Like most gamers, I’m used to viewing the mix of gaming and politics the same way I’d look at a filet mignon drenched in peanut butter. Politicians may be a source of almost endless entertainment — check out the user-submitted campaign song videos on Hillary Clinton’s campaign website should you still harbor doubts — but some things don’t necessarily go together. Especially when in most cases, politicians’ idea of “game” is pandering to constituents by introducing legislation to restrict game content and access.
Still, that hasn’t prevented folks in academia, the pop-culture world, and game development from turning to the modern political arena for gaming inspiration. And no, I’m not talking about the show-of-hands head games CNN’s Wolf Blitzer keeps playing with the primary hopefuls during the never-ending parade of Democratic and Republican presidential debates. (“Show of hands: How many of you think the political process in this country is more screwed up than Lindsay Lohan?)
Over at CNN.com, you can fire up “Presidential Pong,” a goofy take on gaming’s oldest warhorse in which a grinning Rudy Guiliani can use his “name recognition” power-up to slap a service ace past Barack Obama — probably the only time and place in history where that’s likely to occur. Sorry, Rudy: If I’m designing this, I’m making you wear John Kerry flip-flops on the Pong court.
Last week, the guys at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication rolled out The Redistricting Game, a free onliner that skewers the practice of gerrymandering. For those of you who slept through that particular session of your high-school civics class, that’s the all-too-commonly practiced art of torturously redrawing the boundaries of political districts to ensure your party’s candidates keep getting elected.
Like most political games, the presentation looks like it’s been ripped from the animation shop at the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim — it’s as if the designers, painfully aware of the serious nature of their subject, are trying to overcompensate in the delivery. As an active form of biting political commentary, USC’s game is stellar.
But is it fun? Well, I’ve gotta admit that I enjoyed blasting elves and dwarves in Shadowrun, Microsoft’s faceless Counterstrike clone, more than hosing Republicans and contorting boundaries so that candidates’ houses fall outside their districts. Still, the Redistricting Game clearly taught me more useful things than teleporting and using spells to push virtual opponents off buildings — like how to maintain population balance and the ways in which the simple process of mapmaking can affect society-wide issues like abortion and immigration reform.
It is possible to have fun and learn something from a political game at the same time. Skeptical? Dig up a copy of The Political Machine, an overlooked PC gem from 2003 that asked you to slap on your Karl Rove mask and run an actual presidential campaign, from identifying your target issues and key swing states to soliciting donations and endorsements from interest groups only thinly masked from their real-life counterparts. The game was educational — like Al Gore, I learned that dropping your campaign war chest on New York and California and ignoring the South is a sure path to defeat, even when the Supreme Court isn’t involved. The fact that you could take on both John Edwards and Abraham Lincoln was merely an added bonus.
We’re only at the very front end of the 2008 presidential campaign, and the ensuing 15 months ought to give game developers plenty of time to mine this platform further. Keep hope alive? How about fun and political? Now that’s a candidate I can actually get behind.
Aaron R. Conklin’s casting his vote for Halo 3: The Presidential Candidates. C’mon, Bungie — make it happen.