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Mixing video games and politics with Democracy 3 Exclusive
Mixing video games and politics with  Democracy 3
September 20, 2013 | By Mike Rose

September 20, 2013 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Exclusive

We often see video games that touch on political ideas, but games that deal with actual political systems remain in a special niche. Having now created three games in his Democracy series that tackle such a mash-up, developer Cliff Harris is fairly certain he knows why.

"The big problem is the fact that political attitudes vary a lot from country to country, and we all tend to assume that 'our' country is 'normal' and than other cultures are just wrong," he explains.

The third in Harris' Democracy series has just launched as a beta, and once again sees players attempting to balance the views of individual voting groups when it comes to topics like gun crime, health issues, and housing concerns. If playing Democracy 3 is anything like running a country in real life, I should never be put in a position of power. Ever.

Back to the problem of varying political attitudes, then: "For example, do gun ownership restrictions prevent crime, or increase crime?" Harris questions. "You get very different attitudes to that question depending on whether you ask it in the UK or the USA, and to be honest, depending whether you ask it in Texas or New York - so it's very difficult to come up with a set of equations and connections that will define something so varied as 'the effect of guns on crime.'"

Another example: attitudes to ID cards. "I was talking to a German player today who was surprised that anyone could ever be opposed to ID cards," he tells me. "His experience with them in Germany is that they are widely accepted, but the difficult question is, are they widely accepted because German people are inherently happy with the idea? Or because they are there, and they are just used to them? It's very hard to model what the USA would be like under a far left socialist government, or France under a right wing free-market government."

democracy 1.jpgFortunately, Harris is far more well-equipped to consider these sorts of angles in a video game, being a self-professed "political geek." Having studied pure economics in London, a lot of the simulations found in the Democracy series are simply obvious to him.

"I did a fair bit of research to try and make sure I could nudge each country slightly in the direction of its real world situation and stats, although I had to use a lot of artistic license to get all those countries to work with the same basic simulation model and still present a challenge," he notes. "The aim had to be to make a fun game first, and an accurate political-economic model second."

A new Democracy

The third in the Democracy series has been built in such a way that it can model governments and connections between policies and actual vote group memberships in a much more flexible way than the previous two.

"The modeling of how people become extremists is totally re-written," Harris explains. "There is an entirely new simulation for the global market which now includes
stuff like credit ratings agencies and bond market interest rates on government debt."

Elsewhere, Harris has ramped up the number of policies, events, dilemmas and situations that players can find themselves in, and allowed for the free market and private provisions to be modelled in a far better manner.

One of the biggest additions to Democracy 3 is the "Political Compass", which allows players to compare their plays against friends on Steam.

democracy 2.jpg"I've always been a mostly single-player gamer when it comes to strategy," Harris says, "and I think online gaming in a competitive arena can get aggressive as it is, without arguments about gun-control and religion creeping into it. One can only imagine (in nightmares) the challenge of moderating an online game based around political argument!"

This is why Harris opted for a more passive social play style with the Political Compass, rather than introducing full-blown multiplayer.

"I did muse on the idea of having a 'global' Political Compass for the game that showed the aggregate political stance of the whole player-base on all the different issues, and I may still revisit that idea at some stage," he notes.

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David Serrano
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Totally off topic but ripped Democracy's graphic design or vise versa:

Lars Doucet
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You mean circles with lines attached to them? Surely that's easy to come up with independently.

John Trauger
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A hard project to do right but a worthy effort.

Projecting one's own political view into such a project would be very tempting and hard to avoid under any circumstances. But making the effort would take it to the next level

Bart Stewart
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In fact, I'd say it's inevitable.

But that's one of the reasons why I wish more games that include a policy simulation element would do what the developers of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri did: explicitly encode the assumptions and expose them to the player as editable parameters.

The single largest penalty in SMAC was imposed for choosing the Free Market social policy. Maybe you disagree with that assumption about how humans actually function. Or maybe you think the penalty wasn't harsh enough. Either way, it was easy to open the text file and change that number to what you think it should be.

Choosing to give players that power does allow them to unbalance the gameplay. On the other hand, games should be enjoyable for those who pay to play them. Trusting players with the power to define how the universe works increases the fun that more of them can have versus a game whose developers hard-coded biases held only by a subset of the general population.

Come on, Cliffsky... trust us. :)