It’s been a long summer on your Animal Crossing island. You’ve shaken a lot of trees and caught a lot of cicadas. You’ve cornered the Stalk Market with more turnips than anyone thought possible. You’ve bought more furniture from the Nooks than your house can hold.
But Joe Biden’s campaign thinks you might want a reminder of news from the real world: a virtual campaign sign for your virtual yard.
The campaign said it had made four signs available on the platform on Tuesday, the day autumn started in the Nintendo Switch game. One sign bears the Biden-Harris logo; others say “Team Joe” and “Joe,” with the “E” rendered in Pride colors. The fourth carries a stylized image of Mr. Biden’s signature aviator sunglasses.
This is not the first time a political campaign tried to capitalize on a popular video game. But it may be the first effort to involve this much wood-chopping, bug-catching and buying of kitchen appliances from raccoons.
President Trump’s campaign was dismissive of the stunt. “This explains everything: Joe Biden thinks he’s campaigning for President of Animal Crossing from his basement,” Samantha Zager, the campaign’s deputy national press secretary, said in an email. “The Trump campaign will continue to spend its resources campaigning in the real world with real Americans.”
But Christian Tom, the director of digital partnerships for the Biden-Harris campaign, said Animal Crossing “is a dynamic, diverse, and powerful platform that brings communities together from across the world.” He called it an exciting new opportunity for our campaign to connect with supporters “as they build and decorate their islands.”
“We’re already looking forward to rolling out more digital swag, voter education tools and organizing efforts on Animal Crossing and other platforms,” Mr. Tom added.
For now, it appears that nobody is getting a code to fly Dodo Airlines to the campaign’s island (it doesn’t have an island), which is just as well. The game slows down when more than a few visitors are flying in and out.
The Biden-Harris campaign said it would seed the signs with some gamer influencers who would share their gameplay with their audiences. Players can download the signs via a QR code, and the Nintendo Switch Online app on a mobile device.
Animal Crossing, a whimsical life-simulation game that became a phenomenon on the Switch during the coronavirus pandemic, has been around since 2001. In August, Nintendo reported more than 22 million sales of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, making it the most popular version of the game yet. Its players are essentially the rulers of their own worlds, changing and customizing the landscape, their homes and other villagers as they see fit (or as much as allowed by the rules of Tom Nook, who doles out loans and charges hefty construction fees). The game’s appeal comes in part from cute, catchphrase-spouting animals dressed in a variety of fashions as well as the relentlessly cheerful illusion that there is nothing going on, no reason to rush, no crisis, no news at all.
Political messaging is not new to this version of the game, which was released on March 20, days after a pandemic was announced.
During the protests in Hong Kong earlier this year, activists took to their Animal Crossing islands to share virtual slogans. In May, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested a fish museum in the game. More recently, Black Lives Matter activists have used it to raise awareness of their cause, even holding demonstrations in-game, The Guardian reported.
Nintendo did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.
Not all efforts to appeal to gamers have gone well. The mobile Pokémon Go game was at the height of its popularity in 2016 when Mrs. Clinton was mocked for urging people at a rally to “Pokémon Go to the polls!”
In 2007 and 2008, the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton John Edwards and John McCain engaged with players in Second Life, an online virtual world. But there isn’t is much data on whether those efforts were successful, said Daniel Kreiss, a professor of political communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
With fewer people watching television, “the traditional 30-second ad pitch is much less relevant than it used to be,” said Dennis Plane, a politics professor at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Penn., especially when ads can be easily skipped.
Campaigns in “video games are a little peculiar because they target a younger market, but people can vote at 18,” he said, adding that “campaigns that are successfully able to woo 18- to 25-year-olds are often able to keep voters with the same party for their entire lives.”
The campaign’s rollout of virtual lawn signs in Animal Crossing likely won’t move many people, Professor Plane said, but it could build excitement and enthusiasm among Biden-supporting gamers and their friends.
“In a coronavirus era when you can’t knock on doors very easily, it’s a new technique, a new tactic,” he said. “We don’t know if it will work; the proof is going to be in the pudding.”
According to Elena Bertozzi, a professor of game design and development at Quinnipiac University, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was “released into this new environment where everyone was staying at home and playing games,” and its audience “grew to include many nontraditional gamers.”
“Animal Crossing is a pro-social game where players write each other letters and interact in ways that builds the community,” she said. “It is a good cultural match for the Biden message.”
“When you know that the demographic you are trying to reach are all playing a specific game,” she said, “dropping your message in that game can be a smart strategic move.”