The struggle for authenticity in politics won't be solved by gaming or streaming--it's that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Omar are best suited for it.
New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made her Twitch debut streaming Among Us the other night with big-name streamers like Hasan Piker, Pokimane, Dr. Lupo, Jacksepticeye, and Hbomberguy, as well as her colleague, Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. It's made headlines across gaming and non-gaming media, so you're probably familiar with what went down already, given the widespread coverage. I was one of the over 400,000 people watching Ocasio-Cortez's personal stream, enjoying the hell out of her and others legitimately having a good time in-game. Count me in the crowd of "never stan a politician" for simply taking part in a common hobby, but for AOC, the context is quite different.
Before I became an editor and video host here at GameSpot, I worked in politics--behind the scenes, managing campaigns in California, local, and statewide--and often managed the public-facing content of our clients and candidates on the internet. At the time, we were a young agency with a certain tech savvy that many of our clients did not have (they'd tend to be a generation or two apart from us). We'd ask for personal details that could connect them to their constituencies; photos, stories, interests, and experiences that we could share in blogs, official sites, tweets, and posts on various platforms. These would be delivered in addition to communicating actual policy visions.
Despite this, much of what I did felt so buttoned-up. Maybe it's because I was still green in that line of work and playing it safe. But when watchful endorsers and backers can lash out at the littlest thing you say that might be off-kilter, and with the resulting internal concern that could cause, creating online content was a tedious process that would have to go through more hoops than necessary. All I wanted to do was reach potential voters in a casual manner. So, the thought popped into my head while watching AOC's stream: What if my breakthrough as a political consultant was to get clients to stream? (And I thought of what kind of new hell that could spawn for the rest of us.)
The thing about AOC is that none of those burdens really matter because she can just present who she is. From the perspective of someone who comes from the working class, she is one of us--pretty much the same age as those around me and has put up with the same struggles we've had, too. Her time as a bartender from the Bronx (BX all day) prior to being elected is well-documented, and she put in the work for what is the closest thing I've seen to a legitimate grassroots effort for a successful run at Congress. She didn't have to exist in established political circles as a career and navigate a system through relationships, massive endorsements, or being a yes-person within a party. There is no manufactured brand to uphold.
If you've been keeping up with her work, streaming comes off as a sensible extension of what she already does on Instagram Live and her personal Twitter timeline.
Streaming works for her because it's genuine. This isn't some out-of-touch official doing the old "how do you do, fellow kids" routine to seem personable. I tend to cringe at the notion of politicians being "relatable" by sharing innocuous personal details, like their favorite junk food or the last TV series they marathoned. Good lord do I roll my eyes seeing photo ops where we see them at a local hole-in-the-wall restaurant to show voters "they're really just like us!" or say a butchered phrase in a foreign language to prove they're in tune with a minority--or whatever other performative nonsense we often see.
AOC cracks jokes about spaceships in Among Us still using gasoline and combustion engines and throws shade at the vice president without batting an eye, and gets hyped about colleagues like Michigan representatives Rashida Tlaib and Justin Amash also watching the stream. She can pull off a really entertaining stream and also use her platform to communicate how and why you should vote; without a script or manufactured talking points. Gaming is also already part of what Ocasio-Cortez does outside the public eye, as we've seen with her celebration of reaching silver rank in League of Legends and interactions through Animal Crossing. And if you've been keeping up with her work, streaming comes off as a sensible extension of what she already does on Instagram Live and her personal Twitter timeline.
Through those channels, AOC has also cultivated a fandom and following that's receptive to her messaging because she's able to naturally use these online platforms the same way most of us do. I wasn't all that surprised when her own Twitch viewer count hit over 400k, but when I step back to think about it, that's a whole lot more folks listening to authentic messages about voting than what you see from a typical political rally. And it helps that her viewers, as well as the audiences from the popular streamers who participated, are simply there for a fun time.
When you start a stream and you switch to the on-camera scene in OBS, you're the one who has to carry that stream and make it pop. And if you've approached your career through being open about your work and transparent in your representation of people, there really isn't anything to worry about when you go live. I sure as hell wouldn't trust any official I've worked with in the past to do that, and I'm sure they wouldn't want to be in that position in the first place.
Is this the future of politics? Or is this something other politicians can take advantage of? It really depends. You won't manufacture the first gamer president (sorry Ace Watkins). You can't force gaming or streaming onto a candidate, and you also won't win campaigning through an Among Us or Fortnite stream. But there's a genuine chemistry that can be had with influencers and audiences that are receptive to real social democratic messaging. We saw that with AOC between major names like Pokimane, Hasan, and Hbomberguy, and we heard it throughout in this Among Us stream. And when everyone said their goodbyes and thanks, they very naturally remembered the point was to encourage voting and spread voter awareness, and did so more successfully than most traditional campaigns have done of late.
There's a sizable progressive audience that can be reached, one that doesn't want to be fed the same bullshit established political parties have been pushing well before the day we've internalized politics. The last thing I'd want to see in light of AOC's wild first-time success is a bunch of milquetoast politicians flooding Twitch doing manufactured streams. That's not to gatekeep gaming and streaming from them, but to warn them that it's a crowd that can see right through obvious political plays.
The struggle for authenticity in politics isn't going to be solved by gaming and streaming, and it's probably not a great gateway to become an authentic political voice. But it'd be wise to engage a wide audience in a humanizing fashion that reflects them, and that's exactly what Ocasio-Cortez achieved.