[29 July 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
The American presidential elections have always been a curious combination of anathema and celebratory conflict. In order to win, a candidate has to wear a dozen different faces, race around the country, and claim the key states that will decide the election. Confounding these tasks is the fact that some states are going to hate you no matter what, and some are going to love you no matter what. So the candidates must consistently make themselves as generic and broadly appealing as possible, a process that inevitably renders them less than what you want them to be.
Stardock’s strategy game The Political Machine 2008 dives into this surreal competition with a strategy game where you manage the campaign of whatever Presidential hopeful you want. The result is, like the reality of American politics, something disturbing yet somewhat entertaining.
Each candidate has a variety of stats like Charisma, Fund Raising ability, Stamina, etc. that governs his potential moves each turn. The number of things you can do per week is limited by the candidate’s stamina or the amount of money you have. Facilities can also be built that generate PR or Consulting Points, which you then use to buy a stat boost for a state in the form of a spin doctor, TV director, or some other clever name. With all these resource-generating options and stat boosters, you race around the game for a set period of time trying to generate more popularity while smearing your opponent’s name. Whoever gets the key states such as California, New York, or Texas is probably going to win. So just as in a real election, you have to emphasize your campaign on the states with the most electoral votes. In order to oust your opponent, you run smear ads and bring down his popularity in issues while he does the same.
The problem is that outside its subject matter, there really isn’t much to it. The biggest thing holding the game design back is that nothing in the game is a finite resource. There is an unlimited amount of PR, money, and popularity to be sucked out of a topic or state. Every time you need money, you just go to one of your key wealthy states and fund raise the same set amount (based on your stats) until you’re ready to go again. You can repeatedly use the same topics that everyone loves such as jobs or gasoline prices for your ads and speeches. No one will ever call you out for being repetitive or demand you take an unpopular stance on an issue. Nor does there seem to be much conflict within the support groups. The Gun Lobbyists had no problem endorsing me despite my utter apathy or even counter stance to gun control.
It’s common to say that a candidate will do or say whatever it takes to get elected, but they’re usually confined by the risk of being called out on it. The game loses out on a significant portion of the electoral process by not delving into the more complex aspects of politics, and as a result, is duller to play. Competition boils down to you and an opponent racing around key states, while you boost your own popularity and smear theirs. It’s like playing Monopoly without the dice or the satisfaction of ever owning property. You just go around and around the board bidding on things.
The game further complicates matters by not having a very good tutorial. This isn’t always an issue in a video game; you certainly don’t need a manual to play Super Mario Brothers. Yet here it becomes problematic because of the huge array of options at your disposal. Even though the game lacks a finite commodity to make the strategy more interesting, it still gives you a huge list of options for generating popularity. The tutorial, rather than have me play through each element while explaining things, instead is a just a couple of pages of text. You can’t even simultaneously parse the text and the game—you read the text and then you get started. Given that the document is fairly long, that’s a pretty intense demand from a player during their first game.
The final qualm with the subject matter comes from the fact that the game doesn’t really delve into its subject matter. This goes back to the lack of complexity in the game design, but outside of the clever labels and basic setting, you’re not going to learn much about politics. Obviously, there’s a concern that you’re going to drive away casual players who aren’t already political junkies…but any game that claims to be about a sophisticated topic is already going to do that. The Political Machine 2008 is never going to change the fact that it is trying to be a political simulator and it should dive headfirst into that mess rather than hold back. Historical context, regional issues, selections of religion, and the political chaos our current leader has left the Executive Branch in are great topics to discuss through video games. If the game had asked the player to take a stance on issues like whether the federal government serves at the pleasure of the President, it could have raised awareness and made players more informed for the real election. Instead, the typical tactic is to go to a state, cherry pick the issues people want to hear, and rant about them.
But perhaps that’s not an unrealistic mirror of the truth of our electoral process. Many Americans aren’t in the mood to laugh about our eight years of atrocious leadership or the fact that our leaders have become little better than the bobble-heads the game depicts. Perhaps my pining is less objective than I like to believe, and all of the finite resources I’m complaining about never existed in the first place. The non-American reviews of the game have been generally positive, it can make for a decent hour of gaming, and for twenty dollars, it’s not demanding too much from your wallet. For all the complaints about the The Political Machine 2008’s lack of depth or insight, perhaps its most powerful lesson is that the real thing isn’t much better.