Fantasy Election ’12, gamifying civic engagement: lessons from MTV

The following guest blog post is written by Jason Rzepka, vice president of public affairs at MTV. 

In October 2011, Knight Foundation invited me to come down to Miami and join a small, world-class group of thinkers and doers pioneering new ways to engage citizens in American democracy.  I always feel like an imposter in groups like these, but we had a nutty idea for the 2012 elections and I was determined to see if the folks in the room thought it would work.  Dozens of us at MTV had just spent months totally reimagining our approach to youth political engagement, and in the process, we stumbled upon a novel idea: Fantasy Football for a Presidential Election.

I was lucky enough to end up in a breakout session with Knight Foundation president and CEO, Alberto Ibargüen, who thankfully, didn’t think our idea was nutty at all – he thought it was promising.  After a series of conversations and a pledge from MTV to widely share what worked and what didn’t about the game, Knight generously agreed to match MTV’s $250,000 investment in “Fantasy Election” and help bring it to life.

Thus began our experiment trying to “gamify” civic engagement and political accountability.  Now it’s time for me to make good on my end of the bargain and publicly own the successes and failures of Fantasy Election ‘12, so you can learn from what worked for us and avoid what didn’t.

MTV Fantasy Election ‘12” was an innovative online game that gave citizens a new way to hold candidates accountable and rewarded players for getting involved in the 2012 elections. Inspired by the popularity of Fantasy Football, Fantasy Election enabled users to draft a team of candidates vying for the presidency or a seat in Congress. Players earned and lost points based on how their candidates behaved in the real world. Candidate performance was determined through objective data fed to MTV by over a dozen leading non-partisan organizations, in five key categories: constituent engagement, honesty, transparency, civility, and public opinion. 

Players of Fantasy Election could also earn bonus points for learning more about the election, by engaging and participating in the electoral process or by testing their political knowledge.  Every player had a chance to win one of thousands of prizes, from big-ticket items like a trip to the MTV Video Music Awards or $25,000 cash, to small prizes like $10 gift cards.   

If you want to learn more about how scoring worked, who all the partners were and how people engaged with the game, you can head over to and download the whitepaper we just released.  In the interest of brevity, I’m going to focus here on two key findings especially relevant to those interested in applying game mechanics to civic engagement.

1. Don’t be afraid of self-interest.  At this point, I’ve lost track of how many gatherings I’ve been to – typically arranged by well-intentioned, connected and patriotic people – in which groups of intellectuals spend hours trying to figure out how to increase civic engagement in America.  Most of the people I encounter at these gatherings tend to be fixated on 17 of John F. Kennedy’s most famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  I, too, am inspired and mobilized by those words and committed to answering JFK’s timeless call.  I just don’t believe that those 17 words can be our only strategy when trying to increase civic participation today.

When MTV set out to build a game layer on top of the 2012 elections, we knew we needed to have a national leaderboard, along with ways for members of our audience to compete against their friends and give out points for actions we’d like to see citizens take in an election year – namely getting informed on the candidates and issues, making their voices heard and registering to vote.  However, we didn’t want to simply award points with no real world value; the points had to be redeemable for stuff young people actually wanted.  So we developed a significant prizing component for Fantasy Election ’12, including daily, weekly, monthly and end-of-game prizes.  There were 3,000 total and the large majority were smaller, more attainable rewards like $10 iTunes and cards.

We felt that prizing could help lure those members of our audience exhibiting “election avoidance” to join the game and get involved in the 2012 elections.  The good news is that it worked: in an end of game poll, 75 percent of players said the primary reason they joined Fantasy Election was to win prizes.  But here’s an even better statistic: 47 percent also said they became more active or involved in a political issue or campaign as a result of playing Fantasy Election

The lesson here is that if you’re trying to reach and activate the disaffected, you have to be willing to meet them where they are.  I didn’t care what a player’s motivation was for joining or playing Fantasy Election, I just wanted to get them into the game, have them recruit their friends…and get more involved in the 2012 elections (than they would have been without the game).  When you consider that nearly 60 percent of those we polled said they increased how often they read online news sources as a result of Fantasy Election, you have to think there might be an even bigger opportunity here.

2. When considering gamification, think American Express – not Halo 4.  Let me be clear: making a good game is hard.  Making a great game is super hard.  Making a great cause game, while it’s been done, is almost impossible.  If your core expertise is community organizing or civic literacy or voter registration, it’s probably a terrible idea for you to try and develop a video game that advances your work.  But you’d be wise to consider incorporating gamified techniques to advance your goals.

Lots of people get hung up on the “game” in “gamification” and automatically think Angry Birds, Farmville and Call of Duty.  The thing is, the folks who make those games get paid lots of money to make them and they fail way more often than they succeed.  If you try and make a game like that, your “serious game” is still going to be judged – and compete for mindshare – against the very high bar set by “fun games,” and you’ll lose.  You’ll probably end up wasting lots of money and time and you won’t reach very many people.

Let’s think about the “game” of American Express for a moment though.  American Express gives you points for each dollar you spend using their cards.  Those points are redeemable for real world prizes like airline tickets.  When you cross certain point thresholds, you level up to gold or platinum status.  When that happens, you feel like you’re winning.

The most successful facet of Fantasy Election ’12 was actually more analogous to American Express than Fantasy Football.  On a lark, we developed a feature called “Bonus Points” that isn’t native to Fantasy sports.  The idea was that players could earn extra points for reading news articles about the election, watching election-related programming, checking in to campaign-related events (using social apps like Foursquare and GetGlue), answering trivia questions and more.  We had no idea if players would engage with this part of the game, but we figured it would give them more ways to be involved on a daily basis.  It was a runaway success.

In just two months, the roughly 20,000 players who signed up to play Fantasy Election took nearly 500,000 “bonus points” actions.  This included reading approximately 235,000 articles on and BuzzFeed Politics, answering political trivia questions 160,000 times, checking into political programming nearly 40,000 times, checking into real world political events more than 2,200 times and more than 3,700 people signed up for a voter registration deadline reminder.  We can’t know if players would have taken all these actions even if they weren’t playing Fantasy Election, but we do know that more than a quarter of those we polled said the only reason they took a recent civic action was because they were playing the game.

So those are some of the exciting things that happened in our Fantasy Election experiment.  But there are a number of results I’m not very proud of.  For example, during the two months the game was active, only around 20,000 people played.  Of the roughly 140,000 people who visited, less than 8 percent matriculated all the way into an active league.  Less than 15 percent of those who played were non-white.  And while we knew the scoring system we created for candidates was imperfect, we didn’t know that due to a paucity of data on those running for the House of Representatives, hundreds would only get scored on one or two values (e.g. transparency or constituent engagement), thereby creating a distorted view of how many candidates were delivering on “what voters should expect from those running for elected office.”  

We’ve documented some of the things that didn’t work with Fantasy Election and you can read all about them by downloading our whitepaper.  The truth is that any groundbreaking civic initiative is going to have its successes and failures – and we should be heartened by the failures, as they remind us we’re taking risks that haven’t been taken before.  Frankly, if you’re not failing, you’re probably not taking big enough risks.  Ultimately, what’s most important is that we learn from each experiment and share the findings widely, so others can build upon that knowledge and use it to pioneer the next wave of civic innovation.  I hope you can learn something from what we did with Fantasy Election ’12, and if you do, I hope you’ll build on the learnings, take more risks and share your future successes and failures with me.

By Jason Rzepka, senior vice president of communications and public affairs at MTV. 

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