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Persuasive Games: The Birth and Death of the Election Game
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Persuasive Games: The Birth and Death of the Election Game

October 30, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Unofficial political games also made few innovations this year. The largest crop of them are game-like gags about Sarah Palin, from the almost-topical Polar Palin to the toy-like Palin as President to the wildlife sendup Hunting with Palin to a series of Palin chatterbots to the inevitable whack-a-mole clone Puck Palin.

The few non-Palin titles included a retooling of 2004's derivative White House Joust; Truth Invaders, another Space Invaders derivative in which the player shoots down lies; Debate Night, a Zuma-style casual game in support of Obama, and Campaign Rush, a click-management election office game my studio developed for CNN International.

Of these, only Truth Invaders cites actual candidate claims and attempts to refute them, although in a fairly rudimentary way; the others do not engage policy issues at all, but only electioneering.

Three decades after its coin-op release, it's disillusioning to realize that Space Invaders has become the gold standard for political game design.

The turnout for commercial games with political themes also thinned this cycle.

In 2004, no less than four different election simulation games were released; this year, Stardock retooled and updated Political Machine for PC and released a free web version of the game.

Beyond that, the strongest example of a mainstream game coupled to the election season is the "political brawler" Hail to the Chimp.

Stardock's The Political Machine 2008

There are reasons games have grown slowly compared to other technologies for political outreach. The most important one is also the most obvious: since 2004, online video and social networks have become the big thing, as blogs were four years ago.

Instead of urging voters to "play my game," as Loftus and I surmised, candidates urged their constituents to "watch my video."

Online video became the political totem of 2008, from James Kotecki's dorm room interviews to CNN's YouTube debates. At the same time, the massive growth in social network subscriptions made social connectivity a secondary focus for campaign innovation, especially since Facebook opened its pages beyond the campus in 2006.

In many cases, politicking on social networks was a process driven entirely by voters rather than campaigns, efforts that reached far larger numbers than might have been possible previously, even with blogs.

For once, video games did not lose an election by sticking their collective necks out as a sacrifice for values politics, the kind that Senators Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman, among others, have used to shift their base toward the center.

For better or worse, the world is too legitimately messed up for such politics to prove useful. Instead, video games lost the election by not participating in it. Precedent aside, reskinning classic arcade games and placing billboards in virtual racetracks doesn't take advantage of the potential games have to offer to political speech.

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