Playing Politics

How Dean’s Web game is like Pac-Man.

“Politics,” Harry Truman once said, “is a fascinating game.” Truman wasn’t the first person to note the similarities between play and affairs of state, but these days the connection seems almost too strong. Check out the TV coverage from Iowa. With its gangs of people in team jackets frantically racing around soliciting votes, a modern political campaign reads like an epic version of Pokémon: Gotta catch ‘em all!

Howard Dean has proved to be the nerd most adept at mastering the joystick of our great national Playstation, the Democratic primaries. A few weeks ago, the Dean campaign released the Howard Dean for Iowa Game. Drop by the site, and you can enjoy the virtual thrills of traipsing across the frozen Iowa map, starting off with one campaigner—”you”—then trying to see how many you can convert to Dean’s cause by waving signs, handing out pamphlets, and knocking on front doors. In each round there’s a clock ticking in the corner, so, as in real life, you can freak out more and more as Monday approaches. Since the game went online Dec. 24, about 70,000 people have played it. (I managed to convert 146 Iowans on my first try.)

Garrett Graff, a spokesman for the national Dean campaign, hit his personal high score of 460 on Christmas Day. “I think it’s sort of addictive!” he says. That, alas, is something of an exaggeration. The graphics are cartoonish, the animation is rather clunky—and your three tasks are so simple that you begin to master them after only a few minutes.

Not that it really matters. This game is a piece of rhetoric, not just entertainment. Sure, it’s using the format of a game, but its purpose is political. As Gonzalo Frasca, one of the designers, put it, “It’s like a song or a jingle.” Just as Jurassic politicians license a rock anthem by the Who to seem “edgy,” Dean’s game is cultural one-upmanship for the digital age—a proclamation of how connected he is.

Frasca—and his co-designer Ian Bogost—have recently emerged as leading proponents of the idea that simple online Flash games can be used to sell a political point. (The name of their company is Persuasive Games.) Flash is the graffiti of the digital age, a quick and streetwise way of slapping up an interactive message in cyberspace. This makes it perfect for instantly producing simple games that react to current events. Last fall, Frasca unleashed the controversial September 12th, a game in which you try to bomb an Arab village to kill terrorists—but inevitably wind up killing innocents, whose grieving family members then become terrorists themselves, ensuring the game never ends.

“It’s a game as political speech,” he says. Frasca and Bogost hacked the Dean game together in barely two weeks, a punk-rock pace compared to the usual two-year process of creating a rich 3D video game. That’s why the Dean game is so simple and clunky, though: They’re moving at the speed of political advertising. Why Dean? They believe in his policies, but they also figured the tech-friendly campaign would let them test whether their “newsgaming” skills could be useful in the cut-and-thrust of partisan politics.

Are they? Graff claims the Dean game serves a pragmatic purpose: It encourages political newbies to go to Iowa by showing them, interactively, what volunteers there do. “We said, let’s show them what kind of impact their visit will have. It’s not natural to hand things out to total strangers!”

In Slate last month, Steven Johnson wondered why U.S. politics had never been the subject of a simulation game. He suggested it’s because politicking is too complex to be captured in a game’s artificial intelligence. That’s certainly true of the stuff that happens on K Street; it’d be pretty hard to sim a carbon-emissions-quota lobbying effort. 

But Iowa-style campaigning? That’s just a numbers game—flooding the state with as many volunteers as you can. It’s hard, but it ain’t rocket science. Indeed, getting out the vote is the closest that politics comes to pure algorithmic physics: If your opponent has X volunteers and you have X+10, then you win. A political game hits with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but that’s the point; like a political cartoon, its simplicity tries to clarify the issues.

Fittingly, when they crafted the Dean game, the designers borrowed heavily from stripped-down arcade principles going back practically to Pong. “When you’re handing out pamphlets, it’s like an inverse of Pac-Man or any of those old games where you’re collecting things,” says Bogost. And going door-to-door, persuading voters? “That’s like Paperboy,” an ‘80s game where you try to deliver papers—and where customers who get unhappy will cancel their subscription. As with politics, the only time the game is really over is when you lose your base of support.