The Politics of Image
Howard Dean wants to be a rock star. Well, at least he wants to be really cool, for a politician. Maybe he took a cue from Bill Clinton’s appeals to the MTV generation or maybe this is just what a mid-life crisis looks like when you happen to be a politician. But whatever the case, Howard Dean wants to be hip and he wants you to know about it.
We’ve all heard about his success at reaching out to youth with the Internet, via his blog and his organization of grassroots supporters with meetup.com. There’s no doubt that the Internet-savvy, (relatively) young ex-dotcommers over at moveon.org support him, since he won their unofficial primary with his nearest competitor trailing by 20 percentage points. But have you heard about the Howard Dean video game?
The premise and game play are as simple as most shockwave games. Drop supporters on a map of Iowa, and for each supporter dropped you play a mini-game. Your success in that mini-game determines how fast new supporters will be generated and, thusly, how much support for Howard Dean will be generated in a given section of Iowa. When a countdown to the caucus reaches zero, you are told the total number supporters you generated. There is no particular point at which you “win,” and your success can really only be measured against past sessions (a more interesting game might be one in which players are challenged to see who can first understand the Iowa caucus system well enough to tell you what it might actually take to win an election there).
This game is really just one more link in the chain, not a bold move in a new direction. Dr. Dean has made it clear that he wants you. If you’re reading this article, you fit the profile. You’re pretty savvy with the Internet. You’re tuned into the technological world. You probably even play video games. And if you’ve got money to spend on all those gadgets and games, you’ve got money to spend on Howard Dean, too.
Because the only way this game attempts to convince you to support the Doctor is just by simply being a game. Playing it won’t teach you much about Dean’s positions, except that he really wants to win the race in Iowa. You will wave virtual signs and pass out virtual pamphlets, but you can’t actually tell people why you’re carrying the sign or even read the pamphlets. But you will learn that Howard Dean is so in touch with your generation that he’s willing to commission a video game to spread his message. Or, at the very least, his image.
And that’s really all that’s being passed along here—Howard Dean’s image. While one can debate how fun a game which actually attempted to deal with the substance of politics would be, the fact of the matter is that Persuasive Games could have developed this exact same game for any of the other nine Democratic primary candidates. Replace the “Dean” on that sign with “Kerry,” or swap out the image of “Common Sense for a New Century” with an Al Sharpton leaflet, and this game could be hosted by anyone.
In my more cynical moments, I’d be inclined to chalk this up to the interchangeability of political candidates. But there’s enough idealism left in me that I have to believe that there’s more difference between any two candidates than the image on the front of a brochure or the name on a sign. And if there isn’t, or if this game leads people to believe that there isn’t, won’t it have the opposite of its desired effect? If handing out leaflets for Dean is the same thing as handing out leaflets for Kucinich, why should I vote for either of them?
Or maybe the game itself is the sign of difference. Even though all those graphics could be replaced, there is no Wesley Cark or Carol Mosely-Braun game. The press (from sources as esteemed as the New York Times, no less) surrounding this venture is all about it being the first video game for a political candidate, not the best or most provocative. Bill Clinton, in a move that was also all about image, once went on a popular talk show and played a saxophone solo. Many analysts think it put him in touch with segments of society that felt unheard by politicians. So, if this is just one more of Dean’s attempt to appeal to nerds and gamers across the country, he’s got my attention.
But a publicity stunt will only take you so far, Howie—now you’ve got to tell me what you’re actually going to do for me.