What Pokémon Go Can Teach Us About Winning Campaigns

For those of us of a certain age, we were just a little too old when Pokémon exploded onto the scene in 1995 on Nintendo’s Gameboy.  I was starting college that year, and thus I was too busy skipping class and arguing with my future wife during Parliamentary Debate practices to play a “kids game.”  That didn’t stop it from taking the kid world by storm, and it’s been one of the most prolific of all games, spawning a TV show, movies, and even more video games galore.

For those who want the Cliff’s Notes version of the game – basically every player is a trainer of Pokémon, cute little mutant animal things that you collect and then train to fight each other in the Arena (referred to as a “Gym” in the game).  You’re part veterinarian, part animal trainer, part circus act, and part Roman Gladiator owner.

This weekend was the launch of the latest installment, Pokémon Go, an iPhone app that let’s you play the game and incorporates real life – you walk around your neighborhood, your house, and local sites to hunt for and collect the little creatures, leveling up your training skills and theirs at the same time.  Some parts of the game requiring walking distances – for example, to hatch the egg my son and I have incubating, we need to walk a total of 5 kilometers.  We had to go to the park near our house to find a handful of  Pokémon, as well as visit two Pokéstops to pick up the in-game devices you need to catch the critters.  It was fun, we got some sun on a pleasant Sunday, and it was a way to play a game with my son that got us off the couch and out into the neighborhood.

And, of course, while we were out we ran into another kid and his older brother searching for Pokémon in our neighborhood, too.  We exchanged some pleasantries and told them what we found.

The entire time we were outside, I was thinking that this would be a great campaign tool, if somebody could make it work.

Somebody finally had a great idea to merge video games with exercise that gets you out of the house instead of just bouncing around the living room like a weirdo.  The Pokémon crew probably just got more kids outside and exercising in one weekend than the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative has in eight years.

Another friend of mine jokingly said she was waiting for the first “What the presidential campaigns/digital politics/advocacy can learn from Pokémon Go” and challenged somebody to write one.


What makes Pokémon Go fun is that it gives us an excuse to go out wandering around aimlessly in our communities – which is exactly how you win political campaigns.  Every campaign, from President to dog catcher, requires people – whether the candidate, their surrogates or volunteers, or paid staff – to get out in the community and meet people.  That’s exactly what my son and I did on our Pokéwalk.  It’s an axiom of politics that you can’t win unless you get off your ass and go walk around your neighborhood.  Races are won and lost on people’s front steps.

The other thing a campaign can learn from a game like this is to set goals, and find ways to keep volunteers motivated.  When I ran for office in 2011, the House Republican caucus had a door-knocking challenge for all of our candidates – the candidate who knocked the most doors each week got a $1,000 contribution from the Majority Leader’s PAC.  That year I traded winning weeks with my friends Barbara Comstock and David Ramadan. Over the two months we had the challenge, the three of us won a combined six or seven times if I recall correctly.  I won twice.  That challenge gave me an even greater incentive to do something I already should have been doing – which is what Pokémon Go does for kids and exercise.  They’ve got a reason to go out now beyond their parents yelling at them to get out from in front of their screens.

It’s like a Fitbit for kids.

The last, and most important thing that Pokémon Go can teach political campaigns is to have fun.  Even if I have to walk 5 kilometers to hatch that egg, it’s fun to take part in something like this that lets me hang out with my son and also helps keep him and me in shape (although he’s in way better shape than me).  Setting goals, meeting people, finding common ground – these are all things that you have to do in a campaign in order to win and they’re things that the game has made part of winning.

After all, all politics is local, just like Pokémon Go.

So as you see people wandering around even more glued to their phones than usual – and, like me, holding hands with an excited six year old – you’ll know why they’re doing it.  And if you’re a political guy (or gal – thanks for the edit, honey), you can take a few lessons from the game that can help you win, too.  Knock doors, meet people, get out in the community.  It’s what wins campaigns.


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