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May 16, 2012, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production
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For its 2012 elections coverage, MTV swaps out citizen journalism for gamification

MTV, the Knight Foundation, and a collection of news organizations are teaming up to produce a fantasy-football-style election game.

Nearly 17 million Americans have reached voting age in the four years since the last presidential election cycle. This year’s pool of youth voters includes 46 million people in the United States, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. But the youth vote is notoriously elusive.

Even in 2008, when young people turned out in huge numbers and the under-30 vote tipped the scales for Barack Obama in some key swing states, youth turnout still clocked in below the record-high of 55.4 percent in 1972. In the 2010 midterms, turnout among young voters dipped slightly below where it was in 2006. There’s also a significant education gap — 26 percentage points in 2008 — that shows college students vote in much higher numbers than young people not enrolled in college.

Surveyed about why they opt out of voting, eligible youth consistently say that they aren’t interested in politics. Other common explanations for staying away from the ballot box: Being too busy, turned off by political vitriol, or just forgetful.

Taking cues from fantasy football, MTV is partnering with a group of news organizations on a game they hope will engage youth with elective politics. The network has long experimented with ways to engage young voters, but this year it’s trading citizen journalism — in 2008, MTV picked one correspondent in each state and D.C. to cover the presidential race — for a gamification approach to elections coverage.

“Millennials are increasingly viewing life through a game lens, even just [using] #winning or #fail,” Jason Rzepka, MTV’s vice president of public affairs, told me. “Game vernacular has become a part of youth vernacular. By putting that competitive layer on top of it — a lot of people are inherently competitive, so if the path to winning is being informed, there could be a really great civic benefit.”

MTV is using a $250,000 Knight Foundation grant to launch a beta version of Fantasy Election ’12 this summer, with a formal public launch on Sept. 1. Here’s how the game works: Players and their friends sign up to compete against one another in a league. Each player drafts a 12-person team made up of Congressional and presidential candidates. When the candidates on your virtual team do well in real life, you get points. If the candidates on your team are faltering, you have the opportunity to trade them. The game emphasizes mobile — players using smartphones can check stats from their phones, receive push notifications about candidate performance, and check into various campaign-related events from anywhere.

In fantasy sports, performance is based on real-life statistics — touchdowns, RBIs, goals scored — whereas measuring political gains is rarely as straightforward. In an attempt to quantify political performance in as objective a way possible, game developers opted to focus on data. Here are some of the measures that MTV will track:

— A candidate’s willingness to take Project Vote Smart’s Political Courage Test, which gets them on-record about issues like same-sex marriage and abortion

— Aggregated polling data from Real Clear Politics

— Fact checks from PolitiFact

— Frequency of Twitter and Facebook activity as a way to gauge engagement with potential constituents

— Civility as tracked by the Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes all broadcast ads aired by or on behalf of candidates in every media market

— Funding disclosure as monitored by the Center for Responsive Politics

Fantasy Election ’12 players rack up points if a candidate on his or her roster says something rated “true” by PolitiFact, fills out the Political Courage Test, runs positive campaign ads, etc.

“When the candidates do good, you do good,” Rzepka says. “And when you get a push notification that says [Republican Sen. Chuck] Grassley just told a baldfaced lie, and got a ‘pants on fire’ [rating] from PolitiFact, you’re going to say, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to drop this guy.'” (For the record, Grassley’s never been so rated.)

There are plenty of ways to pick apart MTV’s measures as imperfect. Some candidates are fact-checked more than others. Fact checkers, like refs, don’t always make the right call. Relying on polling data arguably discourages critical thinking by voters — and so on. But the structure of the game is built around using data as much as possible as a way to minimize subjectivity.

“We pay a lot of attention to data, and we think the rise of data is really important especially as we’ve lost population in newsrooms,” said Michael Maness, the Knight Foundation’s vice president of journalism and media innovation. “Anything that involves money is quantifiable as a data set and is less subjective.” (Full disclosure: This site is also a Knight grantee.)

There are other ways that Fantasy Election ’12 players can rack up points — like by registering to vote, and by using social geography apps to “check in” to watching debates, for example. The goal is to engage players with the election process in real time, and to draw in those who have been put off by elective politics as “too densely packed with jargon” or otherwise “impenetrable,” Rzepka says.

The decision to go with gamification over citizen journalism is a reflection of how the news industry has evolved since 2008. In the same way that a youth-only town hall meeting was a landmark move by MTV in 1992 but breaks no new ground today, MTV’s citizen journalism experiment made sense four years ago more than it would now.

“When that was conceived and announced, the idea of citizen journalism was still relatively novel,” Rzepka said. “I think we learned a lot about the potential and the pitfalls for that kind of approach…We did see a lot of great content developed by those young contributors, but I think we also realized with this cycle that more isn’t necessarily better.”

Instead, MTV hopes it can help demystify the election for as many people as possible. Rzepka says the network wants to help young voters break down the key issues and come to conclusions themselves — the goal isn’t to tell people how to vote, but to help them figure out how to decide for themselves. (And while the game is targeted for teens and twentysomethings, grownups can play, too. We asked.)

If all goes as planned, the result of the game will be a real-life election that features higher participation from youth and encourages real-life candidates to be civil, transparent and honest. That’s what makes the name Fantasy Election a double entendre — the “fantasy” refers to the nature of the game, but also the real-world outcome that game developers are hoping to see.

“It’s pretty pie-in-the-sky,” Rzepka says. “It’s a moon shot.”

POSTED     May 16, 2012, 10 a.m.
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