Samantha Bee has a problem: 54 percent of her audience isn’t registered to vote. Yes, more than half of the people who watch Full Frontal—a group that ought to know a thing or two about politics in America by now—never make it the polls. If that number surprises you, it downright stunned the show’s host.
"I continue to be shocked about that," Bee says. "It was so shocking to me that it seemed wrong."
It wasn’t. But that data point has given Bee hope that her show’s latest endeavor—a smartphone app called This Is Not a Game: The Game—might be able to shift some tides during this year’s midterm elections. The concept is simple: This Is Not a Game uses daily quizzes, a la HQ, to educate people about what’s happening in US politics and test the electorate’s knowledge. For cash. (When the game goes live after tonight’s episode of Full Frontal, the inaugural pot of $5,000 will be split among the winners.) Players who get knocked out can earn second chances by completing challenges like making sure they’re registered to vote and signing up for election reminders. It’s the kind of thing you’d think the civic-minded viewers of Full Frontal wouldn’t need, but if the show’s audience data is accurate, they very much do. And Bee hopes a little gamification can help get them to the polls.
"I always had a sense of purpose with this game, but this recent finding has really strengthened that resolve; we can do better, for sure," Bee says of her audience. "Obviously the stakes are very high for civilization as a whole. But we’re not sitting around thinking that we’re going to go out and save democracy, we’re really not. We're just trying to help in any way we can."
Full Frontal’s idea of "helping" might not be completely obvious at first. After years of celebrities and whole TV networks trying to increase turnout with Rock the Vote initiatives and "Vote or Die!" T-shirts, how could an app have any more success? Even Bee and her team admit they don’t know. But gamification—appealing to people’s basic desire for reward and affirmation—might be as good an idea as any. Especially now.
Traditionally, fewer people cast ballots during midterm elections, and young people have especially low numbers when it comes to voter turnout. (Recent statistics suggest fewer than half of them plan on heading to the polls.) But if people can find time to play Fortnite for hours, it’s possible they could devote some of those gaming hours to their civic duty. At least, that’s what Bee and the folks at Full Frontal are hoping.
Will it work? That’s harder to say. Gamification can help induce people to put a few more miles on their Fitbit, or even solve protein-folding problems, but voting's a whole other thing. "It's a great idea," says Genelle Belmas, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas who teaches on purpose-driven gaming. "But if the idea is to raise voting behavior, I'm not convinced a trivia app is the best way to do it."
The way Belmas sees it, voting itself is already gamified. You vote, you get a sticker, you post a selfie from the polls on Instagram: in its own way, that’s a game-like sequence. Facebook's "I Voted" button increased turnout in the 2010 midterms by more than 300,000 people—and it's tough to imagine many more ways of incentivizing people to vote. Appeals to patriotism only go so far; it’s not exactly feasible to give everyone a cash reward. A day off is nice, but it’s not going to get retirees any more motivated to go to their polling place. (It's not like everyone spends President’s Day thinking about presidents.) What the Full Frontal team's new app can do, though, is help educate people; that’s "a step in the right direction," Belmas says, "and maybe all that [Bee] can do."
Game the Vote
Samantha Bee knows this. She also knew that she had to do something. After the dismally low voter turnout of the 2016 presidential election, she wanted to do something to get people involved with the midterms. A Full Frontal field piece about gamification last year gave her an idea; she called upon that piece’s producer, Razan Ghalayini, as well as with Gabe Zichermann, an authority on the subject who had appeared in the piece, to see if there was a way to use the power of games to get people to vote.
"She goes, 'Razan, you know what, I think we should try to gamify the midterms,'" Ghalayini recalls now. "I was like, 'OK! Let me call Gabe.'"
Zichermann knew just who to contact. He put the Full Frontal team in touch with Adam Werbach, who was already working on ways to leverage tech for political engagement through Win the Future, an organization he founded with Zynga cofounder Mark Pincus and Linkedin chair Reid Hoffman. Bee and her coterie went to his office in Silicon Valley and started whiteboarding.
The initial versions of the game were, by the group’s own admission, rough. No one had really attempted a smartphone-based quiz game about voting before—at least not one that had the humor and tone of Full Frontal. Once it was settled that the way to gamify voting was to offer people cash for quizzing, the team knew the questions had to be in the voice of the show. They had an A+ comedy-writing staff ready to pitch jokes, but writing for a game is different than writing for a TV show—and Razan and her writers quickly learned they’d have to adjust their timing for the jokes to land.
A huge part of this learning process came this past spring, when Full Frontal took a mockup of the game to a Lesbians Who Tech summit in San Francisco in search of input. "We got some really loving and harsh feedback," Werbach says, laughing. "It was like, 'I wouldn’t play this,' 'You're funny, but this game isn't.'"
That feedback, though, helped the team refine the game, the final version of which Werbach hopes will be funny and hopefully get people involved in the voting process. The app is connected to Vote.org, which helps users make sure they’re registered and get election reminders. “There’s pretty good research that once people are in that system, it raises their voting propensity,” Werbach says. Beyond that, though, the likelihook of converting contestants to vote-casters is still unknown. "I think we’re happy with what we’ve created," Werbach says, "but I don’t think we know whether it will work."
Beyond the ballot box, there's another potential benefit to the app: awareness. The quiz questions and answers are intended to offer insight into the often granular and murky decisions that end up on midterm ballots—so that people will be more likely to want to vote on them. "Maybe you want to talk about immigration but you don’t know a lot about it and you don’t want to ask," Ghalayini says "What we can do is teach you a little bit about the topic, like about what ICE is doing, and then when the midterms come maybe you’ll feel more comfortable making a choice as opposed to being like, 'I don’t know anything about this.’”
Ultimately, everyone involved with This Is Not a Game is still aware that it's, well, just a game—even if the elections aren’t. Success will be measured by whether or not users laugh and maybe even connect with the subject matter. (Everyone involved frequently uses the word "fun" and points to Dan Levine’s enjoyable design for the game as some of its best qualities.) It’s also a learning experience for the show itself. Bee clearly thought her audience was more active than it was, as her shock at that 54 percent unregistered figure demonstrates; the game, and how it's received, will give her even more insight into the people watching her show.
"It's been an amazing learning experience so far. If this continues in that direction then I think that's a win for us as people, a win for us as a show," Bee says. "If my dreams came true, we would learn a ton from this experience and fill it out and make it even better for 2020." Which gives them plenty of time to print up enough "We All Voted" buttons.