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Gamification in Elections (from Howard Dean to Hillary Clinton)

Published: Jun 9, 2017
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This is a screenshot from a game released by the Howard Dean campaign of 2003. The game is outdated and playing it now would be like going back to the first version of Dangerous Dave (remember that game?). But back then when ‘gamification’ was little more than a fad among computer science graduates the game garnered more than 100,000 players in the month leading up to the Iowa caucus.

Maybe the Howard Dean campaign isn’t the perfect example to showcase gamification, but it was his campaign that started testing the limits of gamification and paved the way for the game format as a political vehicle. It was 13 years later that the Hillary 2016 campaign would again bring the spotlight to gamification in election campaigning. And the ‘in elections’ part is important. We’ve always seen gamification in action. You’ve seen Nike do it with the Nike+ app, the US army did it with America’s Army, and, of course, you have Foursquare, the poster child for the gamification trend. Even that time you ‘strengthened’ your Linkedin profile was gamification in action.

In a  sense, campaigns were always following a rudimentary version of gamification. From when they put up phone banking leaderboards on a whiteboard which then evolved into a better looking and handier version of it on the computer screen, the essence of gamification always existed.  But until now, it didn’t receive that somewhat perfect form that it took with the 2016 Hillary app.


The app starts users off with a bare office which can be refurbished as you complete tasks and collect stars. Users can accumulate points by finishing tasks within the game. Those who earn enough stars also get physical rewards, like souvenirs signed by Clinton herself. And then there’s the good old leaderboard to score Clinton supporters based on who’s playing the best game.

So why this craze with making elections a game (as if it isn’t a big one already)? The intricacies of gamification are interesting. Think of all those nights that you stayed up late to level up on your favorite game, think of the euphoria that came with leveling up or seeing your name climb to the top of a leaderboard. Or you could just think of the fact that ‘Gaming’ is a $91 billion dollar industry.

What if all the fun and addicting elements that you found in games could be applied to real-world scenarios and productive activities?

Campaigns could get volunteers to endorse the candidate, share their content on social media, sign up to receive campaign updates or a myriad of other tasks that require collective action.

Not that gamification could convince someone on the opposite ideological spectrum to work on your behalf. Wouldn’t that be amazing? But sadly that’s not why gamification exists. What it can do is give structure to and channel the energies of your supporters and keep them motivated across the duration of the campaign.

US presidential election campaigns usually run up to just under 2 years. Unless you have a political opponent who is so out of whack that the ideological difference is all that’s needed to keep you volunteers motivated, you need a way to keep up spirits. Campaigns are hard and stressful and not very rewarding until you can secure a win (if you do).

Gamification works well in this scenario; by making work into a game, people are not as stressed or as disinterested as they could be. There’s still a ton of work to be done, but maybe now, we’d get some fun out of it.


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