness the power of games to collect data and engage potential voters.

'Changed behaviour'

"What's happened over the last few years is that politicians, political parties, non-profits, and lobbyists have realised that games can be used to influence voter behaviour," says Gabriel Zichermann, the CEO of Gamification Co.

"Games are the best forum of behaviour modification therapy than we have," he says, adding that behaviour change has always been a huge part of politicking.

"It's always about influencing decision-making, and about engaging people to take a certain action: campaign, recruit your friends, vote for our candidate."

Digital advertising firm Engage is currently experimenting with online gamification for some of their political clients. They were part of the team that developed the "I Voted" badge on FourSquare, designed to increase awareness of election day and encourage voter turnout.

They also offer a social media platform, called Multiply, that integrates gamification techniques into a candidates' website. Visitors to the website of House Speaker John Boehner, for instance, can earn badges for checking in from the speaker's home state of Ohio, or by linking the page to their Facebook account.

"The user gets instant gratification, a sense of involvement and participation and gratitude," says Patrick Ruffini, the president of Engage. "The campaign gets data."

That data helps the candidate better organise and target potential voters, donors and volunteers.

Economy of scale

Political gamification is nothing new, says Mr Corbett. "Gamification and games are a very basic things that humans respond to. We've been playing games for 10,000 years.

"It's an easy way to engage a person in something they normally wouldn't be engaged in."

Long before the internet, campaign workers were keeping public point tallies of which volunteers had made the most phone calls and rewarding operatives who registered the most new voters.

But the scale and scope of the internet has made the implications of gamification much more important. "Now we have new tools," says Mr Corbett. "Before, you could maybe get someone to play a game across the city. Now you can get a million people over the course of a few days."

There is also a new type of voter, raised on the fast pace of internet interactions.

"They expect a more rewarding experience, and they expect a more immediate gratification," says Gamification's Gabriel Zichermann. "For them, it's about immediacy and feedback and reward and sociability. All of those things need to be present in a system in order to be interesting to this gamer generation."

Though the full impact of gamification has yet to be seen on the American election process, candidates are working to find the best ways to utilise it.

"We've seen little bits of gamification in previous campaigns," says Mr Zichermann. "We haven't yet seen the one campaign that brings them together.

"I will tell you that the major, expected candidates have all been sniffing around this topic."

Emerging 'crassness'

The idea of earning electoral support with digital badges and virtual points may seem vulgar.

And yet the language of politics overlaps strongly with the language of gaming: candidates compete; delegates are awarded.

Image caption You cannot vote from a smart phone, but games could help you support your candidate of choice

The process of gerrymandering, or re-drawing voting districts, is itself something of a game, in which participants try to rig the results in their favour.

Even the colour-coded maps used by the news networks on election night resemble a board game for adults.

But the business of electing a president is no game, and some people worry that the increased interest in gamification speaks to the worst part of American politics.

"There's a continuity within the crassness of elections that gamification plugs into very well," says Ian Bogost, director of the graduate program in digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"There's a cynicism and instrumentalism to the process that's meant to produce results for its participants, rather than for the citizens."

This isn't the fault of the games themselves, he says. Instead, the focus on high-tech gamification is the expected result of a political culture that places more emphasis on securing votes and "gaming" the system than debating and discussing policy.

But Mr Ruffini says that games cannot obstruct a poor message or lacklustre candidate.

"No matter how strong your social media message is, no matter how many incentives or badges or point you offer, it doesn't matter if your message doesn't resonate with the voters," says Mr Ruffini.

"You can't campaign on games alone."