It’s rare to find video games devoted to politics. Yeah, we’ve had countless RPGs where you have to balance favor between factions, but that is primitive politics at best and usually your decisions have negligible impacts on gameplay that can always be reversed. True political simulations are a rarity. Perhaps it’s because it’s such a difficult task, to create games based on developing something as complex as an entire political system. Maybe it’s because there’s just a small niche of players out there interested in that kind of game. However, despite the effort, difficulty, and limited audience, that didn’t stop Cliff Harris, the one-man developer of this game, from attempting to create a real, full-fledged political simulator. The result was Democracy.
I was especially intrigued by this game because I am a political science major at my university. I’ve spent the last four years of my life with my nose buried in text books trying to make sense of international politics in the hopes that someone will pay me when I graduate (unfortunately, I can’t live on the money that I don’t make here at Thunderbolt Games). Democracy can be easily obtained over at www.matrixgames.com as a relatively small (~70 MB download) for just $19.99 USD.
Democracy is a rather simple looking game. Heavily menu driven, most of your time will be spent staring at charts and graphs as you attempt the difficult task of balancing a budget and maintaining the happiness of all your various constituents. At first, it can seem rather easy – if your nation is in debt, simply raise taxes. But this will cause a majority of your people to hate you. So, you can attempt a variety of solutions – reductions in military spending, legalization of gambling, reductions in welfare spending and so on, but they all have consequences. Say you decrease military spending – you’ll gain support amongst some groups, but other political groups will be strongly opposed. Your efforts to make peace with your critics will often have the negative effect of hurting your favor amongst your supporters. There’s always someone to worry about and your decisions will always have consequences – and in this turn-based strategy game, you can only make a few decisions over a three month period, so you have to wait and see how those initiatives play out.
I don’t really know how to tackle this type of game and explain my experiences very clearly other than to narrate them. In my first game, I chose to become the President of the United States of America. I was instantly faced with a number of issues, including increasing pollution, rising asthma amongst my citizens, and a budget deficit. I set to work immediately. First, I invested money heavily into new forms of transportation – a national monorail system, rail subsidies, and public bus passes. I was still heavily in debt, but instead of raising taxes, I chose to spend more money and invest heavily in a number of programs to improve the economy. I increased subsidies to farmers, improved education, and began new programs to increase spending in technology. To keep the debt from skyrocketing any further, I decreased spending in the military.
These initiatives have profound effects. Not only did my transportation policies reduce pollution drastically, they also helped improve the air quality, which had the added effect of reducing the rise of asthma. My investment in the economy also had great effects. America’s GDP rose substantially and the decreases in unemployment raised tax revenue. Within my first term, I had successfully turned the economy around and I was re-elected.
To get re-elected, I had to issue some campaign promises. I made promises to reduce crime and improve income equality. Again, my initiatives were successful. Despite some grumblings from my Capitalist constituents, I increased government spending on social welfare programs, particularly in public housing and healthcare. Though my liberal constituents were against it, I instituted several policies to reduce crime, including arming the police and instituting a national ID card system which markedly (almost unrealistically – a 90% drop over the course of two years) redouced crime. To keep everyone happy, I reduced corporate taxes to please the Capitalists and legalized marijuana to keep the liberals relaxed.
I was re-elected once again (term limits don’t exist in this game). I had to make more promises, but I was running out of options to choose. I chose to reduce poverty and reduce unemployment, but I really couldn’t. I received a message during my third term that poverty was non-existent in America and unemployment could only rise. I quickly began a number of new initiatives aimed at keeping the economy rolling. I spent more and more money on a variety of new programs, including programs to develop alternate fuels. My transportation initiatives were finally coming to fruition. Automobile use dramatically decreased, air quality drastically improved.
Nearly everyone in America loved me. I had strong support amongst socialists, liberals, conservatives, parents, environmentalists, and patriot groups. Though the wealthy Americans weren’t exactly enamored with me, I kept taxes generally low, which meant that all three income brackets (wealthy, middle income, and poor) were pleased with me. But my support amongst capitalists was plummeting.
Despite a booming economy (I even won an achievement for having such a strong GDP), a balanced budget, and heavy government investments in technology and small businesses, the capitalists were not pleased. I’d say they were even unrealistically displeased in me. My government was investing billions of dollars into the economy, unemployment was incredibly low, productivity was incredibly high, tariffs were high to protect businesses at home, and I had lowered corporate taxes consistently. Yes, I was spending a great deal of money on social welfare programs, but there seemed to be no legitimate reason for their hatred. In an effort to appease them, I lowered spending on a number of social programs, but it was all for naught. There seemed to be no reasoning with the wealthy industrialists of my America.
I was re-elected again, but this time by a slimmer margin (only 81% of Americans voted for me, as opposed to 90% in the previous election). Many voters expressed disappointment that I had failed to make good on my campaign promises. Despite giving them “more of the same,” they were unhappy that I couldn’t reduce poverty and unemployment (not that I could possibly reduce either, as they were both nearly non-existent, as confirmed by the game). And the Capitalists still hated me. By my forth term, I was running out of things to do. Most of the policies that I had wanted to initiate were already passed. I had the full support of the legislature, so I didn’t have to bother with waiting for things to be approved (my party was dominating thanks to how awesome I was). I was essentially a dictator, but I loved my people and I wanted them to love me. But the Capitalists didn’t and I was receiving reports that they were plotting to overthrow me.
I made strong efforts to appease them. I made it easier for them to move money into tax-free, off-shore bank accounts. I reduced social spending on a few programs. I made it more difficult for unions to organize. And I increased government spending in technologies like healthcare, energy, and stem cell research. I was trying my hardest, but they were still against me. Finally, one of their coups succeeded. They managed an overthrow of my government. Despite strong popular support amongst the masses, I was sent to a South American prison to spend my remaining days rotting.
This reflects one of the biggest problems with Democracy – in an effort to be more “mainstream” and simplified, the expense is a loss of realism. I quickly and easily became a dictator of the United States of America. And while Capitalists may be against limitations on the free market, there’s no believable way that my policies would have evoked such a response. Capitalists should have been pleased that unemployment was so low and that tariffs were so high, because it meant that Americans were buying goods and those goods were probably made in America. Capitalists also should have been pleased that the government was picking up the tab on research and development. However, they weren’t.
You also have no options when it comes to foreign policy. The bulk of your time will be spent managing domestic policies. Some of the most interesting political developments take place between nations and that is lost in this game. You can’t push China to start following international standards on human rights. You can’t send troops into Darfur to end the genocide. You do need to keep up a national defense to prevent against outside threats and terrorism, but beyond that, there’s none of the compelling international intrigue we all read about.
There are also a number of little typos and grammatical issues throughout the game. For a product driven nearly entirely on menus and text, this was a major disappointment. Nothing really ruins the feel of a “legitimate political simulation” like basic typos and capitalization errors. It really takes you out of the experience. I would have also liked it if there were advisors to help explain some of the policies a little more clearly. There were times where I didn’t really understand how much of an impact my policies were going to have or even what some of them were.
While Democracy is fun, I can’t help but feel like it could have been a lot more. I understand that the developers were intending to make a beginners level strategy game that would appeal to a wide audience and, in that regard, I think they succeeded. But once the beginners become familiarized with the product, which won’t take long, there isn’t much there. While you’re sometimes challenged to take a stance on a troublesome dilemma (along the lines of should you legalize euthanasia or should you extradite a prisoner to a country where he’ll be tortured), these are rare and repetitive after a while. In an effort to keep the game from becoming too difficult, the developers sacrificed depth that is sadly missing from the game. What we’re left with is a slightly above-average political simulator that could have been so much more.