Jagmeet Singh Has Discovered ‘Animal Crossing’

The NDP’s island on the popular video game is a way of reaching out to young voters, a tough demographic to get a vote from. Will it pay off?
September 17, 2021, 8:09pm
Curious Animal Crossing players can now step into a very orange-hued private NDP ‘island’ set up in the final days of Canada’s federal election campaign—a virtual village-slash-virtual campaign headquarters-slash-homage to leader Jagmeet Singh.
The NDP island on Animal Crossing. Photo via NDP.

Curious Animal Crossing players can now step into a very orange-hued private NDP “island” set up in the final days of Canada’s federal election campaign—a virtual village-slash-virtual campaign headquarters-slash-homage to leader Jagmeet Singh.

Beyond the mini NDP signs and an archway of silver and gold balloons, players can duck into a virtual campaign office with a bedroom for Singh upstairs (complete with his signature orange tuxedo and a bike in the corner), an art gallery with works by Indigenous artists, a virtual park, and a village of cute cottages along Layton Lane, a tribute to beloved former NDP leader Jack Layton.

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Animal Crossing, a cutesy Nintendo Switch game where players design their own private islands, was released in 2020 and quickly became a sleeper hit for stressed-out, homebound gamers looking to mentally check out of rising COVID-19 case counts and stay-at-home orders. “Animal Crossing is a place where a lot of folks have congregated,” Amneet Singh, the NDP’s deputy director of outreach (digital), told VICE World News. “We wanted to meet them where they were, so we set up an island to show them what we’re about, what Jagmeet’s about, and how they can get involved.”

The NDP sees Animal Crossing, as well as Twitch and TikTok, as simply a new frontier to reach voters, following in the footsteps of U.S. progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Back in 2020, the election campaign for now-President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris launched its own Animal Crossing island, too.) Singh has blown up on TikTok with videos of how he wraps his turban and even joined a Twitch stream with Ocasio-Cortez in 2020 to talk the emergency COVID benefit CERB, racism, and progressive politics in their respective countries.

But experts say the NDP’s Animal Crossing island is about more than just digital savviness. The party is especially keen on the under-30 vote, among the least likely age group to cast a ballot. In the 2011 election, just 38.8 percent of 18 to 24-year-old voters did so, according to Elections Canada data.

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Fast-forward to 2015, however, and that number jumped to 57.1 percent. “That big group of voters, particularly in 2015, voted overwhelmingly in terms of plurality for the Liberals,” said Justin Leifso, assistant professor of political science at the University of Victoria.

The last Nanos Research poll of the 2015 campaign found 38 percent of Canadians aged 18-29 supported the Liberals—the NDP’s chief rival for left and left-of-centre voters. Just 24 percent of these young voters preferred the NDP, and 23 percent favoured the Conservatives.

At its core, the NDP’s use of Animal Crossing to bring in prospective voters isn’t that dissimilar from more traditional campaign methods like TV ads or whistle stops. Emblazoned all over the island on yellow doormats at the entrance, outside a quartet of virtual U.S.-style election booths, and just inside the virtual campaign office is the URL for the NDP’s get-out-the-vote website—an approach to voter mobilization made famous by Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaigns through NationBuilder.

“What we’re seeing now is, I think, a rather innovative approach to trying to make that connection through mediums that are not typically associated with politics,” said Lori Williams, an associate professor of economics, justice, and policy studies at Mount Royal University.

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Singh’s public number is everywhere on the island. Visitors can text it to get his workout routine, congratulate him and his wife Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu on their expected child, and get the recipe for his Punjabi poutine recipe (by visiting a virtual Punjabi poutine truck). As with every other type of campaign event, the NDP’s island is trying to make its leader seem more personable. “He’s like everybody else,” Amneet Singh said. “He plays video games—and he deeply, passionately cares about the future of this country and where we’re headed. It’s a mix of taking the fun side of him, but also the serious side of him.”

And the NDP say it’s working. The party says there were over 1,000 visits to its Animal Crossing island in its first 24 hours, with a 21 percent growth in traffic over a 48-hour period that it directly attributes to viewership through Animal Crossing and Twitch streams. Some of the Twitch streamers who’ve followed along or uploaded NDP games to their own accounts are very popular—one of them, Hasanabi, has 1.5 million followers. “A lot of people, if they’re over 25, don’t realize they’re celebrities—but are massive means to a particular demographic,” Leifso says of Twitch streamers. Animal Crossing, in particular, is popular with players between 18 and 40 years old—a key demographic for the NDP.

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Amneet Singh said many of the visitors to the NDP’s Animal Crossing island are first-time prospective voters. They’re asking about the Punjabi poutine recipe—but also about student debt relief, a key point in the NDP’s platform for post-secondary students. Using Animal Crossing and Twitch and TikTok isn’t just about snagging voters, Amneet Singh said, but also building a longer-lasting relationship. “When it comes to young people, we don’t want to be transactional,” he said of the party’s approach. “We don’t want to speak to them and say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for you and now we expect you to do this for us.’”

Nonetheless, these strategies are all part of a federal election campaign where the goal is to do exactly that—make promises and win votes. Will Animal Crossing, TikTok, and Twitch use make enough of a difference to snap up young voters who might consider voting Liberal? Experts think it’s an uphill battle. “It’s easy to connect online,” Williams said. “It’s quite another thing to get them to actually come out and vote.”

Leifso is also a little cautious of the NDP’s strategy because it hasn’t yet borne fruit, but suspects it won’t lead to a surge in NDP votes on its own. “They’ll try to use those technologies to mobilize the actual voter turnout,” he says. “Whether that happens or not—I’m kind of skeptical.”

Ironically, the NDP’s Animal Crossing island is really helping the party feed one of the most common voter engagement strategies of the past decade—text-based advertising. In order to get access to the island, prospective voters need a DreamCode—and the only way to get it is by texting Jagmeet Singh’s public number. 

The morning after I tried to take my own self-guided tour of the NDP’s Animal Crossing island, a text message popped onto my phone: “Don’t forget: Election Day is Monday, September 20th – have you voted yet?” it read in part. “Let me know! Talk to you soon, friend.”

Follow Brennan Doherty on Twitter.