Choose and Lose: MTV Plays Games with the 2012 Election
By Chez Pazienza: I’m probably going to sound like the stereotypical old guy in the room here, but bear with me.
The first time I voted for president was in 1992 and, like many my age at the time, I voted for Bill Clinton. The reason should be obvious to anyone who lived through the presidential election of 1992: Clinton and his optimistic vision for America spoke to me as a young adult; he was the first president in my lifetime to truly reach out to the youth in a meaningful way and value their involvement in the political process and in building the country’s future. Later, of course, we’d find out that the hand he was extending to the female youth of America was aimed mostly at their breasts, but it’s not like I knew that at the time. Clinton got me excited about politics, about America, and about my role in our democracy in a way that no one had before; he made me believe that I mattered; that the course the nation would take depended on me and those my age; that I indeed had a voice and a responsibility to use it — and so I rewarded him with my support and my vote.
While the Clinton campaign will always be remembered for its canny use of youth-oriented media in its effort to mobilize young adults — the Arsenio Hall sax solo is still the stuff of pop culture legend — it was actually the juxtaposition of Clinton’s treatment of MTV’s political coverage versus his opponent’s that hammered home the reason I needed to not only put my vote behind Clinton but deprive the incumbent of another term. While Clinton treated MTV like a useful tool in his goal of bringing his message to a new generation of American voters and its audience as brimming with potential political savvy, George Bush showed aloofness, arrogance, and visible disdain for the network and the fact that he was expected to pay it any attention whatsoever. In one particular interview with MTV News’s Tabitha Soren, who was the face of the network’s “Choose or Lose” campaign of the early 90s, I’ll never forget the expression on Bush’s face, the pissy, irritated condescension he heaped on Soren — who was, as much as Bush didn’t want to believe it, an actual journalist worthy of his respect — for forcing him to suffer through such an indignity. Watching that interview was what made me say, out loud, “Fuck this guy.”
But 20 years later, MTV has changed — drastically. Its programming is now the worst kind of noxious crap and any hint of actual social or political consciousness has long since been abandoned in favor of consistently vulgar stupidity; where there once were music videos and a surprising variety of passionate, creative and independent voices being mainlined into the pop cultural blood stream, there are now marathons of Jersey Shore and Teen Mom. And before anyone points out the irony, no, this opinion doesn’t stem from my having morphed, over the past two decades, into George Bush. MTV’s nearly-all-reality format acts as a kind of cancer on youth culture, incessantly dumbing it down rather than adding anything meaningful to it. If you’re a kid and you watch a lot of MTV, chances are you’re a fucking idiot.
With that in mind it’s no surprise that MTV has just announced, presumably for the benefit of the audience it’s helped to turn into a bunch of chimps pounding at buttons and throwing feces, that its contribution to getting out the youth vote this election will be a fantasy football-style online game, only with politics. In fact, the game is actually called “Fantasy Election 2012″ and will involve the user joining a “league” and putting together a team of potential political leaders who’ll then be regularly scored according to their behavior by, God help us, Politifact, as well as Project Vote Smart. Clever? Somewhat. Completely pointless as an exercise in helping American kids get serious about politics? Oh hell yes.
The Huffington Post nicely sums up the WTF-edness of it all:
The gamification idea came after extensive research revealed how game culture has infiltrated most aspects of younger generations’ daily lives — from how many “likes” a picture got on Facebook to comparing who has more Twitter followers to use of phrases like “winning” or “fail.” MTV’s goal is to draw the already-politically minded of the 18-29 year-old demographic, but also those who might not otherwise keep up with the news or vote in the election.
Under normal circumstances I’d say that MTV deserves a certain amount of credit for thinking outside of the box in an attempt to get young people who might not be interested in politics involved in the process. Unfortunately, by creating the path of absolute least resistance for its audience between 16 and Pregnant and the White House the network is doing more harm than good. Politics isn’t a game and doesn’t deserve to be treated as one. No one’s saying that MTV’s get-out-the-vote campaign has to be staid and dull — or bear any resemblance to the coverage tactics of supposedly mainstream outlets, which are by and large ridiculous on their own — but to willfully refuse to even try to elevate the discussion of something as important as who’s elected to the presidency for the next four years does nothing but make a bad situation worse. Yes, young people live in a world of Facebook “likes” and internet memes and “winning” and “fail” — it doesn’t mean that MTV should once again mirror and perpetuate that kind of lowest-common-denominator anti-thinking in an effort to introduce American kids to one of the most substantial subjects in the world.
MTV has been handed an opportunity to, for once, not feed the cycle of complete ignorance on the part of its audience — and of course it’s going to “fail” miserably. The network used to take politics seriously, with real news specials and real journalists providing real information to help young people make one of the most important decisions of their lives. Now, it’s literally playing games.
Of course given how devoted MTV has been over the past several years to ensuring that the next generation of voters is clinically brain dead, maybe it’s a good idea if MTV’s audience doesn’t get anywhere near a voting booth in November anyway.
I voted for Clinton 20 years ago thanks in part to MTV’s political coverage. Today, if I watched a lot of MTV, I’d probably try to vote for JWoww. Although, come to think of it, so would Clinton.