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Democratic Party's virtual reality game featuring Renho draws mixed reactions

In this advertisement for the Democratic Party's "VR Renho" for "Niconico Chokaigi," the text, top, asks "Can YOU handle the questioning from Renho that has been experienced by many Cabinet ministers?" In her speech bubble, Renho, right, is delivering her famous line "Tell me where it is that you see the freedom to play around here?"

A virtual reality (VR) game released in March by the largest opposition Democratic Party (DP) featuring party president Renho is gathering attention as many political parties try new methods to involve more young people in politics.

    In the game "VR Renho," players can become the prime minister trying to endure questioning from DP President Renho during Diet deliberations. Renho attacks with some of her famous lines such as "Huh? I don't understand the mean of that," and "Where do you see the freedom to play around here?" The game displays the player's level of composure in the face of Renho's grilling by measuring changes in the player's pulse rate.

    The DP has received strong criticism from both outside and inside the party that the game is "stupid," but the DP's youth division that developed the game, maintains that it would like to connect with young people who are currently disinterested in politics. As part of their planned appeal to youth, the game will be featured in video sharing website operator Dwango Co.'s event "Niconico Chokaigi 2017" to be held at Makuhari Messe in Chiba from April 29-30.

    2017 marks the sixth year that Dwango will put on the event, which gathered roughly 150,000 participants over its two-day span last year. In 2013, political parties joined the event for the first time, with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the then Democratic Party of Japan (the DP's predecessor), and the Japanese Communist Party all having booths. This year, the LDP and its coalition partner Komeito will also join the DP at the event.

    According to the DP's youth division, the first year that the party participated it focused on the sale of party goods and panel discussions featuring party legislators, but it had a hard time attracting visitors to the booth.

    "If we one-sidedly broadcast 'what we want to say,' then the distance between us and youth will grow wider," says Akihisa Hanaoka of the youth division. "I want to attract young people to us with interesting content." Last year, the party introduced a claw machine game called "brain wave catcher" that moved in reaction to the brainwaves of players when they looked at a collage of photos of DP legislators. The game was well received, leading to the development of this year's game which uses the newest VR technology.

    With debate about the revision to the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds, along with other important political issues, coming to the forefront when the details of VR Renho were made public in late March, it received heavy criticism online. Comments included, "I get the feeling something is wrong here," and "They are showing their incompetence as a party whose identity is only questioning the current administration."

    On the other hand, as part of a pre-event for Niconico Chokaigi, VR Renho won the popularity vote among 14 participating groups, and some have expressed that the game looks interesting and they want to try it. "The Diet is extremely far from women and young people. Any sort of connection will do," says youth division deputy director Takae Ito. "This is the result of tirelessly seeking a connection to people with no interest in politics."

    The LDP has also been searching for ways to connect to young people. Last year at Niconico Chokaigi, it appealed to young people by inviting them to experience giving speeches in loud speaker cars and showing off the smartphone game application "Abepyon" featuring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the main character on large screens. Its theme for this year is that a "sweet party" cannot defend Japan, so it will become the "spicy party," holding curry tastings among other events.

    In response to VR Renho, a representative in charge of LDP headquarters commented that, "It's a good opportunity to get young people interested in politics, and our party also considers this event to be important."

    Kazuhisa Kawakami, a professor of political psychology at the International University of Health and Welfare who specializes in youth participation in politics, says that while he can't criticize the parties for trying out various approaches to boost interest, "If voter education is not realized first, it will be difficult to expand the participation of young people in politics."

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