Politics as Eternal Horserace or Effective Governance?

The main screen of “Democracy 2”, showing the different policy areas and the demographic polling in the center.

Two games present differing visions.

As I have alluded to in an earlier piece, politics is not exactly the most popular subject for videogames, even in genres that would lend themselves to realistic portrayals of the political process. However, in this time of political conventions I thought it would be worth the time to look at the contrasting visions presented by two games, Democracy 2 and President Forever 2008. Their differing visions in part are a function of the different focuses of the games; Democracy 2 is about the business of governance, while President Forever is about the unholy art of attaining political office, in this case the presidency of the US.

Democracy 2 is politics as the civics textbook would tell it. The game puts the player in the position of leader in one of several fictional (though clearly based upon real-world) nations. After setting the rules of the game, such as deciding the proportions of some political demographics (socialists, environmentalists, etc.), the player is thrust into leadership.

There are seven policy areas under the player’s purview, ranging from transport to welfare and tax. These seven areas slice up the main screen, with the middle filled with a box showing approval ratings from all 20 demographics of the electorate, plus two ratings that represent approval from the populace as a whole. Inside of these 7 slices, there are three types of clickable icons, as shown in the above picture; statistics icons (crime rate, GDP, unemployment), policy icons (tax rate, military funding) and arguably the most important set of icons, the flaming-red icons that denote pressing problems, like crime waves or hospital bed shortages.

A look at what’s making the “Patriot” demographic in “Democracy 2” tick.

The game under default settings is quite realistic in its depiction of politics, in the sense that it models “political capital,” or the amount of “control” over the government needed to adjust policies. Adjusting funding levels upward, downward, or eliminating programs altogether require differing levels of this ‘capital’, which is represented as a literal number. While this is a valiant effort to simulate the real-world difficulty of changing longstanding policy, I find that it is still too easy to tweak major policies, but this could be a side effect of continued exposure to American politics.

However, the biggest divergence from realism in Democracy 2 is arguably an inevitable consequence of its design; the lack of unpredictability. Policy pages are accompanied by green and red bars showing effect on both demographic opinions and various statistics. While there are random one-off events that are semi-influenced by policies, the whole concept of The Law of Unintended Consequences seems to be absent from the modeling of policy effects. What you see is essentially what you get, which makes the game predictable after a certain length of time playing it.

The main map view of President Forever. Notice the daily activity selection screen to the right.

Closer to the other side of the idealism to cynicism scale is the electoral simulation President Forever 2008. The developer, 270Soft, has settled very snugly into this niche; other titles focus on Canadian, British, and German elections. The goal of President Forever is very simple; to triumph in the electoral college at the end of a campaign.

The simulation is clever in that it rewards indulgence in the morally ambiguous games of electoral politics, but only to a certain point. Running relentlessly negative ads is nice, until one of them “backfires.” Shifting positions to please differing electorates and regions is good, until it prompts a “flip flopper” headline, and so on.

The game also manages to nicely capture the tendencies of the campaign media. Of the several activities the candidate can perform on any given day, the most essential tool is the barnstorm, which describes your basic “roll into town and shake hands” event. Oftentimes this generates headlines from the in-game newspaper about where the candidate went, which feed the news cycle. A candidate looking tired on the trail generates an even bigger headline.

An accidental commentary on the repetitive nature of a horserace-focused media. Screenshot taken from a user-generated scenario simulating the 2009 New York mayoral race.

In fact, because of the limitations of the computer simulation and a likely desire to sidestep the possibility of political controversy, the in-game media perfectly simulates the preference of the real media to magnify gaffes and focus on campaign set-pieces instead of policy. The overlap between  the headlines generated by the in-game newspaper and the types of useless political pieces highlighted by a recent piece on the comedy website Cracked is almost exact.

So which vision of politics is closer to reality? Both games are true to their respective portions of the political process;  governing is no picnic, but Democracy 2 is a bit too predictable in the policymaking department, and a bit too easy in the problem-solving department. Running for political office, on the other hand, is an exhausting exercise in crunching data, tailoring pitches, and manipulating the media, a task that President Forever manages to capture well enough. Either game makes for an entertaining diversion.

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