Can Online Games Improve Young People’s Civic Participation?

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Young voters make up to close to 20 percent of the electorate in the United States — a big voting block for any candidate. As of early October, 14 percent of that block of young voters remains undecided. The narrative of disengaged youth in this election is dominating headlines lately, and a recent Pew study points to voter registration among young people on the decline.

But some recent efforts are attempting to turn that trend around by meeting young people where they are… online.

Youth Radio’s Jaylyn Burns, 17 years-old, is completing an online election quiz, called isidewith.com. It was designed as a tool to engage people in politics by helping them identify what issues are important to them. Some issues resonated, and some didn’t. “’Do you support the Patriot Act?’… What is the Patriot Act? … Sounds familiar,” she said.

The site matches you up with a candidate that aligns with your political views. 18-year-old Kayla Seay wasn’t surprised by her political match. “It does kind of make me want to vote for Obama, but at the same time I don’t agree with every issue.”

Seay will be eligible to vote for the first time this November. But she, like many other young voters, hasn’t made up her mind about voting at all.
Are young people disengaging from politics for good? Taylor Peck, founder of isidewith.com, says no.

“Teenagers will tell you that they’re not really interested in politics, that they don’t align with anybody. We actually think they will be, and we’ll help remind them which candidates and issues are important to them,” said Peck.

Researchers say young people do have the drive to be political — just not in traditional ways.
Joseph Kahne is co-author of the Youth Participatory Politics research project that was released this July. “Many young people really respond well when they’re not just being asked to do something in support of a candidate, but are asked what they think or given opportunities to circulate their perspectives throughout their networks,” said Kahne.

His study found that young people use social media to discuss politics frequently. And this research seems to be catching on.

MTV is piloting an online election game called the Power of 12 — modeled after Fantasy Football. But instead of choosing your dream team of NFL players, you choose a team of politicians who gain or lose points based on what they do in real life — forcing players to keep track of political news. But ultimately it comes down to whether or not young people actually go to the polls like they did four years ago.

Trying to start that momentum are educators, like James Richter. He’s an American Government teacher at Skyline High School in Oakland, CA.

“ It’s our job to get them to buy in — and that it’s worth knowing these things, make them understand — they’re going to be tax-payers, and eventually they’re going to be running things, and if they don’t understand how it works, they’re going to be totally unable to engage their lives as citizens,” said Richter.

Richter teaches mainly seniors, like Gregory Belvin, who’s 18, but failed to register for the California primaries.

“I didn’t put in the leg work like I needed to…I had the resources but being ridiculous… It just didn’t work out.”

His classmate Angela Tang, who did register to vote, found the process confusing.

“It’s just really blurry. I think that schools or wherever you register to vote should be more intentional about telling you the steps to take afterward,” she said.

The two of them graduated this past spring from Skyline High, and will be eligible to vote in their first presidential election in November. Both of them wish schools did more to teach the nuts and bolts of getting involved in politics. But maybe online applications can start to connect the dots, and bridge the gap between learning about government in school and actually getting to the polls.

So what happens when an election quiz matches you up with someone you’ve never heard of? That was the case for Jaylyn Burns. “I side with Jill Stein on most issues in the 2012 Presidential election…87 percent ….Who is Jill Stein?”

Is 87 percent compatible enough to make a young person want to do further research? Who knows? At least Burns now has a new candidate to explore. And maybe other young people will do the same.