Gaming for political change
How mobile phone games, comic strips, crowdsourcing, and virtual candidates shook up Indonesia’s presidential election. Read More
2014 was a historical year for Indonesia: For the first time since the fall of the dictatorship around 20 years ago, the country had a presidential candidate who was not connected to the old political and military elite, a candidate who had neither been the subject of a corruption scandal nor had to answer for human rights abuses. Joko Widodo, or “Jokowi” as we called him, was our great hope.
Indonesia is the third largest democracy in the world, but it has a turbulent past. Following independence in 1945, the country was ruled by two autocratic presidents: The first, Sukarno, was replaced by the head of the military, General Haji Mohamed Suharto, in 1968. Corruption and political repression were the order of the day until Suharto stepped down in 1998. Since then, elections have been free, but the candidates have all always been linked to the old Suharto regime in some way.
Not Joko Widodo. The former governor of the capital Jakarta is a well-known public figure. People appreciate him for his closeness to the people and his political achievements. Though he has only been in office a short time, he has implemented important infrastructure reforms and corruption has rarely been an issue in his cabinet. In the election for president, Jokowi stood against Prabowo Subianto, an ex-general and Suharto’s ex-son-in-law who is said to have committed human rights violations in the past.
This was probably the most historic election in Indonesia.
People therefore said that this was probably the most historic election in Indonesia. They were really excited about going to the polls. The party set up an official campaign team to support Joko Widodo, of course. At same time, something extraordinary happened too: Hundreds of volunteer groups formed all over Indonesia, without any instructions or financial support from the candidate. This had never happened in Indonesian politics before. People came out to help because they truly trusted him.
Something else took place as well: We experienced the huge power of social media in mobilising people and monitoring the tallying process. Here are a few examples of how video games, comics, crowdsourcing, and virtual candidates shook up the election.
Generasi Optimis: Positive campaigning
When I heard about Joke Widodo’s nomination at the beginning of 2014, I immediately packed my bags and flew to Indonesia. I was working and living in Austria, but I really wanted to be in my homeland for this important event. I quickly joined a network of young entrepreneurs and programmers.
Together some friends and I founded a volunteer group called “Generasi Optimis” which focused on digital media. While the party’s official campaign team and some other volunteer groups mainly addressed older people using conventional media such as brochures, banners and newspaper adverts, we decided to focus on youths age 18 to 35, and especially on first time voters like high school and university students.
Most of these first time voters don’t really care about politics, but they are usually very tech savvy. We therefore decided to create fun digital content for them: mobile games, comics and videos. Even though only about one third of Indonesians is online at all, the younger generation is quite active on Facebook and YouTube.
And our strategy worked. The products we developed were like a fresh breeze in the election period, which had gone full-on negative at the time. The opposition party had decided to focus mainly on attack ads and politicians were saying negative things about each other all the time. We used Generasi Optimis to create a positive atmosphere: We never attacked the other candidate throughout the entire process.
Jokowi Go!: Mobilisation through videogames
One of the main products we developed was the “Jokowi Go!” mobile game. Jokowi Go! Was designed to communicate a positive spirit, the spirit of an optimistic generation that runs in step with the government to solve social issues. So the game set-up was pretty similar to Temple Run: The users have to run and avoid or overcome obstacles.
In Jokowi Go!, a young boy and girl run through the streets of our cities, through traffic jams and street markets, and pass signs displaying prominent political issues like human rights violations, deforestation, and traffic. When they see people standing on the sidewalks – some of them farmers, teachers or musicians – they have to high five them to pass on their positive spirit. This directly alludes to Joko Widodo, who often went to the rural areas to meet the people and raise their spirits.
When it was released, Jokowi Go! topped the Google Play chart worldwide as the number one new free game, and has been downloaded more than half a million times so far. Per day 12,000 users still play it online, and that does not include all the offline users. The game became especially big among high-school students, and even my niece and nephew are still involved with the hype.
Games, as you probably know, are addictive and therefore very effective for campaigning.
You might wonder whether mobile games can really have an impact on election results. But this one really did: We received about 5,000 comments on Google Play, many of which were very encouraging. One person wrote: “Now I see the difference in spirit between the two candidates: The opponent only attacks, while Jokowi’s campaign is positive and uplifting. I’m sure whom am I going to vote for.” Others said that they felt so happy and spirited playing the game that Joko Widodo is now their candidate. Games, as you probably know, are addictive and therefore very effective for campaigning.
The virtual Jokowi
In addition to Jokowi Go!, we developed other web products like comics and short animated videos. Comics and videos are great for campaigning, because you can spread them easily on social media. The films showed the beauty of Indonesia and how Joko Widodo would lead change. Each of them has around 300,000 views on YouTube, and they were even broadcast on television.
With Generasi Optimis, we also supported an offline campaign that was intended to record peoples’ aspirations. We installed a virtual Jokowi inside a car who talked to the people in rural areas. The villagers could pose questions to him and express their hopes and expectations. These statements were recorded on video and shown to Joko Widodo personally, and a selection of 100 was even broadcast on YouTube. In the Java region alone, the virtual Jokowi visited 85 villages and recorded around 4,000 of these videos.
We installed a virtual Jokowi in a car who talked to the people in rural areas.
Kawal Pemilu: Monitoring the elections
Another very important tool that gained momentum during the election was Kawal Pemilu, an independent monitoring platform set up by a group of coder friends. The election result was very, very close: Joko Widodo won with 53%, a mere 8 million people more than his opponent. This made tallying the votes especially tough: How could we ensure there was no cheating?
The Indonesian ballot represents the world’s biggest offline election. While the US and India use online tools, it is simply impossible for us to set up computers in such remote rural areas as the forests of Papua, for instance. So we vote manually: In every village, residents observe and monitor the counting process at each polling station. The result is recorded on a sheet of paper and transmitted to the national authorities.
Via Facebook, Kawal Pemilu mobilised 700 volunteers in just two days.
Kawal Pemilu is basically an online platform that enables citizens to crowdsource election results. I would even go so far as to say it saved us from fraud. Thanks to the Kawal Pemilu team led by the Singapore-based Indonesian IT expert Ainun Najib, independent volunteers gathered the result sheets from every village, scanned and uploaded them to the online platform. This way we could ensure that no data was manipulated during transmission. The campaign was organised solely via Facebook and word-of-mouth, yet Kawal Pemilu still managed to mobilise 700 volunteers in just two days.
Kawal Pemilu was featured a lot in international media, and rightly so: It was a historical achievement. Since the official results were very close to Kawal Pemilu’s independent tally, we are confident the election was not manipulated. Both parties would otherwise still be in doubt, and we might have faced after-election riots.
What has been achieved
Joko Widodo is now Indonesia’s new president. We see this as a very fresh start.
In addition to supporting him, we wanted to convey a message to him with our campaign: We want him to foster creative industries as a solution for youth employment. Indonesia has the highest youth unemployment rate in Southeast Asia – more than 5 million young people do not have a job. Creative industries offer great potential here, but the previous governments haven’t given the branch enough attention. We are very happy that our message was obviously received, as Joko Widodo is now setting up a cross-ministry body to support the creative industries in Indonesia.
But of course challenges remain. Recently a big scandal emerged in which a candidate for chief of police was suspected in a corruption case. This case created a lot of uncertainty. People publically expressed their views on social media, encouraging Joko Widodo not to swear in the candidate. This would have forced him to work against the will of the oligarchs, including his own party.
Joko Widodo is a new man in an old machine, just like Obama in 2008.
Eventually, the president did decide not to appoint the candidate, causing both a worldwide trend of public support as well as the backlash from the oligarchs, especially against the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in the weeks that followed. Joko Widodo is a new man in an old machine, just like Obama in 2008. It will take years before the outcome of this battle between the citizen sector and the oligarchs is revealed.