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Persuasive Games: The Birth and Death of the Election Game

October 30, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[Author and game designer Bogost examines the role of video games in 2004 and 2008's U.S. Presidential election, seeing a sharp decline in games used for political means this year, and asking a simple question -- why?]

The 2004 election cycle saw the birth and quick rise of the official political video game. While election strategy game have been around since 1981's President Elect, that title and its followers were games about the political process, not games used as a part of that process.

2004 marked a turning point. It was the year candidates and campaign organizations got into games, using the medium for publicity, fundraising, platform communication, and more.

That year, I worked on games commissioned by candidates for president, for state legislature, by a political party, and for a Hill committee. And that was just me -- other endorsed political games abounded, from the Republican Party to the campaign for President of Uruguay.

It was easy to get public attention around such work, and indeed one of the benefits of campaign games revolved around their press-worthiness. By the final weeks of the last election cycle, all signals suggested that campaign games were here to stay.

Drunk on such video game election elation, I remember making a prediction in a press interview that year: in 2008, I foolishly divined, every major candidate would have their own PlayStation 3 game.

MSNBC writer Tom Loftus made a similar, albeit wisely milder prediction in late October 2004: "Already tired of hearing politicians say 'visit my Web site' every five minutes? Wait until 2008, when that stump speech staple may be replaced with a new candidates' call: 'Play my game.'"

We couldn't have been more wrong.

Looking back on the 2008 election, video games played a minor role. In terms of officially created or endorsed work, only a few examples appeared. The McCain campaign served up Pork Invaders, a Space Invaders clone in which a McCain "ship" fires vetoes at pig "aliens" as a demonstration of how McCain "would exercise the veto pen to restore fiscal responsibility to our federal government."

The game boasts higher production value than the GOP's similar 2004 offering, Tax Invaders, but is considerably less sophisticated as political speech.

Tax Invaders cast taxes in the role of the alien enemy and George W. Bush as the executive-hero who would save the people from them, an apt characterization of conservative tax policy that actually benefits from having been cast in a video game.

By contrast, Pork Invaders struggles to connect gameplay to political message; it's mostly a curiosity.

The most visible video game politicking of 2008 came recently, in the form of the Obama campaign's decision to buy dynamic in-game ads in console games like Burnout Paradise. Gamers welcomed the buy; it appeared to suggest that Obama at least did not intend to vilify their medium, despite having previously encouraged parents to "turn off the television set, and put the video games away."

Given Obama's enormous war chest, the move must have looked like a risk-free experiment to the campaign. Still, the Democrats didn't make any games of their own, a feat met (even if barely) by McCain's hammy offering.

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Ian Bogost
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I'm familiar with Democracy and its sequel, although I'd associate them with the political strategy genre I mention at the article's beginning. Still, the late 2007 sequel does indeed fall into the calendar of the 2008 elections, so it is a good addition to the conversation.

Jeremy Bernstein
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Very nice article. As a designer for both the politicking Truth Invaders, and the political Redistricting Game, I agree with a lot of what you have to say.

That said, one major issue involved in election games that you didn't really address is timing. For Truth Invaders, it took about two and a half weeks from inception to release. That's compared to over a year for the Redistricting Game.

I found that the speed of election cycles and the daily changing news narratives just didn't leave a lot of time for development of novel gameplay or in-depth exploration of issues; heck, even in the two and a half weeks Truth Invaders took, the landscape changed pretty drastically underneath us.

I think one big reason all we see are sound-byte election games is because, under most circumstances, that's all there's time to develop on the fly.

Ian Bogost
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I agree that timing is a major consideration, but I disagree that it's a limiting factor. When we made the Howard Dean game in 2003, we did it in 3 weeks, back to back, and while it's not "political" in the way I've described here (and written about more extensively in my book Persuasive Games), it did offer a usefully sophisticated look into a then-newish concept, grassroots outreach. Many of the non-political games I've been involved in (e.g. newsgames) have likewise been produced in under a month, and they feel more engaged with issues via simulation than the soundbite games. There are myriad examples of experimental development with very limited time constraints (game jams, the experimental gameplay project), some of which produce interesting work (even if not politically interesting work).

A political campaign actually offers a fairly lengthy time horizon, well over a year in most cases, although the time from primary to general election is admittedly shorter. Still, if the consequence of massively reduced relevance is a side-effect of rapid development, then maybe the answer is to leave such matters to blog posts and web video, and focus our political game development efforts on issues with longer time-horizons. Thus my suspicion about the wisdom of pursuing future election games.

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Ken Nakai
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Hey Ian,

Great article, as always. While making games to pose a question or get people thinking about an issue related to an election (or not), how realistic is it from the perspective of getting people to engage in general? Not everyone goes out on the Web looking for a political game. Sure, they could stumble upon it or get directed there by a friend, ad, whatever, but the obvious motivation for finding and playing a game is entertainment.

To me the challenge is how do you create a game/interaction that feels like a game but ultimately engages the player in the issue at hand? And, at what point do you, the game designer, decide to build the game (so people will play it) versus the teaching/informative tool (so people will come away more informed or at least more engaged with the topic at hand)?

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Here is a not-so-serious political game:

Anthony Charles
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this is an interesting article, however I don't know about the public policy game you advocate. this is not a math formula where one policy leads directly to another result so that it may be simulated in a game. it's not a hard science. to build this game would require the developer to make subjective value judgements. for example, the economic questions that dominates this election. both candidates promise their tax and economic policies are best for growing the economy, but one must be wrong. you would need to decide which method is better. the game would be intrinsically biased. i guess the same is true of all simulation games, but these issues are more pertinent and volatile than what is addressed in other games. not that it's necessarily bad, but it would lead to games and maybe developers with ideological predispositions. it only makes sense that video games should follow the model of polarization found in political television and print.

Ian Bogost
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You're right that there are many more contemporary election sims, including President Forever. In fact, there were even more (I think four?) on the market in 2004.


Nice to see you here. Sure, there's a literacy issue at work, but we might have said the same thing of short video four or five years ago. One way of advancing that literacy is just to have more artifacts out there people can interact with. As for the design question, one answer (an incomplete one, admittedly) is that these games would want to frame themselves differently from commercial entertainment games. I don't think "tricking" people into political participation is what I have in mind.

@D A

Interesting, if slightly bizarre, example, thanks for sharing it.


I was really just advocating an idea, or approach. This idea is not the same as trying to simulate how people will behave under certain policies, but how it would feel to live in a world run by certain policies. The bias doesn't bother me at all, because the games would clearly be constructed from specific perspectives. I tried to do this in 2004, a bit: games that characterize policy positions rather than political personalities.

E Zachary Knight
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That is a nice look on the state of political games. I agree with the conclusion as well. Games are more naturally suited to policy rather than politicking.

I would much rather see simulations of a candidate's position than his campaign.

On a side note, those Palin games were getting really annoying.

B. Alexander Newton
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Personally I've always found the sim city series of games to be very good at getting across the idea of fiscal planning and policy trade-offs. That isn't their direct focus, of course, but it certainly puts some things in perspective. Build a dirty coal plant and grow a city now to invest in environmental policies later using a larger population base, or build wind generators and build a smaller city in a longer time period?

Run a tight budget or take out loans? Is that clean air policy worth the monthly monetary outlay?

Perhaps Will Wright would take this idea on?

Richard Cody
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A text adventure game seems very possible. Look at Surviving High School for mobile phones. The concept was dealing with (high school) life socially and managing your time. But it was all text driven and new episodes were being made available every week. The game was highly engaging.

I think not converting that into a political game was a lost opportunity. On that note episodic content seems ideal for these types of events.

Ian Bogost
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Maxis actually created a little-known health policy simulation game called SimHealth, released in 1994. Back in the early 90s Maxis dabbled in what we now call "serious games," including a SimRefinery game for the oil industry.


I love text adventures/interactive fiction, and many of the best are very political (A Mind Forever Voyaging comes to mind). I lament the fact that the text game has fallen so far out of favor among the general public.

Michelle Stewart
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Great article. here's an election game that i worked on recently. it's quick and to the point, but the differentiating factor in this game is the robust analysis of game play that you can access post play.

fred tam
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well with sim games things are very generalized, and things are not political or if they are its not central.

the problem is complex social policy and politics don't really translate to game mechanics. simplifying game mechanics to give rewards and punishments for advancement which would be required in games would require that political bias dictate what the gamer is "supposed" to do. in effect you would be making interactive propaganda, not gaming.

game play comes from complex game play evolving from within a simplified environment with simplified rules. you just cannot do this with politics.

John Petersen
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Y'know, I didn't want to read this... I don't like politics or anything to do with them.

I was gonna say... "Any game that has real world politcis in it, I will not buy"

However... Because of this statement:

What would it feel like to live under the constraints of a particular fiscal policy? How might an unorthodox energy policy balance environmental and security concerns? Why will federal investment in private banking positively impact business and ordinary citizens?

I would be interested in. But... It can't be skewed. One glitch in the system could ruin the world... Are you ready for that? Can you live with it?

Mikki Rurk
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