As the Bush and Kerry campaigns frantically troll for votes, you've probably caught yourself doing some armchair Shrumming and Roveing. Sure, everyone feels like a strategic mastermind when they're yelling at the TV about energizing the base. But how good would you really be as a strategist?
Now you can find out by playing up to four video game simulations of the presidential campaign. As Steven Johnson wrote last year, it's hard to believe that election sims didn't exist sooner. Running a campaign isn't that much different from running a football team or a battle squadron, and video games already do a superb job of modeling that stuff. In the four games I tried, strategy—moving your team around, allocating resources—was more important than the issues. Mostly, I got some practice gazing lustfully at vote-rich states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Playing as Kerry in one round of Political Machine, I won the popular vote but lost the election. The game didn't offer me a recount.
The best feature of the simulation genre is the plentiful what-if scenarios. Play as Nader and try to spoil Kerry's chances. If you're a Republican, get some illicit jollies by playing as John Kerry, just like American war gamers like to play as the Axis powers in World War II games. Most even allow you to run four candidates from four different parties. And if you don't like the pre-packaged possibilities (Kerry, Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Political Machine), you can just create your own.
The main shortfall with all these games, though, is that you can't conduct realistic TV interviews and debates. When you get hauled onto a Sunday talk show, for instance, you're limited to just a few pre-programmed responses. Considering that modern campaigns can turn on a single misstatement, all these games feel like they're missing a crucial piece.
After a couple days in the war room, I ranked the four campaign sims on a scale of 1 to 10 in the following categories:
Realism: Some games try to mimic reality—Texas is a red state, New York is a blue state. Others are more fanciful and cartoony. I'm biased in favor of realism.
Wonkiness: How complex is the game? Does it let you tweak how many campaign staff you have in Wisconsin? The more depth the better, I figured—that is, until I realized that too much information can make a game annoyingly hard to play.
Fun: Is it enjoyable to play the game multiple times? Ease of play matters, too: Games got points if they were simple to jump into, didn't require slogging through manuals, and were easy on the eyes.
Realpolitik: Do you know more about politics after playing?
The results, from worst to best: