The practical challenges of designing a political game about Africa
"We are very conscious of the fact that it’s basically two middle class white guys, neither of which have been to Africa, making a game about Africa. And we expect to be pulled up on a few things."
- Positech Games founder Cliff Harris on the development of Democracy 3: Africa.
This week Positech Games released Democracy 3: Africa, a standalone expansion to the latest in its long-running Democracy series that turns the 2013 game's political simulation to focus on the socio-economic landscape of Africa.
The project is notable for its ambition and its potential risks. While the state of game development in South Africa and the continent at large is stronger than ever, Democracy 3: Africa was chiefly developed by two British men who have never been to Africa.
Producer Cliff Harris recently acknowledged that while he's keenly aware of this weakness, he didn't want to avoid tackling the project because he didn't (at the outset, at least) know much about the continent.
"Most people don’t either. They only know about [Africa] from TV reports of either terrorism or drought. It’s the setting nobody knows they want," he told Zam at GDC last month. "I didn’t want to not do it out of fear, because that just reinforces yet another reason not to cover Africa."
From a game maker's perspective, it's interesting to study how they gathered and interpreted socio-economic data for the project, then implemented it into the game. Stargazy Studios founder Jeffrey Sheen worked with Harris to design and program Democracy 3: Africa, and he told Zam he interpreted data from multiple sources, including government officials, analysts, aid workers and non-governmental agency experts.
Despite that, he admits there will always be oversights, inconsistencies and bias -- the trick is figuring out what to use, and what to ignore.
"As a designer, you’re making calls on this sort of stuff all the time. If you wanted a data source that gave you a completely untainted relationship between, say, oil price and the opinions of the wealthy, it doesn’t exist. You just have to look at the trends in your research and make a call," he told Zam, noting that he collected data in a "mega matrix" of connected spreadsheets to try and discern "the threads of systemic commonality required to respectfully and accurately represent their economies, their societies."
For more on the development of Democracy 3: Africa and how its creators deal with the fact that designing a game about politics means making a series of political statements, check out the full feature over on Zam.