Why isn't there a good political video game?

Inside the Internet.
Dec. 16 2003 1:58 PM

SimCandidate

Video games simulate sports, business, and war. Why not politics?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

If you browse through the titles and descriptions of the "simulation" games at any software store, you might think you were looking at the syllabus of a sociology lecture. Beyond the ever-popular SimCity franchise are games such as Tropico that let you run a virtual banana republic, or ones like Civilization and Age of Empires that reconstruct historical epochs with astonishing levels of detail. A recent game called Republic allows players to simulate the overthrow of an authoritarian Eastern bloc regime: You can build an insurgent military force, or you can win converts through old-fashioned ideological persuasion. Now, the Tate Gallery in London has funded an ambitious project to simulate an alternate political system using the conventions of multiplayer online gaming.

All of which leads to a question: The U.S. presidential campaign may be the first true election of the digital age, but it's still missing one key ingredient. Where is the video-game version of Campaign 2004? Political simulations are practically ubiquitous in the gaming world, but you're more likely to find a game that will let you stage a Spartacus-style slave revolt than one that will let you win the Iowa caucuses.

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This is a strange state of affairs, because presidential politics lends itself naturally to the idiom and audience of today's games. Political campaigns are already structured like games, with an escalating series of discrete competitions that determine the eventual winner. In addition, there's an existing body of readily available data, going back many decades, that could be harnessed to craft the simulation. And the country is filled with Monday-morning Carvilles who cultivate their own theories on how to win the Rust Belt, or why the Republican southern strategy is overrated.

The game mechanics would be relatively simple: a mix of Risk, SimCity, and a sports franchise simulation. Each candidate could be ranked according to various attributes, the way a football sim distinguishes between the injury-prone and the invincible, the fumblers and the golden arms. Some candidates play well on television, while others do better at rallies. Some are genius fund-raisers. Others don't connect well with Latino voters. You pick (or build) a candidate with those attributes in mind and then plan a strategy, starting with a limited campaign pot. You could skip Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, woo the national media and Wall Street financiers in the Northeast corridor, or spend all your cash talking trash about your opponents via negative ads.

A number of best-selling sports simulations could be easily translated into the world of politics. The latest version of Sega's World Series Baseball 2K3, for example, gives you an entire organization to manage. You can trade players, nurture minor leaguers, negotiate salaries, and sign free agents. Player emotions are even factored in. Bench a highly paid prima donna for a few days, and his productivity will diminish, just as it would on the real-world diamond. Sure, more people may be passionate about sports than are passionate about politics, but by the same token there are far more people out there interested in politics than in urban planning, and SimCity manages to be one of the most popular games of all time.

Best of all, a campaign sim could let you experiment with different historical conditions. Could Clinton have won in '92 if the economy had improved a year earlier than it did? Would Nixon have won in '68 if we hadn't been at war in Vietnam? You could even borrow a popular convention from the world of sport sims: dream match-ups. Run Reagan against Clinton, or have George W. compete against his Poppy in 1988.

Why hasn't a good campaign sim come to market? It may have something to do with the fact that the actual day-to-day activities of being a politician don't translate well to the game format. Because artificial-intelligence and natural-language technologies are still in their embryonic stage, complex negotiations are stilted and robotic in most games. (This isn't the case with multiplayer games, where you're negotiating with actual humans, not simulated characters.) Your ability to control the expressiveness of an onscreen character is also not terribly advanced. It's hard to imagine how a designer could make delivering a speech into a satisfying gaming experience.

You can see these difficulties at work in Republic, the game in which you try to topple a tyrannical regime. Anytime your character has a meeting with someone else in the world—to win support, to intimidate, or to snoop around for information on the opposition— the game reverts to a bizarre "point allocation" system structured somewhat like a card game. You play a "hand" of various persuasive strategies—such as "ego boost" or "coax"—and wait for a response from your target. After eight rounds, you've either achieved your objective or not. In a game that prides itself on verisimilitude, the whole system seems out of place. Here you are trying to overturn a brutal dictator, and you keep sitting down with potential allies to play bridge.

But these problems disappear if you structure the political sim around the campaign manager, rather than the politician. From that vantage point, it becomes a game of strategy and resource management, not personal or rhetorical skills. The candidate is just one of many pieces on your chessboard. The fun of the game wouldn't be about trying to perform well on Meet the Press; it'd be about deciding whether or not to let your politician appear on Meet the Press. Campaign managers have a sometimes irritating tendency to describe their job using sports and military metaphors. The simulated version of Campaign 2004 would port that rhetoric over to the game world, borrowing from the conventions of both military and sports simulations.

Professional athletes have been known to come home from a hard day on the job, kick back on the couch, fire up the PlayStation 2, and play themselves on the television. If you built enough realism into a political sim, I suspect real-world campaign managers would follow suit. It's 2 a.m. and you're in a Motel 6 in Dubuque. What would you rather do: Post to the campaign blog, or lose three hours simulating Super Tuesday?

Steven Johnson is the author of five books, including Everything Bad Is Good For You andThe Ghost Map, and co-founder of Outside.in.