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Democracy 3 brings government to the people

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As the U.S. Government grinds back into action today, the lesson is relearned that the D.C. power game is all about politicians prone to ethical flip-flopping, dodgy fund-raising, cynical media manipulation, venal posturing and base vote scrounging.

Very little of what politicians do is about actual governing. This is why your newspapers are full of lurid stories about stand-offs, denunciations and scandals, with very little in the way of law-making or deep policy action.

We little people yearn to sweep away Washington gridlock, knock a few heads together and make all the necessary changes to get the country where it needs to be. Of course, we might not all agree on the exact nature of those changes.

This is the premise of Positech Games' Democracy 3, released this week for Steam. It hands you power to shape the country as you would wish it to be shaped. You can raise taxes or cut them. You can fund space research, ban tobacco, hang criminals, tax prostitution, reinstate the draft, obligate the teaching of Creationism. You can do just about anything you want.

All your gloriously nutty Communist fantasies are a mouse-click away. All your delirious Tea Party fervor can finally be put to the test in your own deranged little version of America.


As this is a game, there is peril. Its name suggests a certain limit on the player's powers, manifested in the form of voters. Democracy 3 is, according to its creator Cliff Harris, "a spider's web of code" in which "everything can influence everything else."

The game's voters all belong to a kaleidoscope of population groups; young people, trade unionists, commuters, ethnic minorities, nationalists and so on. Your actions trigger their opinions. Their opinions eventually convert to votes or, if you're too extreme, actions that lead to your political demise or even assassination.

So while you indulge, say, a long-held desire to make religious establishments pay taxes, keep in mind this will seriously annoy anyone who regularly visits a house of worship. You can balance this dip in popularity against the boost you'll receive from atheists, socialists and fiscally prudents.

"You could raise airline tax," suggests Harris. "But that will affect tourism. And tourism drops will affect the economy which affects crime which affects tourism. So any decision that you make is incredibly complicated."

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Democracy 3's user-interface is very simple, a selection of policies, actions, voter groups and stats. It's a political junkie's dream, but likely won't trouble those who prefer their fun more action-oriented.

"It's a very unusual, strategic game," said Harris. "Most of the time playing the game is spent sitting there staring at it."

You can run most of the major Western democracies, including the U.S, Canada, U.K, France, Germany and Australia. The specifics of each country's constitutional quirks are glossed over. "There isn't a House of Lords and a House of Commons. There isn't a Senate and a House of Representatives," explains Harris.

Instead, there's a universal abstract called "Political Capital" which the player earns and saves in order to push though policies that might normally face resistance.

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Although not created as an educational tool, Democracy 3 nonetheless comes with lessons for the player. It turns out that, whatever your political leaning, running a government is really, really hard. There are no easy answers. Whatever you do, some people are going to be happy, and some people are going to be enraged.

"You can't get elected and just say, 'I will do this,' because it never works that way," says Harris. "Things fall apart and you are going to have to compromise no matter what your politics." The game throws up events that the player must cope with, like a spike in the price of oil or a natural disaster or a widespread enthusiasm for killing criminals.

Sooner or later the player learns that, in a democracy, having everything your own way is not possible. "It always amuses me to see people playing and doing things they really don't want to do, but that they need to."

Playing politics is nothing new. Don Jansiewicz is a retired teacher of political science and the man behind a simulation game called The Game of Politics. It's a non-computer simulation of U.S. systems of government that he has been using and evolving since the 1970s. He was inspired by a massive university game he attended during LBJ's administration, in which students role-played UN delegates.

Jansiewicz has seen the effect that playing with power and with politics has on students, even those who previously professed utter contempt for the processes and machinations of government.

"They become realistic. They see how difficult government really is," he told Polygon. "It's very easy to criticize officials, but when you have worn their shoes, well, you might not become sympathetic but you might come to an understanding why they do the things that they do."

He said that a computer simulation like Democracy 3 can have the same effect but warned that "getting an on-screen message that your popularity ratings are down is not the same as seeing protestors on the lawn outside your office."

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Since it debuted a decade ago, the Democracy series has sold well, but it's a long way from reaching the mass-market status of many of our modern power-fantasies. Widespread interest in politics and power suggest that a game like this ought to find an audience of a greater size.

"If you say there's this game about balancing income tax against welfare spending, it's laughable," says Harris, who has a degree in Pure Economics at the prestigious London School of Economics, and has been making games since the 1980s. "People don't believe that such a game might exist.

"The average gamer is 37 years old, but if you look at games you'd assume the average gamer is 13. All games seem to be about dragons and spaceships and yet the average gamer has a mortgage. But nobody really makes games that reflect that."

As for the recent ruptures in Washington D.C.'s democratic institutions, he said that, "it's the perfect time for this game." Perhaps the Government shutdown has at least one winner, after all.