On Tuesday night, US members of Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar held what is perhaps the most unusual voter outreach event in recent memory. They signed on to play a livestreamed video game on Twitch, and joined a crew of online strangers to build a spaceship and try to get away with murder – literally.
They were playing the incredibly popular Among Us – a 2018 game currently in the middle of a revival in interest, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and its faddish attraction to influencers. To play the game, crewmates complete mundane tasks on a spaceship while an impostor tries to kill members of the crew without getting caught. In the first round, Ocasio-Cortez – a complete newbie to the game – was picked as the impostor, while Omar, her confidante on Capitol Hill was none the wiser, so the live stream was set to be fun from the start.
And it was, by every metric we have for this kind of event, an incredible success. Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitch channel garnered a staggering audience of 439,000 viewers, all watching her in real time (the record for a Twitch stream is about 628,000 concurrent viewers) with approximately 5.2 million viewers watching the stream in aggregate. Meme-makers extended the conversation well into the week. Politicians do not draw this large of an online audience so quickly on these platforms: when Donald Trump and Joe Biden stream on Twitch for campaign events, total views peak at around 6,000 and 17,000, respectively.
The success of Ocasio-Cortez and Omar’s stream extends beyond their already-established popularity among young progressives. The game itself is great sport. Much like the party game you may know as Werewolf, or Mafia, Among Us casts suspicion from the start, because although players know that there is an impostor “among us” (perhaps two), they don’t know who the impostor is.
AOC’s stream was as good a sale as any: she fretted over the anxiety of having to play the role of the impostor, nearly giving herself away and saying “nooooo” out loud when she realized she would be the first person evading suspicion. In later games, where she was just a crewmate, she lamented to viewers about how she was “running so behind” on her tasks, and was shocked when an impostor found and killed her little pink avatar.
When another player’s body was found, viewers could speculate with her: who’s the most suspicious player? (“I’m voting early,” she would say when casting her lot against a suspect, using every opportunity to stay on-message). You don’t really have to know a thing about video games to get drawn into the suspense of the game.
But Ocasio-Cortez and Omar aren’t just famous people playing an unusually popular video game; they’re members of Congress trying to get out the vote. And in this, they achieved something most politicians attempt and fail at daily: they looked like completely normal people. They were having fun, accusing each other of being the impostor, cheering when they won, shouting about how they knew all along when an impostor was finally revealed.
Credibility goes a long way here: AOC, in particular, has an established online presence, and engages with the public online in an almost-collegial manner. This, like the notion of playing a video game when she and Omar ostensibly have “more important” things to do, has earned her the scorn of others in Congress, but consider the things other candidates do to get out the vote: fish fries, baby kissing and benefit concerts. You go where people are, and in 2020, young people are watching video games played on Twitch.
In internet culture, there’s nothing more vulgar than a tourist, someone with a purely transactional interest in a scene. And no matter how earnest Joe Biden is, or how cynically exploitative Trump is, in certain online circles, they will always be tourists simply because they’re too far removed from what young people are doing online to do what Ocasio-Cortez did: notice that there was a game people loved to watch on Twitch, asking if anyone wanted to play with her, and sitting down for a few hours to do it with nearly half a million people watching. And in the end, that’s the secret to Ocasio-Cortez and Omar’s success: that, for a little while, they weren’t opportunistic politicians, but motivated fellow citizens, just a couple of Twitch streamers among us.