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AOC on her return to Twitch and the politics of gaming

About three years ago, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrestled with computer wires and webcams while hundreds of thousands of people watched, waiting for her to play a relatively simple video game. It felt awkward, but she knew that comes with the territory of live-stream entertainment.

“You need to be willing to take risks and be cringe online in order to get to what you’re trying to get to,” she told The Washington Post in an interview.

In three hours that October evening, the left-wing political star known popularly as AOC nearly broke live-streaming records on Twitch. In less than a minute, she amassed an audience of 163,000. At one point, nearly half a million people were watching the congresswoman play “Among Us,” a multiplayer cat-and-mouse game about sabotage on a spaceship.

Ocasio-Cortez, 33, has planned her sequel Twitch stream for Saturday evening, when she will mix gaming with a discussion of the newly powerful labor movement behind America’s “summer of strikes.” (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Post and whose board member Patty Stonesifer is The Post’s interim CEO.)

It will be her first time playing “Pico Park,” a multiplayer game that requires players to cooperate to solve puzzles. But Ocasio-Cortez tells The Post that her streaming is no gimmick. She was a gamer long before she was a politician.

Her first home video game console was Nintendo’s original Game Boy. When her cousin got an original Sony PlayStation, she fell in love with “PaRappa the Rapper,” a rhythm-based game starring a rapping dog.

“Oh my God, it blew my mind,” she says. “As a kid I had no concept of what this thing was, pressing symbols in time, it was like magic.”

Her fiancé Riley Roberts introduced her to “League of Legends,” the world’s most popular esport, when they started dating in college. “He taught me how to play,” she says. “From there, the jump to streaming is very small because you start watching esports and live-streamed events, then Twitch as a platform really started to grow.”

That’s not to say the congresswoman, who famously worked behind a cocktail bar in Manhattan before she defeated 20-year-incumbent Joseph Crowley in the 2018 Democratic primary, can separate her political stardom from her streaming success.

When she decided to adapt her popular Instagram livestreams to Twitch during New York’s pandemic lockdown in 2020, she reached out to Hasan Piker — a former journalist for the progressive outlet the Young Turks and now Twitch’s most popular political commentator. Piker and his team gave the congresswoman technical advice and connected her with other influencers. Ocasio-Cortez had friends drop off high-quality webcams and other computer equipment at her Manhattan apartment.

She spent the first 20 minutes of her inaugural stream struggling to set up equipment, fiddling with recording software and cables while tens of thousands of viewers waited for the game to start.

On-camera technical difficulties might be a traditional broadcaster’s nightmare, but Twitch audiences are trained to brush it off, and before long the congresswoman was navigating a cartoon avatar around a spaceship, joking on the mic and fielding questions from the blur of viewer comments that scrolled nonstop beside her video feed.

“I think the lack of predictability on a stream is what makes it compelling,” Ocasio-Cortez says. “Being able to be comfortable in the chaos of inviting so many people in the conversation … you need to be okay with that. I think so many political venues are about control, a hypersensitivity to optics. Sometimes the conversation you want to have is not the natural thing to discuss at that moment.”

While her political interjections in her 2020 stream focused mostly on voter registration, Ocasio-Cortez plans to use Saturday’s reprise to introduce viewers to the basics of the labor movement — an apt topic as Hollywood writers and actors strike together for the first time since 1960, and UPS drivers threaten the country’s largest work stoppage in half a century by the end of July.

“Support for unions is at historic highs, but the concentration of unionized labor as part of the American workforce has been systematically brought down,” she says. “So you have this massive gap between the number of Americans that support unions and those that never had the opportunity to be in a union.”

“I think the first potential misconception is that only certain places are for union work,” she adds, recalling her days a nonunionized restaurant worker. “Virtually any workplace in America can be organized and unionized.”

That includes the video games industry, which is larger and more profitable than the movie and music business combined. Earlier this month, Sega of America workers in fields like bug testing, product development and marketing filed for a union election and, if successful, could become the largest video game union.

“I think the best organizing is not just meeting people where they are, but also meeting ourselves where we’re already at, and ask how can we take things that we already enjoy and imbue them with more community and purpose,” Ocasio-Cortez says.

She still plays “League,” but has taken more to cozier, slow-paced games when she isn’t streaming or lawmaking. She did some political outreach on Nintendo’s life-simulation game “Animal Crossing” in early 2020, but has since lost her save file and found a new passion in the life sim indie hit “Stardew Valley.” She says she completed it during the 18-hour flight to Japan for a congressional delegation visitin February.

Ocasio-Cortez has come to see games as an important political medium because of their ability to gather people across generations.

“It’s kind of like the way some of my colleagues talk about golf,” she says.

Ocasio-Cortez’s stream is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. on her Twitch channel. She plans to play “Pico Park” with Piker and other popular Twitch streamers.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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