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:
Frontrunner (Lantern Games, $24.95)
On the plus side, this is pretty simple to play: Pick your political orientation—from "far left leaning" to "far right leaning"—and a handful of pet issues you support, and you're ready to go. It's a quick election, playable in half an hour, but there's not much nuance here. Once you've picked your political spectrum, you're stuck with the very limited range of policy statements that the computer deems appropriate. Another huge drawback is that the map of the United States is incredibly clumsy: There are no names or borders around the states, so when you want to move your candidate to Ohio, you have to click blindly in the general direction of the Midwest. I also got annoyed when, after fighting to an Electoral College tie, the game announced that the election would be decided by a House vote. Then it was over—they didn't bother to tell me who won.
Realism: 4; Wonk Factor: 3; Fun: 2; Realpolitik: 3; Total: 12/40
eLECTIONS (Cable in the Classroom, free online)
This game starts off like a fairly rigorous simulation: Choose five core issues and your stances on them—"I oppose the Patriot Act and would vote to repeal it." Quickly, it devolves into a goofy version of Candyland. Your game piece—a donkey or an elephant—hops along a game board as you pray that you catch a nice break ("Opponent tells racist joke at fundraiser") and don't land on a scandal ("Skeleton in the closet"). While you do have to make the occasional decision—attend that pro-gay-rights fund-raiser or not?—there's no way to really hone your strategy. The major plus is that this is by far the easiest game to play: I ran a campaign in under 20 minutes and snared 384 electoral votes!
Realism: 2; Wonk Factor: 3; Fun: 6; Realpolitik: 3; Total: 14/40
President Forever (80soft.com, $12) This one is for C-SPAN junkies who dream of micromanaging every tiny facet of a campaign. Track 22 major issues (the war, health care, taxes) and check up on how you're rated on each one in every state. You can also give your candidate stances that aren't black or white by sliding a bar from left to right until you reach the perfect position. (Watch out if you change your position on the fly, though. I got nailed as a flip-flopper when I abruptly supported higher taxes for the rich. Hey, polls showed the public supported it!) One nice feature is that the game acknowledges the existence of the media. When headlines pop up—"Kerry makes gaffe on Integrity issue!"—there's a little "spin" button next to it that lets you expend some of your political energy to blunt the damage. It's also easy to construct fantasy scenarios. Fans have created games to simulate old elections like Hoover vs. Smith and Garfield vs. Hancock, where Howard Dean is a powerful third-party candidate, and in which the Electoral College has been reformed. (Try these yourself by downloading the scenarios.) The downside is information overload. If you don't pay close attention to the blizzard of stats from each state, you won't notice when the battlegrounds are slipping away. Playing as Kerry, I lost every state but Washington and Maine. Ouch.
Realism: 8; Wonk Factor: 9; Fun: 7; Realpolitik: 7; Total: 31/40
Political Machine (Ubisoft, $19.99)
If Apple created campaign software, this is what you'd get: a clean, smooth interface that invites newbies to jump right in. As you roam the country, little animated icons track where you and your running mate are going, who's raising cash, and which candidate is running ad campaigns where. The map is particularly well-crafted, shading the states deeper or lighter shades of red and blue as they slip in and out of your grasp. There's also just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek humor—look out for the Michael Moore-esque propagandist. Another nice feature is that you can play a series of back-to-back campaigns that pit you against increasingly difficult candidates. You'll discover, much as Walter Mondale did, that Reagan is pretty tough. While not quite as tweakable as President Forever, Political Machine does offer terrific fantasy possibilities—ever wondered how a George Washington/Hillary Clinton ticket would do? This is also the only game where you can play head to head against other wannabe strategists online. Maybe Bob Shrum's even fighting to win Florida right now—against a 13-year-old kid from North Dakota.
Realism: 7; Wonk Factor: 8; Fun: 10; Realpolitik: 8; Total: 33/40