By Sanjan Sabherwal
Today the British public have been given the opportunity to vote on whether to leave or remain in the European Union. The last time we had a choice on membership with the EEC was 5th June 1975. 65% of the voting public went to the polls, with 67 percent opting to stay within the single market. Polling agencies predict a far closer result and there’ll be a far greater number of votes in the ballot boxes.
Brexit campaigns have taken over the airwaves since Prime Minister David Cameron fixed a date on February 20th 2016. Since then, the British public has been inundated in a sea of argument, counter-argument, hard-hitting media campaigns, statistical manipulation and leaflets. It’s a challenge for citizens to make a fully rational decision on whether to stay or leave especially without having all the information available in an easy-to-understand formats. It’s equally difficult for political leaders to balance many demands and make the right decisions. I’m sure there are times when presidents and prime ministers would rather kick back and play video games – not political ones!
Often the public feel they would be better at ruling than the current leadership. Whist being in a position of power is not accessible to all, game designers for centuries have enabled everyone to explore their capacity to think strategically. Chess and other military board-games have long fulfilled our aspirations. Attaining world domination at ‘Risk’ often ended in actual violence. However, as computers become powerful enough to simulate more complex gaming scenarios, violence becomes just one aspect of a more complex mix. For example Age of Empires requires players to balance resources to fuel the inevitable fighting.
Released in 2013, Democracy 3 by British developers Positech, became one of the most complex political strategy games ever made. Finally game developers and players are engaging with more sophisticated topics and strategies. The game challenges players to manages the brainache-inducing issues of crime, unemployment, national debt, terrorism and climate change that overshadow western nations in order to win elections. Decisions can be made based on the motivations, desires and loyalties of groups and individual voters. Having data on individual AI’s income, complacency and cynicism offers guidance to players.
The player has access to ‘focus groups’ so they can instantly experience public reaction to changes in policy or manifesto. The attention-to-detail and opportunity to mod mean it is hard to distinguish the game from the socio-economic models used in political institutions to design policy. Unsurprisingly Democracy 3’s simulation engine is based on a neural network. All elements (e.g. groups of voters, policies and events) are interconnected so changes in one will affect the position of another. By simply loading in new data in the form of spreadsheets, players can simulate new relationships. Open source mods available on the website allow us to test Keynesian economic policies or simulate political systems in developing countries. The latter no doubt informed the development of Democracy 3 Africa.
In time for the ‘two party’ Presidential Election and Britain’s in-out EU Referendum, founder Cliff Harris, released Democracy 3 Electioneering. The expansion edges closer to contemporary thought in political economy. No longer are outcomes completely predictable or voters considered fully rational. Electioneering brings “emotional irrationality to your electorate!”. Now the soundbites, slogans and public image of candidates – so ubiquitous in real life – are integrated into the game. Mislead the public with false promises and time speeches to cover up bad news. Power can be won with an expensive campaign, not well thought out policies.
Democracy 3 and its growing ecosystem is an incredible tool for people wanting to learn more about the factors underpinning a detailed political system. It’s a fascinating way of learning how civilisation in the free world is actively maintained. The game is understandably appealing to the politically-engaged, but could be intimidating for the casual players or political novices.
A more friendly political game on the surface is Political Animals by Squeaky Wheel. But don’t let the colourful and cartoon graphics fool you – the game is ‘dog-eat-dog’ and the aim is to be elected leader and take over one of several island maps. The Filipino developers highlight the corruption in developing nations and rightly or wrongly characterise politicians as either domesticated animals or wild beasts. It’s fun and satirical without the hard-hitting message of Animal Farm.
Games are brilliant at helping us empathise. They allow us to fully-immerse ourselves in other worlds and explore without risk. Sometimes you can even hit ‘undo’. When playing Democracy 3, you have time to analyse all the information presented and are playing more than a single politician, you are indeed playing god. You can see everything and know everything. Despite some suspicion of a surveillance state, in reality politicians can’t stop time and weigh up all the information to fully calculate their strategies. Like us, they are swayed by campaigns, lobbyists and incomplete information. Like us they too have to sometimes make best guesses and live with the consequences.
Today we must vote on whether we should leave or remain the European Union. Pollsters using similar technology to Democracy 3 have been desperately trying to predict the outcome but our irrational and emotional choices are inevitably too hard to compute. Whatever the result, there will be winners and losers but it’s better we live in a complex democracy than under a simplistic dictatorship.