If you've got to be obsessed with something, make sure it isn't politics. Sports fans have innumerable events to schedule tailgates and parties around, and movie fans have festivals and video stores catering to them in every sizable American town. The political junkie has one main event every four years, with minor contests occasionally getting some ink every few months. And every event has something huge and dire at stake. If the Cubs lose, their fans might not want to finish their beer and chips. If the GOP loses, your taxes get hiked.
So it's about time a video game came along to provide some risk-free refuge for the political junkie. Simulations of real world events are turning out to be what video games were made for. This is a market where the history-of-mankind game Civilization III is a sensation and The Sims, with 28 million copies sold, is the biggest blockbuster of all time. It's with all this in mind that the Michigan-based developer Stardock is wrapping up production of The Political Machine, a strategy game where you adopt a potential president and become his Lee Atwater, James Carville or, God forbid, Pat Caddell.
"After the 2000 election it became clear that we live in a 50/50 nation," says designer Brad Wardell, "which creates a great opportunity to make a video game. Games, by their nature, require evenly matched sides, and here we had a historical opportunity to use presidential politics as the backdrop for a strategy game."
THE POLITICAL MACHINE tries hard to make good on that promise. The game's 50-state map (Maryland gets the District of Columbia's 3 electoral votes) re-creates the biases and moods of the country right now. New York and California are larded with Democrats, and Texas and Indiana start off deep red. Virtual Florida cares about "Social Security" and "deposing Castro," virtual Illinois cares about "unions," virtual Ohio is against "outsourcing of jobs," and so on for the rest of the states.
If you take the time to poke through a political almanac, you find that Stardock has more or less accurately re-created America. And they've cherrypicked the leading political lights of the age -- Kerry, Bush, Edwards, Schwarzenegger -- for you to play with. Each candidate gets to expend his "stamina" crisscrossing the country, visiting a state (good for a one-point poll bounce), giving a major speech (the bounce depends on what you say on what issue), buying an ad (an even bigger bounce, but it drains your war chest), or shaking hands to build "political capital." I could trade my capital in for hatchet men ("spin doctors," "smear merchants") or win endorsements from groups like the ACLU and the NAACP.
I decided to run a test by managing George W. Bush's campaign. He comes with a pretty basic arsenal -- average charisma, comeliness, compassion, intelligence, and military experience, coupled with sky-high stamina, fundraising ability, integrity, religiosity and credibility. So what if the media hate him and his minority appeal is at the low end of the 10-point scale? If Karl Rove could win the White House with this stuff, surely I could, too.
The game set up a virtual Wesley Clark to run against me. I had 41 weeks to campaign, learning as I went. To my surprise, I won 40 states and ground the general into a sticky paste. Then I ran against Bill Richardson: 38 states. Jimmy Carter: 36 states. So much for the Nobel Peace Prize.
This was quickly getting too silly to stand, and I signed off to re-read the instructions. It's not that I minded winning. I was just winning weird combinations of states. George W. Bush was beating Democrats in Connecticut, Hawaii and Illinois, and getting hammered in Mississippi and Alabama. And according to the news ticker that ran across the top of the screen, my opponents were just humiliating themselves. Why was Jimmy Carter "visiting Rhode Island to speak out against George W. Bush supporting Palestinians?"
It was up to the endorsements, Wardell told me. "Many of these organizations always go one way or the other," he said. "However, in theory, these are non-partisan special interest groups. The endorsements change the candidate's position on the issues. So if the NAACP equivalent endorses you, it's because you've changed, not them."
SO THERE WERE TWO types of campaigns I could run. I could be all things to all people -- let's call it Kerrying -- and get endorsed by every organization until I was firmly in the middle of all issues. Or I could tack to a hard left or hard right line and win on my principles. Which of these options would work? Which had more to do with real American politics?
I opted for principle and decided to re-run the 1992 election on conservative ideals. George H.W. Bush was my candidate, and Bill Clinton was the opponent. I moved the economy bar to "recession" and the global situation to "world peace." With Connecticut as a base, I set off giving speeches and buying ads in all the swing states pronouncing the need for lower taxes, gun rights, NAFTA, and a ban on abortion.
Clinton responded, of course, by lying. And it worked. I slipped behind even in Southern states, as Clinton placed "Hollywood friends" in the Confederacy and bought newspaper ads declaring I was against "a stronger military" and "American values." Even without a Ross Perot in the race ("Anything that is beyond your control tends to take away from the fun," said Wardell), Clinton won pretty easily with a little under 350 electoral votes.
So I tried again, without the niceness. I claimed Clinton wanted to outsource American jobs, raise taxes, and destroy the environment. The truth didn't factor in -- even Californians believed that the Arkansas governor was dead set on polluting their drinking water and forcing their pregnancies to term. I won in a squeaker, against a much better candidate.
DID THIS MEAN THE game is accurate? It's hard to say. The TV age has definitely made it easier for a moneyed candidate to define his opponent before the voters get a look at him. The real world George W. Bush strategy has a lot in common with the campaigns of Gray Davis: making a spotty, complicated record unimportant by driving up the challenger's negatives.
But no matter which candidate I picked, the divide-and-muddle tactic seemed to work better than sticking to principles. And that isn't always how it works in the real world. Real presidents have been elected by talking straight and arguing that America needed their leadership to stay strong. Ronald Reagan used those tactics to sway millions of conflicted voters away from a party that had a much fuzzier, giving outlook. In the virtual world, this wouldn't take.
Attempting to prove my point, I decided to manage the ultimate muddled candidate. I managed Al Gore. And defeat looked like a real possibility. After buying a national ad slamming George W. Bush on "public education," I had a tenuous grasp on 385 electoral votes. He shot back by winning the endorsement of the game's equivalent of NOW (remember "W stands for Women"?) and the Chamber of Business. The compassionate conservative had a 279-259 lead. I came out for tax cuts, eked out a lead, and watched Bush bounce back above 300 with the endorsement of the unions. If you're a junkie, this stuff is more exciting than a gunfight.
We battled back and forth for weeks. I nixed Joe Lieberman and chose John Edwards as a running mate to bog Bush down in the South. As he campaigned, I hired six smear merchants, six spin doctors, and a fixer who apparently had the power to murder opposing political operatives.
Just as Gore closed the campaign with dirty NAACP ads and the DUI charge, I closed the campaign by sending hatchet men to the big swing states and promising record tax cuts and a crackdown on immigration. The South breaks for Al Gore, who is elected president with 361 electoral votes.
After running a campaign like that, the political junkie in me settled down considerably. It still hasn't recovered.