stretching green and red lines that dot like train lines across a grey scale background. Hubs are in bright blue with text that reads "GOP." This is a still from the game Democracy 3

Democracy 3 and the Absurdity of Government

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  • Simulation games spark a deep sense of satisfaction in players, though whether that fulfillment comes from constructing a well-managed city or a sadistic murder-filled theme park depends on the player in question. As with all video games, advancements in technology have allowed simulators to become more complex and sophisticated as the years have gone on. But greater “realism” in games has also thrown into sharper relief the gap between the rules of their simulacra and how reality truly works. There is perhaps no better example of this than the political simulation game, and no better showcase for that genre than Positech’s Democracy 3.

    The Democracy series boils down the myriad matters of taxes and subsidies, social issues, policies and laws, budgets, and public polling down to an easy to understand, easy to adjust web of icons. You can look at any given representation of a policy or problem and see strings of cause and effect linking it to its related bubbles. CO2 emissions, for instance, are increased by your country’s level of car and plane usage and decreased by green energy policies. The well-being of your nation is measured via six barometers – crime, GDP, education, health, unemployment, and poverty – while your popularity among your citizens is expressed by dividing them into twenty-one demographics, such as parents, the religious, “patriots,” etc. Your power to implement new policies or change existing ones is based on “political capital,” which you gain not from popular support or with control over a legislative body but through loyal cabinet members. The goal of any given session is not necessarily to build a better society, but simply to remain in office for as long as your preset government permits without losing an election or getting assassinated.

    That simplistic summary belies the intriguing variety of scenarios one can encounter during any given playthrough. The game’s neural-network-based simulations grant a reasonable level of nuance to the interrelations between policies, popularity, political capital, and social issues. But this ultimately is not truly in the service of a more realistic experience, but instead a more fun one. The shorthand a developer creates between real-world phenomena and their simulation’s facsimile of it can also make statements, whether intended or not. This is not confined to simulators by any means – nearly all FPS games come with a strong militaristic or even fascist bent regardless of how politically interested their actual stories are – but here we have a game explicitly dealing with politics. Thus, there are political statements built into even its most minor mechanics.

    There are some ideas fully intended by developer Cliff Harris. Democracy 3 purposefully bases its challenge on the inherent real-world difficulties in affecting political change and satisfying an electorate. You only have enough political capital to adjust a few factors with each turn you take, and nearly every option will please some demographics while pissing off others. Some of the causes and effects built into the system are plainly non-controversial. Making abortion completely legal outrages the religious, high pollution negatively affects public health, maintaining a budget deficit will downgrade your credit rating, etc. Other phenomena, however, say more about Harris’ beliefs or assumptions. For example, maintaining a death penalty lowers violent crime rates, even though real-world studies have found no deterrent effect in the practice. Similarly, legalizing drugs increases crime (particularly organized crime), while such policies in actual practice do the opposite. Strong labor laws decrease productivity – again, the opposite of what real cases suggest.

    Harris is not necessarily imposing his worldview on the player. Democracy 3’s neural network can easily be adapted and changed to reflect player-built policies and different causes and effects. As a result, the game’s prolific community of modders basically act as political agitators within its universe, introducing new ideas like so many Marxes or Lockes or Smiths. Some of them are explicitly ideological – “Socialist Reform” allows you to nationalize banking and manufacturing, among other things, and “Nazi Germany Mod” sets a template to play as… well, take a guess. Others simply add a grab bag of new policies, injecting more possibilities into gameplay and making the game just a tad bit more “realistic.”

    The loyalty and effectiveness of your ministers depends on which demographics they are tied to. It is in this roundabout manner that public opinion shapes your chances of being elected. The base game does not involve currying favor with business interests, cozying up to powerful donors, or even making promises to voters (certain mods and the Electioneering add-on somewhat incorporate these elements). There is no Electoral College for the United States you can simulate in Democracy 3, nor any apparent legislative body in any country you lead. The game puts on a cynical mood — transition screens bear messages like “Gerrymandering constituencies…” or “Compiling misleading statistics…” in lieu of “Loading…” Yet it’s overall conception of politics is strangely idealistic, in that it depicts a world in which a political leader’s power rides on their ability to appeal to their citizens. Free from perception management or special interest groups, you feel pressure to actually make a tangible impact on people, if only so they’ll let you keep your job. That, more than any miscalculated social issue cause and effect, makes the game seem more like a fantasy of politics than a simulation.

    No matter how much players derive pleasure from a challenge, the inherent appeal of sims is the illusion of control that they grant us. Though there are periodic elections, Democracy 3’s emphasis on managing ministers to build political power suggests that the game is more of a bureaucratic dictatorship simulator, despite the title. (Of course, through fiddling with the settings, creatively implementing built-in policies, and/or using modded policies, one can also build an actual dictatorship for themselves.) When playing, I often found myself so annoyed with the strictures of political capital that I would turn off the function, allowing me to activate, cancel, and/or change any policy without limits. Within the world of the game, I suppose this would count as granting myself unlimited powers as president / prime minister / chancellor. Doing so gleefully ignores Harris’ overarching point about the difficulties of democracy and political leadership (and also eliminates all the difficulty), but it also lets a player fully indulge their “What would happen if…” curiosity. In the course of a single turn, I could turn America from the heart of capitalist empire to a socialist utopia, or make France Napoleonic again just for giggles.

    This also brings Democracy 3 to a point which most sims have built into their premise: total control. Your wishes as a theme park tycoon, mayor, or general may bring disaster, cause protests, or in certain games lead your subjects to attempt to overthrow you, but they will always be carried out. Some games skip the pretense of free will entirely and place you essentially as a god. Political simulators walk back from that notion. No matter how weak their underlying premises about how politics work, they still convey the idea that you can be contradicted, that others can react to your actions and deny you your agency to run roughshod over digital lives. This is, perhaps, why government simulators aren’t generally popular, and why the Democracy games have broken that trend to do relatively well. They offer endless methods with which to tinker with your pet nation, satisfying your desire to shape the world into the form you find most ideal. With some adjustments, Democracy 3 can act as a powerful vindicator of any given player’s political convictions. Which is beside its entire message, but what’s politics without some passionate disagreement and alternative facts?

    Feature, Games