Are we on the brink of a political takeover of Twitch?
That’s the lingering question after New York City Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez streamed herself last week playing the social deduction game Among Us on the platform. Will politicians begin to stream more to connect with young voters? As younger people seek office, the likelihood they will have grown up with Twitch gives rise to a broad array of new avenues to foster and maintain voter engagement. As the live-streaming on Twitch continues to expand beyond gaming, it’s poised to disrupt politics in the 2020s as Twitter did in the 2010s.
Along with Minneapolis Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, Ocasio-Cortez was joined by gamer Imane “Pokimane” Anys, YouTuber JackSepticEye, and political commentator Hasan Piker during the three-and-a-half hour event.
Ocasio-Cortez managed to pull in more than 430,000 concurrent viewers on her main channel and an estimated 100,000 more on other streamers’ channels. Her Twitch debut ranks third among the platform’s all-time concurrent viewer numbers, behind the 600,000 people that tuned in to watch Drake play Fortnite with Tyler “Ninja” Blevins in 2018 and the return of the controversial streamer Guy “DrDisrespect” Beahm in August 2020, which drew more than 500,000 viewers.
The 31-year-old legislator is no stranger to the gaming space, and the credibility she’s managed to build among gaming fans through her social media channels is a key reason for the stream’s success.
She’s mentioned multiple times that she plays League of Legends, an online arena fighting game. In July, she tweeted that she made it to Silver III in League, which requires a time commitment and skill level that places Ocasio-Cortez well above the occasional dabbler. Not too shabby for a busy congresswoman.
Reaching out to new and younger voters is nothing new for politicians, but doing so effectively has consistently been a challenge. But while Hillary Clinton’s clunky 2016 plea for voters to “Pokemon Go to the polls” rang hollow, Democrats have reached out to younger voters through video games throughout 2020.
In May, Ocasio-Cortez asked her Twitter followers if she could visit their Animal Crossing islands, allowing everyday people to virtually interact with a member of congress. Joe Biden’s campaign took note of this and launched its own Animal Crossing island, where visitors can view signs and be directed to the “I Will Vote” website run by the Democratic Party. Biden’s foray into gaming wasn’t quite as warmly received as that of Ocasio-Cortez, drawing flak from a Trump campaign official, Fox News, and observers like The Hill’s Krystal Ball.
Nevertheless, video games have caught on as a new form of voter outreach. So what’s the difference between Clinton, Biden, and Ocasio-Cortez? AOC actually plays video games, and discusses them with an easy familiarity, as Clinton or Biden might reference a sitcom.
What’s more, the majority of her Twitch stream wasn’t even all that political — both congresswomen spent most of their time making jokes about the game and their fellow players. It felt natural and refreshing.
A highlight compilation of Ocasio-Cortez's stream, via YouTube channel The Recount.
Amazon’s push to expand non-gaming content since acquiring Twitch is another factor in the success of Ocasio-Cortez’s stream, and further evidence of the platform’s potential as a means of political outreach.
In the last 30 days, Just Chatting streams — featuring content creators simply talking to friends or directly to their audience — were watched more than content pinned to League of Legends, Fortnite, and Among Us. In July 2020, Twitch launched a sports section, streaming Thursday NFL games and becoming the official streaming partner for USA Basketball. Ocasio-Cortez’s Among Us stream is the latest sign that Twitch’s audience will continue to expand beyond the hardcore gamer niche where it started.
While Twitch may be an attractive near-term option for Democrats, its current userbase makes Facebook a more appealing streaming option for Republicans. Only 44.8 percent of Facebook’s audience is younger than 34, while 73 percent of Twitch users are under 35. Facebook’s top 10 most-shared pages consistently lean toward conservative pundits like Fox News and Ben Shapiro. President Donald Trump has his own Twitch channel that mostly features live streams of his rallies. However, Twitch suspended his account in June for two weeks for “hateful conduct” due to the president’s remarks at his Tulsa, Oklahoma rally.
There aren’t any examples of Republican politicians streaming games with their constituents or fans, likely due to President Trump’s recent comments about the social dangers of gaming. Video games have been vilified by politicians on both sides the aisle since the 1990s, with everyone from Joe Lieberman, Hilary Clinton, and most recently President Trump claiming that virtual stabbings and shootings can lead to real-world violence.
“We must stop the glorification of violence in our society,” Trump told the nation after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio in August 2019. “This includes the gruesome and grisly video games that are now commonplace. It is too easy today for troubled youth to surround themselves with a culture that celebrates violence.”
The links between violent behavior and video games have long been debated, but multiple studies disprove any correlation. The British journal Royal Society Open Science published a 2019 study that concluded aggressive behavior in adolescents wasn’t linked to being a gamer.
A 2020 report from the Electronic Software Association noted that 214 million Americans, or more than three-quarters of U.S. households, play video games. Ocasio-Cortez’s stream started with one casual tweet — “anyone want to play Among Us with me on Twitch to get out the vote?” Now that every major political figure has a social media following, they are more approachable than ever. Kissing babies and shaking hands is no longer the only way to interact with a constituency.
By jumping into an impromptu game of Among Us, Ocasio-Cortez was doing something perfectly ordinary for many young Americans. Though the extraordinary success of the event will be tough to replicate right away, it’s a strategy we’re likely to see far more of in the years ahead.