06/08/2012 05:34 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

A Student Perspective: Political Engagement... with Competitive Online Games?

Students in my spring semester Politics and Media class at the University of Delaware wrote blogs on current issues, relating them to class content. I've been posting some of their work as part of the "Blog Blog Project." This entry, written by UD student Cori Schreider, asks whether MTV's online election game can engage young people in this year's election.

Political socialization theory suggests we are constantly being socialized into our political culture -- mainly from family, school, peer groups, and the media. Although this process can result in increased political knowledge and efficacy, not everyone receives the same degree of socialization. This is what can lead to the immense apathy found in many young people today. Some may not be so privileged as to have open communication regarding politics in their households, while others may feel pressured to accept a certain candidate because that is what is accepted in their school or by their parents, and thus fail to know the actual policies of the candidates. Being restricted in these manners growing up can oftentimes result with the mindset that politics simply do not matter, especially in the minds of the younger generations.

MTV is attempting to change this. Yes, MTV -- also known as the channel that brings us our favorite educational programs like The Jersey Shore and Teen Mom. Nevertheless, they are taking it upon themselves to "get the vote out" with an online game. A play off of fantasy sports, the game will be a "Fantasy Election," where players will draft a team of candidates either running for the presidency or for Congress, and will play against other gamers across the country. They earn points for registering to vote, or checking in at town halls or voting stations via Foursquare. It's assumed that MTV hopes putting hundreds of thousands of dollars in prizes on the line will increase enthusiasm and participation.

While this innovative idea could be successful in increasing both participation and voter efficacy, others are not so sure. For instance, Professor Daniel Green from Columbia University does not think a virtual game will be as successful as face-to-face interaction. This could be why the younger generation experiences so much political apathy -- because young people likely experience much more of their world online than older generations, who may still prefer real-life interactions. If this is true, an online game would do nothing but continue to promote a virtual world. On the other hand, if this game turns out to be a success, it could have a huge impact on campaigns to come. After all, candidates are already utilizing the Internet more than in years past, using Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to try and appeal to young people.

From a student's perspective, I doubt that this game will be of much success. Although MTV will probably get participants who are already interested in politics, I don't think the game will attract those who simply don't care. It is similar to political entertainment. Although shows that cross over between politics and entertainment, such as The Colbert Report, gain increased and diverse viewership, it is hard to imagine that those who have no interest in politics will, first, watch the show, and second, suddenly develop an interest in politics. However, many scholars (like this study) claim that the gateway hypothesis is valid -- that people may not watch these entertainment news shows with the purpose of learning, but they end up learning something anyway. This could be what MTV is trying to achieve with their game. Avid MTV viewers may hear of the game, become interested in the prizes, and end up learning something about politics along the way.

I tested this theory amongst some of my friends. Although this was not the most scientific of polls, I asked several people if they watch MTV, and if they would participate in an online election game created by the network. Out of the five people I asked (I said it wasn't very scientific... ), none of them said they would participate, even though three out of the five did admit to being an MTV viewer. One friend, who has actually been following the election, said she simply would not "waste" her time with a game.

As we discussed in class, there are cyber-skeptics and cyber-optimists. Skeptics believe that having access to technology does not mean that everyone will suddenly be more engaged with the news in politics. Such skeptics would probably argue that just because there is now an online political game does not mean that those who were not engaged in the election before will suddenly develop an interest. Optimists would be more inclined to agree with MTV's Vice President of Public Affairs, Jason Rzepka, who believes the game will play a part in instilling "habits of good citizenship among young voters."

While I admire MTV for trying to enhance young minds (even while simultaneously trashing them with Snooki and the gang), I will be curious to see how many people will choose to participate in the fantasy election and if it will have any impact on voter participation.