Gamers playing Nintendo’s Animal Crossing encountered an unusual sight late one afternoon last week.
The massively popular online video game allows participants to customize their appearance, and in their onscreen avatar, some of the players were sporting political swag. A few wore T-shirts with the name NextGen or NGA, for the liberal organizing group NextGen America. Some wore hats that read Vote. And some stood beside virtual booths, like the kind you’d see at a carnival, that advertised the Tom Steyer–backed organization.
NextGen, which Steyer, the erstwhile presidential candidate, founded in 2013 to engage young voters, recruited the players by posting notices on Twitter and in Facebook groups devoted to the game. About 60 users agreed to tout the group’s cause as they played; one even built a podium and delivered a short address through the chat function about the importance of registering to vote.
The Animal Crossing event took place the day before Earth Day, when NextGen normally would have held an in-person voter-registration rally, likely featuring remarks from a political leader, says Mark Riffenburg, the group’s director in Nevada, who helped organize the event. Instead, with such outreach shelved by the coronavirus outbreak, the group tried to broadcast its message to the many players who spend hours inside the game building digital neighborhoods, buying and selling virtual crops, and interacting with anthropomorphic animals. At political events, Riffenburg says, “you are used to having a senator. But now it is a squirrel.”