On Monday, the United States government went into shutdown, due to Congress being unable to pass a new budget or a continuing resolution. For some USgamer readers and our readers in other countries, this is an abstract concept; your life many not be directly affected by the shutdown.
I know this, because there's still a layer between me and the direct results of this shutdown, despite living in the DC Metro area. I live a short distance from our capital, Ft. Meade, the NSA, and NASA. I count among my friends those who have been furloughed and those who will be furloughed soon. Even for them, there's a worry and a hope. One week is an unplanned vacation, but what if it stretches for two or three weeks?
In an effort to both understand and distance myself for the scary reality of the shutdown, I turned to a new game currently in an "early access" beta that so many developers are turning to these days: Positech Games' Democracy 3. Our lawmakers seem to have trouble running a country, but could I do any better?
A quick purchase and download found me as the new President of the United States, a member of the People's Elbow party. My opponents? The All Diesel All The Time party. Did I base my political duality on the conflict between Vin Diesel and The Rock in Fast Five? Yes, I did, for the conflict is pure, and I wanted that reflected in my government. Democracy 3 only allows two parties and that's by design according to Democracy 3 designer Cliff Harris.
"[Two parties] actually makes it, in my view, a less interesting game, because it's then more a game of political tactics and machinations," Harris tells me. "The current game is more of a 'prove your ideas for governing work' challenge rather than a 'play these two opponents off against each other' game of diplomacy. I prefer issues to tactics."
Democracy 3 is a game about balance. Your main screen is full of small colored icons that represent policies (white), statistics based on certain concepts (blue), and ongoing situations (green and red). This screen morphs and changes as you add more policies, change old policies, and new situations appear due to your actions or inaction. In the center, there's the different voting groups. In Democracy 3, each individual voter belongs to multiple groups, so there's very little chance of you making everyone happy.
Everything is connected. Some of these connections are broad, while some are slight. There are a ton of things that affect the Capitalist voting group, like the Capital Gains Tax, Unemployment Benefits, Pollution Controls, and even Private Prisons. Whereas a policy like Subsidized School Buses only affects the Bus Usage statistic and the Parents voting group. But you have to worry about the knock-on effects: those school buses drive Bus Usage higher, which lowers Car and Rail Usage and increases Oil Demand. Oil Demand negatively affects Energy Efficiency, and so on. Everything you do affects something else.
"Modders have huge passion, energy and time, and great ideas. Why would anybody not want to open up their game to be extended and improved in that way?"
"Mostly this is just a gut feeling from my own experience and knowledge," Harris replies when I ask how he determines what affects what. "I am a bit of a political geek, and also studied pure economics at the London school of economics, so this is kind of 'my area' in terms of background knowledge. The simulation is, by nature of being in a game, a fairly simplified approximation of the real world, so actual real world data does not map nicely onto the games code, so using real world equations for those effects is not an option, it has to be just informed guesswork."
Harris tells me that he gets accused of adding his own biases to Democracy 3 all the time, so he made the game very moddable. Every policy, statistic, and voting group can be tweaked and changed in the game via CSV and TXT files. Harris is cognizant of keeping the game pure, so he tries to remain neutral when developing it.
"Anyone can edit any of those connections using just a copy of Windows Notepad, and I put a fairly extensive modding tutorial on my website," he explains. "Its so easy to enable modding, that I just don't understand anyone who doesn't do it. Modders have huge passion, energy and time, and great ideas. Why would anybody not want to open up their game to be extended and improved in that way?"
"I have held a variety of political views over the years, and read a huge amount of political opinion, so I find it possible to argue almost any policy from multiple angles," he adds. "I am not a political extremist, so although I hold views, I tend to respect other peoples views to the extent that I understand the logic that leads them there, even if I disagree with the conclusions, and hopefully that allows me to look at things in as neutral a way as possible. It can be tricky though."
Making changes to policies in Democracy 3 requires political capital, which you gain each turn (turns represent a quarter of each year). For a long time, I lacked the political capital to strike down the Death Penalty policy that was in place when I took office. That's important to me, but it was something I was unable to touch with my original cabinet. Each cabinet member is rated on their loyalty and efficiency and brings a certain amount of political capital to the table. I ended up firing my Public Service Minister to get someone more loyal on board, which gave me more political capital per turn. Being unable to do anything about the Death Penalty for a very long time saddened me, but my hands were tied. Or there's Work Safety Laws, which I wanted to implement as a new policy, but kept skipping because it wasn't popular with voters. There were better uses of my political capital.
Realizing that is illuminating if you've never thought deeply about government. Harris admits that developing the Democracy games has changed how he views his government in the UK and in other countries.
"I have a huge sympathy for politicians who change their minds, or break promises or seem to be acting irrationally or in a short-term way."
"It has definitely changed my views regarding the actual mechanics of politics, in that I have a huge sympathy for politicians who change their minds, or break promises or seem to be acting irrationally or in a short-term way," he tells me. "All of those things are very common in the game. I find myself breaking promises I have with myself about how to govern, panicking as elections draw near, and getting completely sidetracked by events. I find I can seem to be making completely rational decisions in my own head, but when I look at the laws I enact and the policy decisions I make, it seems totally scattergun to the voters!"
Sometimes, all the choices can be stifling, but Democracy 3 provides focus groups, ministers, and detailed graphs to help you. Every turn, it also provides a simple digest of the changes in your government and any hot button issues that require your attention.
Visually, Democracy 2 hasn't changed too much from its predecessor, but the game's focus on things that affect government has changed. Democracy 2 came out in 2007, and certain things have become far more important to world governments than they were before.
"There is much more focus on government spending, debt, and the politics of austerity and the whole big/small state argument now," Harris tells me. "Plus the environment is possibly a bigger concern, and so is energy independence. A lot of those issues were not covered in much detail in the earlier games, and it was definitely time to start addressing them when I started work on Democracy 3."
Harris is currently developing the game and with the US government in shutdown, I wonder if that's something that will be added to Democracy 3. Can the All Diesel All The Time party completely stop my actions cold by refusing to work with me?
"I didn't expect [the shutdown] to happen," says Harris. "I don't want to put that into the game, because it changes the focus of the game, which is about government, not politics, which I consider very separate."
"I didn't expect [the shutdown] to happen. I don't want to put that into the game, because it changes the focus of the game, which is about government, not politics, which I consider very separate."
"What we are seeing in the USA now is a high stakes political game of poker, being played by political tacticians," he continues. "The whole 'tactical' side of politics just depresses me and I don't find it intellectually interesting. I'm interested in the Democrats' proposals for fixing the country's problems, and also interested in the Republicans' proposals, and I like that whole debate over big/small state and tax/debt levels. I think that is the focus of interesting debate and decision, whereas shutting down the government or not passing the budget is a short-termist political stunt in many ways. Right now the government is paralyzed and no actual governing is going on. Except in my game."
Players can jump in and try Democracy 3 in its early access form for $25. Democracy 3 may not change your life, but if you have the money, it's a good change of perspective. The game makes you think about what you're doing and how it impacts the voters. Things that look simple for you - why would I touch Military Spending when it lowers unemployment and keeps two voting groups happy - make little sense when you think about it from the voters perspective. I originally balked at the $25 price, but after playing it, I feel it's $25 well-spent just to take a deeper look into government. I ask Harris what he thinks about those who think $25 is too steep for a primarily text and graph-based game.
"The format of the user interface does not denote quality," Harris says. "If people want amazing visual effects, go buy Battlefield 4. This is a very complex, very deep strategy game that will challenge your beliefs, your world view, and make you look at society, government and politics in a different way. There is no other game like it."
"This isn't a game for everyone, it won't sell a million copies. It's a niche product, and niche products command a higher price to break even, that's why reference books and technical books cost so much. I'm not appealing to players of Angry Birds or Call of Duty with this game. It exists in it's own very specific niche, albeit one that seems incredibly relevant right now. If you are disappointed the game doesn't have 3D graphics, then move along, because it absolutely is not the game for you."
And if you're wondering, I barely squeaked through into my second term. Take that, Diesel!