A month after the 2016 presidential election, there's still a great deal of talk about recounts and voter fraud. A lot of it is purely speculative, self-serving, or full of misinformation. But in the run-up to the election, one developer used the game medium to draw attention to a serious issue: a series of systematic changes that made it harder for many people, particularly minorities, to vote.
The game, which is called Voter Suppression Trail, became a viral sensation after it appeared on the New York Times website a few days before the election.
Created by the small team behind GOP Arcade, which makes short, satirical, politically-infused browser games, in partnership with the New York Times, Voter Suppression Trail took players through the travails of three different characters attempting to vote: a white man in California, a black man in Wisconsin, and a Latina woman in Texas.
The game, a parody of Oregon Trail, chronicles the very different voting experiences of people in different places, and from different circumstances, in America. The black and Latina voter each struggle with long lines and life intervening (“Your child has dysentery and needs to be picked up from school — do you leave the line?”), as well as attempts at voter intimidation. If you fail to cast your ballot, you lose the game — and there are plenty of ways to lose.
The game takes on something of a goofy bent, particularly because of its nostalgic Oregon Trail presentation, but it’s rooted in hard facts about voting in 2016 in the US. Chris Baker, one of the founders of GOP Arcade with Michael Lacher and Brian Moore, said in an interview with Gamasutra that the team did a lot of reading on real voting issues in a variety of states. The point of Voter Suppression Trail, of course, is that it represents the real tribulations of voting for many people.
“We did a lot of reading things like the (American Civil Liberties Union)’s blog, recent articles that popped up about all this, going back to the annals of American history in terms of how crazy things used to be during the Jim Crow era,” Baker explained. “It ended up being almost perfectly suited for an Oregon Trail-style thing. The visuals of the long line and the pop-ups guiding you through this experience ended up being a perfect marriage of the current issue and this nostalgic game that everyone remembers.”
GOP Arcade is a group that isn't made up of game developers — rather, they have their roots in working on viral marketing and sharable content at Buzzfeed. Their idea of games based on news stories never quite took off at Buzzfeed, so the trio decided to explore it as a side project, creating games like Thoughts and Prayers, in which players alternatively hit keyboard keys to produce as many thoughts and prayers as possible to stop mass shootings.
Of course, the whole point of the game is there's no chance to win.
Most of GOP Arcade’s other games are parodies based on popular classics, like Lemonade Stand or Street Fighter. Almost from GOP Arcade's inception, the group has wanted to make a game using Oregon Trail as a template. Linking that game with facts about voter suppression, Baker said, felt like a natural combination.
“Obviously we played online versions of the old Oregon Trail and it is an insanely slow game, very frustrating,” he said. “So I guess in this specific case, we kind of matched the original game feeling quite closely."
Partnering with the New York Times created a different situation than the GOP Arcade team usually deals with. Because Voter Suppression Trail would appear on the NYT website, it had to go through the process for the newspaper’s Op-Doc section. That meant additional fact-checking and review.
Ultimately, though, Baker said working with the NYT didn’t amount to many massive changes to the game. The newspaper checked with its internal team and told Baker it also sent the game to voting experts to sign off on the final product, but Voter Suppression Trail never changed too much from GOP Arcade’s original idea. Mostly, Baker said, he and the team had to pick and choose what the game should cover, and to cut it down to a palatable size.
“One core piece of feedback, the initial build of the game was like nine times longer, which I thought was interesting because then you’re really hammering the point home,” he explained. “The game in its own right becomes a frustration, which is half the point. But they wanted people to play this multiple times, and of course a core tenet of the experience is that some people are going to go with the white character, and then if they do that, they should then immediately play as a different character to get the full experience. So we kind of wanted to force people into replaying the game a little bit.”
“It’s kind of crazy because in trying to map out the game before we even started building it, there were so many lose states in the game that I just couldn’t keep track them all,” he said. “We left out things like, you get to the poll, you get to the ID check, and we started backing in percentage chances that you would have the same name as another voter. Then there’s the issue of, okay, America is one of the strictest countries in the world in terms of the disenfranchisement of felons, so if you are a felon, getting the right to vote back is actually incredibly difficult here."
THey felt they had no choice but to skip those elements of the voter suppression issue. "It just became incredibly unwieldy for something that’s supposed to be a one-minute-long experience," says Baker. "The issue is so complicated and there’s so much stuff, we really just focused on the larger frustrations. So you could probably make a hundred more games about this.”
Baker has said GOP Arcade was planned as part of a larger project, dubbed “Everyday Arcade,” that focuses on short, shareable games about relatable life experiences, like riding the subway train. As to whether there will be more games aimed at politics and the Republican Party in the future in light of a Trump win, however, Baker said that the group behind GOP Arcade is still figuring that out.