At the top of the hill sits a white building with heavy columns, adorned with American flags. Its dome is blocky, like everything in Minecraft, but it still invokes the Capitol building you’d find in DC. Dubbed the voting house, its purpose is just that: a place for players to weigh in on politics as part of an election initiative called Build the Vote.
Build the Vote is a Minecraft server created specifically for young Americans to engage in the voting process. It’s a collaboration between creative company Sid Lee and nonpartisan nonprofit Rock the Vote. Minecraft is already its own kind of social network, one that allows everything from virtual concerts, libraries, and college graduations. For the team’s purposes — to educate without influencing — Minecraft hit the sweet spot. “With the upcoming election we felt that it was part of our responsibility that maybe could create a smaller change,” Sid Lee associate creative director Jonathan Lavoie said. “Trying to reach the younger crowd, we know that their presence is very online.”
Despite the game industry’s infamous tendency to cling to the idea of apolitical entertainment, gaming spaces have become the latest battlegrounds for the attention of young voters. While 2016 featured the cringe-worthy campaign for people to “Pokémon Go to the polls,” politicians seem to be wising up on how to actually reach the demographic. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders used Twitch to reach prospective voters. The Biden-Harris campaign capitalized on this year’s game of the moment, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, to set up a frankly impressive island. Last week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) streamed Among Us as one of the biggest debuts ever on Twitch.
That digital spaces have become important in a year of a pandemic is no coincidence. “I think the pandemic really showed us that digital right now is absolutely everything,” says Teja Foster, social media director for Rock the Vote. Events were canceled. Businesses shut down. But peoples’ digital footprints grew larger. “We’re all trying to figure it out, especially with the pandemic, because there’s nowhere to meet anyone right now other than online,” she says.
According to Foster, the biggest barrier to getting young people to vote isn’t indifference or disinterest — it’s education. “We’re not really taught in school at all about the voting process, how it works, and what it’s really like,” she says.
Sid Lee has tried to represent that experience as faithfully as possible. Dropping into the server will put you near the polling place, but you’ll still need to take a bit of a walk to get there. Once inside, you’ll need to register — in this case, the game will display a copy of your head on the wall — before you’re able to enter a voting room alone. Players aren’t voting on the actual candidates, but issues related to policy and topics candidates have (mostly) addressed in debates, such as criminal justice, immigration, and sociopolitical reforms. Its creators have intended for the experience to be staunchly nonpartisan, for players to decide how they feel about today’s biggest issues.
Each vote will be collected, anonymously, for Rock the Vote to release the results online by October 30th. You only get to vote once. For their time, players will be rewarded skins, much like the “I Voted” stickers handed out at polling places.
According to Lavoie, Build the Vote “invites the [players] that have the power to vote to step up and do their homework.” And for those who may still be too young, it encourages them to get involved early.
Build the Vote is an educational tool, but it’s also indicative of the larger culture shift at play in 2020. “I really think that pushing into this new space is one that’s here to stay and one we should adapt to,” Foster says. “It now is everything ... I really see it being the new pivot for everyone, as well as a political space.”
The gaming world has expanded beyond the stereotypes it’s often been thought of. Phenomena like the steady rising popularity of Twitch or this year’s Animal Crossing boon are just a few highly visible examples. “It’s really an entirely different side of the online internet experience that a lot of people aren’t necessarily paying attention to,” Foster says. “But, it truly is where young people are actually at.”