WASHINGTON — Call it the age of PlayStation politics.
Where Bill Clinton went on MTV and Barack Obama seized on social media, modern-day Democrats see online video gaming as the next high-tech frontier for reaching young voters.
And a Canadian company is helping to lead the virtual charge.
Toronto-based Enthusiast Gaming was at the cusp of the presidential effort last year, helping to stitch Joe Biden's brand and message into a customized map for the wildly popular game "Fortnite."
Prior to the election, fans of Nintendo's "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" downloaded Biden and Kamala Harris avatars and decorated their islands with Biden-Harris lawn signs.
And two weeks out from election day, New York rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and fellow progressive Rep. Ilhan Omar attracted nearly 440,000 viewers — unheard of for political figures — when they played "Among Us" live on the streaming site Twitch.
The AOC livestream was so popular, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh quickly jumped at the opportunity to engage the popular progressive firebrand in a cross-border rematch — an event that raised more than US$200,000 for anti-poverty endeavours in the U.S.
For Adrian Montgomery, Enthusiast Gaming's 40-something CEO, the intersection of video games and political campaigns in 2020 has been nothing short of seminal.
"This was such an interesting moment that's going to change political discourse, and it was pretty cool to be a part of it," Montgomery said in an interview.
He likened it to Clinton's famous sunglasses-and-saxophone appearance on the Arsenio Hall show in 1992, or a Playboy interview in 1976 that nearly ended Jimmy Carter's career.
"I see the Joe Biden campaign using video games and AOC and 'Fortnite' takeovers as similarily transformational, and I think it's going to change how young people are treated in future elections," he said.
"They certainly have proven that they do come out and vote and they can make a difference. And so I think that's going to put wind in our sails."
There was more to the Biden-Harris "Fortnite" map than just campaign billboards and "Build Back Better" sloganeering.
Gamers who took on the map were confronted with six unique challenges to complete, all of them steeped not only in the lore of the former Delaware senator, but also his campaign goals and messages.
Players were tasked with gathering industrial waste from "Aviator River," retrofitting an auto factory to build electric cars with solar power; and installing 5G towers throughout the map "to ensure every American has access to broadband."
Along the way, they were exhorted to send text messages or visit websites in order to receive detailed instructions on how to obtain mail-in ballots or vote in person on election day.
Montgomery will take part in a panel at the Canadian Club in Toronto on Tuesday, talking gaming and politics with Allison Stern, who headed up the digital partnerships project for the Biden campaign. They'll also be joined by Heidi Browning, the chief marketing officer for the National Hockey League.
Video games, already a US$150-billion colossus that dwarfs both the music and film industries, represent an untapped resource that found an even firmer footing in a year when people around the world were forced to stay in their homes.
Online games, which can provide players with a unique sense of connection and community even from a distance, were made for the moment, Montgomery said.
And with speculation already rampant about the possibility of an election in Canada this year, he sounds excited about the prospects.
"It's very rare when you can reach young people at scale, and you can do it in a way that they'd be receptive to," he said.
"We're not currently engaged, but I think we obviously have the track record. And it would be interesting to extrapolate that into other endeavours and other campaigns."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2021.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press