It’s all fun and games until Jagmeet Singh reaches 60,000 people on Twitch

OTTAWA — Five nights before election day, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh sat by himself at the back of an echoing gaming studio in Vaughan, Ont., as two computer monitors and a ring light illuminated his face.

Then, he drew a picture of himself defeating Justin Trudeau at the ballot box.

Singh was spending his Wednesday night with 10 popular streamers — hailing from cities across Canada and the United States — on Twitch, a livestreaming platform where users often play online games together.

The two other major party leaders, in comparison, chose to spend their evenings congregating with their bases in Quebec.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole took part in a rally in Orford attended by more than 100 people, where he received an in-person endorsement from former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau rallied with supporters late at night in Longueuil, drumming up support and taking selfies with voters.

Singh, meanwhile, spent an hour and a half playing a game called Gartic Phone, a combination of Pictionary and telephone. In the game, someone issues a prompt — “Trudeau losing the election to Jagmeet” was an option one player, who wasn’t Singh, supplied — and another player draws it. That image is then shown to the next player, who writes a description of the image, followed by another player who then draws a new picture based on the new description. Play continues until everyone has had a turn adding to the chain — the results are often amusing, and the final product can sometimes be light years away from the original concept.

But even though Singh was sharing laughs with gamers online while his competitors were mingling with Canadians in a sought-after province, he wasn’t sketching absurd things on the internet just for fun.

More than 60,000 people tuned into the livestream; an audience generated not just from Singh’s Twitch following, but from among the several million followers of the streamers he was playing with.

There was a constant flow of comments beneath the stream’s chat box: people pumping up Singh or declaring that the NDP had their vote — plus the typical vulgarity that comes with engaging online.

People were encouraged to chat with Singh by texting a cell number displayed at the bottom of the screen, and off to the right was a QR code that took viewers to the NDP’s webpage on how to vote. In the middle of the event, the NDP leader took a moment to tell the audience about his day packed with whistle stops and went over some of his party’s platform pledges.

Earlier in the day in Essex, Ont., Singh made the argument that knocking on doors or rallying with people late at night doesn’t make much sense, so why don’t you just meet them where they are?

Meeting people where they are is a longtime campaign strategy, and it’s certainly not exclusive to the NDP. But the New Democrats have capitalized on the online and digital space this election in a way other parties haven’t, turning to platforms like Twitch, TikTok and Nintendo, which are popular with the public but remain niche in politics.

Singh’s Wednesday Twitch stream was only the second time he’s appeared on the website; the first was with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in late 2020.

The use of the platform is an interesting choice for Singh. Twitch is owned by Amazon, the e-commerce giant the leader has repeatedly attacked throughout the campaign as an example, he says, of a corporation not paying its fair share.

And in March, more than 600 Amazon workers contracted COVID-19 at a facility in Brampton, a city where just an hour before, Singh was mobilizing supporters.

“I’m going to use any platform that I can to reach out to people and to speak to people,” Singh told reporters that morning, adding that he won’t stop criticizing the company.

“I still use my cellphone, even though I think telecom companies are exploiting people,” he said.

And while seeing a federal party leader having fun online seems at odds with the seriousness of Canada’s current political and public health landscape, that doesn’t mean unconventional strategies shouldn’t be deployed, says the NDP’s digital director Amneet Singh Bali.

“The pandemic has been difficult for folks, and they have found joy in the smallest things. Getting online and playing games with people on the internet, versus being able to do it in person, is one way to do that,” he said.

“If Jagmeet could have made someone laugh a little bit last night, but also talked to them about some serious topics, I think he’s accomplished his job.”

As for the prompt about Trudeau losing the election to Singh, it was one of the few phrases that seemed to be clearly understood by all players. Halfway through the round, a player called Northernlion interpreted Singh’s drawing of Trudeau crying at the ballot box as “the NDP wins all 338 ridings in a landslide.”

In the world of online gaming, at least, anything is possible.