Marcus Roberts is Deputy General Secretary of the Fabian Society.
Democracy 3 should be a great game. I mean, it has it all: complexity beneath an easy user interface, supposed tensions and trade-off between popularity and sound policy; reshuffle intrigue and Keynesianism versus austerity. So why doesn’t it deliver?
Here’s why: because at the end of my fifth term of government I had built a national monorail system, was merrily fracking across the countryside, and had ramped up defence spending to the max. Universal childcare, carbon taxes that killed cars and a state pension of roughly £50,000 quid underpinned my – admittedly personal – utopia. And as I say, I was on my fifth term of office. But the problem is that whilst this is satisfying in the moment, the challenge of office should be greater than this – and the challenge of a game should be greater too.
Its delightful to play around with utopia-building, but it’s a little too like playing SimCity with an infinite money cheat: what’s the point?
So I tried upping the difficulty and playing an experiment: I would first govern as Miliband/Balls and then as Cameron/Osborne. The aftershocks of the global recession quickly set in – and my deficit soared. But Ed and Ed’s focus on infrastructure spending and commitment to education and skills investment saw me weather the storm and soon enough happy times were here again.
As Dave and George though, less luck. The deficit grew. So I cut spending. The deficit grew. So I raised sales tax. The deficit grew. So I cut spending. The deficit… you get the picture.
Now as a Fabian, a Keynesian and a big fan of Ed Balls’s 2010 Bloomberg speech, all of this makes sense to me. But it really is a little crude. For what Fred Iklé noted of war is also true of recession: every recession must end. And as the real life Osborne approach is proving, even badly-handled recoveries do eventually result in growth, tax reciept upticks and an easing of cost of living pressures.
And yet the crude Keynesianism of Democracy 3 leaves little scope for this. I’m afraid to report that my bold experiment in Austrian economics ended not in ballot box success resulting from my #LongTermEconomicPlan for #HardWorkingPeople but rather assassination attempts and the threat of revolution.
So the game’s biased in favour of the Left, right? No, not even that. The preponderance of negative little bon mots of the loading screens that denigrate politics (such as Gore Vidal’s “Democracy is supposed to give you the feeling of choice, like Painkiller X and Painkiller Y. But they’re both just aspirin.”) reveal, I think, a cynisicm about politics as whole, rather than a particular ideological bent on the part of the game’s developers.
The lack of an enjoyable endgame is also a problem. You can win election after election and have brought goodies for your people…but, after 20 game years, my country still didn’t seem to be benefiting from my national monorail or space programme. Indeed, they didn’t seem to have any affect at all good or ill.
Contrast this with the complexity of endgame of say Crusader Kings II, which I reviewed on this site last month. In it, the scope to play either as a minor Earl, for whom victory was the heady heights of a dukedom, or as the Holy Roman Emperor himself, determined to reign over all Europe, allows for far greater complexity and entertainment. Simply put, if you’re playing at politics then being able to aim for different things in your endgame is a must.
Democracy 3 styles itself as “the most complex political strategy game ever.” It is a worthy aspiration, but it falls far short. Political gamers and strategists like myself may long to reduce candidates to stats and attributes alone to rank against our opponents in conceptual battles with logical probabilities stemming from policy choice or soundbite use. Call us the sabermatricians of politics, if you will.But in our heart of hearts even we know that there is, sadly, art as well as science, chance as well as logic, in the great game of politics.
Democracy 3 is sometimes available cut-price on Steam. Next time it is and you fancy 40 minutes in an imaginary world of consequence-free public spending, pick it up. And it would certainly make a nice iPad game. But if you want proper political complexity stick with Paradox games like Crusader Kings II. And keep hoping that someday, someone will make an Obama Vs Reagan or Blair Vs Thatcher simulator. Now that’s a game I’d pay real money to play.