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The Political Machine 2012

Stardock Entertainment

Here we are, in the full swing of what my nigh-on neo-con friend refers to as ‘silly season.’ Time (in the United States, anyway) for cynicism, time for slander, time to alternatively bemoan the pointlessness of voting while hoping fervently that this same apathy (in other people) doesn’t kill democracy’s last vestiges. That’s right, it’s that most sacred institution of what Churchill deemed the ‘least worst’ political system – the election!

At this point there is only so much one can add to the dialogue, such as it is. Two conventions past, and each week we receive briefings on the new gaffes, fresh outrages and the constant schizoid urge to see ‘our’ candidate as both the leader of the pack and the plucky underdog. Oh, and let’s not forget how quickly ‘their’ guy politicizes each and every crisis that enters the public eye. No shame, no shame at all!

We all know that there’s nothing easier than poking fun at politics (and nothing more political than a politician claiming an issue lies ‘outside’ politics). But this is a symptom of that very cynicism we deplore, a paralytic agent that leaves the game wholly in the hands of those passionately intense ‘worst’ that Yeats was on about.

The trouble is that it really does start to seem like a game, something like musical chairs. This is a depressing thought for most – but it is also an excellent opportunity to take the premise at face value. For those of you who are willing to court cynicism in your off hours, I present for your judicious consideration: Stardock Entertainment’s The Political Machine 2012, the third installment in a series of occasionally scathing simulations of the United States Presidential race.

The game’s design is very tongue-in-cheek – the intro video opens on the interior of the Oval Office, festooned with pictures of presidents-past, all rendered in bobble-head form. This snide aesthetic extends to all of the candidates The Political Machine portrays – there are playable bobble-heads from both major political parties, both contemporary and historical. If you were curious about how a race between Kucinich and Ron Paul would have turned out, you can play that out. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have bobble-headed avatars, though if they run they’ll have to deal with contemporary issues like gay marriage and the war in Afghanistan, using contemporary methods such as the fundraiser and the attack ad. Ever wondered how Abe Lincoln would fare with the Republican base of 2012? The Political Machine gives you the chance to find out.

If the figures are to be believed, this election cycle finds the United States a more and more partisan place over these last 25 years, and never in modern times so divided as it is now.As such, I’m going to avoid playing out the Obama/Romney match up. I tried, you see, but rapidly discovered all it did was provide me an opportunity to wobble my own bobbley head along with the narratives ‘my’ candidate’s campaign has been weaving. And I’m sure we’ll soon have had enough of that to last us a lifetime (or at least another four years).

So instead I’m going to evoke a fantasia, a speculative alternate reality where men in tailored suits are not the only ones strutting the national stage. I invite you to join me on the campaign trail for an unforgettable showdown between presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice. We’ll have 41 weeks (the ‘medium’ length setting for a game, with each ‘week’ being an in-game turn) to rally our bases, appeal to independents, and set the terms of the national discussion to our advantage.

 


Let’s meet the candidates, shall we?
    

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, will be my candidate this election cycle. As her campaign manager and political strategist, it’s up to me to navigate the bizarre hybrid system of popular and electoral votes that makes our particular system of governance so darn entertaining. That means determining the strengths and weaknesses of my candidate, as compared to those of her opponent.

The game makes this easy, providing a long list of attributes, with ranks from 1 to 10, for each candidate. The higher the value, the more impressive the candidate’s performance in that category – so, in this case, Ms. Clinton’s greatest strengths are her Intelligence (a commanding 9), her starting Money and Fund-raising ability (both 8’s), and a relatively high Stamina score (7). This means she’s more likely to come up with good answers during TV interviews, will have little trouble keeping her war chest stocked, and can do a fair bit of jet-setting and speech-giving before she has to retire to her hotel room for a breather. Sadly, Ms. Clinton suffers from a deficit of Charisma (a below-average score of 4, which I choose to blame on endemic, systemic and implicit sexism), meaning her speeches and campaign ads will be less effective. Still, with twice the money I can put out twice as many ads, so I’m not too worried – there are always speechwriters and stylists to help spruce up my candidate’s public appearance.


   
Condoleezza Rice is an impressive opponent in her own right. In the battle of wits, she’s my candidate’s equal, also sporting an Intelligence score of 9. She also has Experience and Credibility on her side (both 8’s), meaning she’ll find it easier to land national endorsements and her attacks, both in speeches and in ads, will be more believable and thus more effective. If she chooses to go negative, I’ll need to work hard to keep her from setting the terms of the political discussion. On the plus side (from my candidate’s perspective), Ms. Rice has substantially less fund-raising ability (4), and her Charisma score is just as low as Clinton’s – what was I just saying about sexism?!

The plan is this: outspend and outlast her. I want Condi scratching the bottom of her war chest by the end of this, while Hillary is still sitting pretty on a pile of green. Of course, no plan really survives execution, but where’s the fun in a foregone conclusion? Get your muck-rakes out, gents and gentesses: let the games begin!

    WEEK 1:

   

The first thing to do is check the national polls. This will allow me to determine the lay of the land, and the tone of dominant political discourse. The foremost issues are those which most concern this fictional American public, with percentages representing the degree of confidence the voters have in each candidate concerning that issue. Topmost is the much debated issue of what’s been branded ‘Obamacare’, which is the most pressing concern of 17% of the electorate. That’s not good news for my candidate – it seems Rice is leading Clinton on this issue by a generous 15 points.

The next two most important issues – Tax Cuts and Reducing Unemployment – fall in Clinton’s favor. That’s a big relief, since these core economic issues are very important to independent and undecided voters who – at this early date – still make up the lionshare of the electorate. When it comes to Deficit Reduction, however, my candidate is perceived as a little too spend-happy – of the top five issues, it’s the one where Rice leads Clinton by the most, a full 35 points.

So what to do? If I want to boost voter confidence in Obamacare I’ll likely need to spend quite a lot of time advancing my candidate’s position, and that may well cement healthcare as the issue of the election – an issue I’m not certain to end up on the right side of. What I need to do is find a topic that Rice is not prepared to address, and force it into the public consciousness. And as luck would have it, one such issue is competing for what we’re told is the fifth-most important on the electorate’s mind: the bailout of the automotive industry. Of the voters concerned, 83% trust my candidate, while 16% think Rice and her party have the right idea.

But to properly capitalize on this opportunity, I’ll need nationwide attention – I’ll need ads and speeches and national endorsements, and none of that comes cheap. This early in the campaign, I need to focus on securing a revenue stream, both in the form of weekly contributions and fundraising galas.

I start by upgrading my Campaign Headquarters in New York, a structure that generates weekly income and gives my candidate access to a wider range of issues in its home state. It will also raise Awareness of my candidate – the value that determines how many voters really feel they know my candidate, a sine qua non for getting them out to the ballot box come November. As Clinton is a native New Yorker, her Awareness rating in that state is already pretty high, but as New York is a relatively wealthy state it can’t hurt to build enthusiasm in anticipation of future fundraising.

As the Auto Bailout is my silver bullet issue, I’d be a dimwit not to start campaigning in the states most affected by it. I build an Outreach Center in Michigan, another kind of HQ which will help me gain PR Clout crucial for securing endorsements later down the road, and close up the week by sending Hillary to Illinois, where she tours the urban centers and drums up support.

    WEEK 3:

The election starts to get dirty. My contacts in Georgia inform me that Rice has already gone negative, attacking my candidate’s position on Social Security. It’s hard, as of yet, to determine just how effective this tactic will be, and luckily since it was a speech and not a broadcast ad, its repercussions are limited to Georgia – not exactly a keystone in my campaign strategy. Still, I need to keep an eye on this issue. Social security is, no surprise, a big deal in Florida, so if Rice keeps this up, I’ll need to do some rapid regional damage control; this wouldn’t be the first election to come down to a handful of votes in the Sunshine State.

Nothing to be done about it now, however, and the Clinton campaign has other concerns. A little yellow question mark has appeared in Wyoming, signifying a Monolopy-esque ‘Chance’ which could earn me an ally or an enemy depending on my luck. Figuring that now is as good a time as any to roll the dice, I advise Hillary to check it out. She piles onto a plane, and in a few hours she’s having dinner with a ‘Money Man’ – an invaluable ally who boosts fundraising efforts in whichever state he’s stationed. This is a coup, particularly considering my intended ‘outspend, outlast’ strategy.

    WEEK 5:

It occurs to me that the Money Man’s abilities can be put to better use elsewhere. Wyoming is hardly flush, so no matter how augmented my fundraising efforts there may be, it’s not likely to net me much. California is a different story, wealthier even than New York with a healthy stock of electoral votes as well – it’s a kind of blue-leaning Texas.

I send Hillary and her new friend to San Francisco and check the polls to see what’s on the Californian voter’s mind.

Unfortunately, lacking an on-spot HQ and thus extensive polling capacities, I can’t even address the Auto Bailout issue – but I spot another, more regionally appropriate opportunity: Green Jobs, an issue both Clinton’s base and the independent voters favor. A quick speech boosts my candidate’s Awareness and nets me an instant +3% in the state polls. In the wake of this newfound attention, I set Hillary to fundraise, something I know she’s good at.

   

It works like a charm: Hillary more than doubles the contents of her war chest, netting a cool $478K in one cordial evening of dinner, drinks and donations.

But it’s not all clear skies and blank checks. Elsewhere, in Arizona, Rice has begun a radio campaign publicizing her opposition to illegal immigration – a savvy regional move. She’s also both built and upgraded an Outreach Center in Ohio, a state whose electoral importance can’t be understated. Not wanting to get shut out of such an important state, I send Clinton to Cleveland to give a speech and play the card I’ve been saving. Let it be known, good people of Ohio: Condoleezza Rice opposed the Auto Bailouts! She is an enemy of the People.

NB: It’s important to note that The Political Machine 2012 embraces the notion of ‘post-truth politics’ – there are no fact-checkers or economics wonks clicking their tongues and pointing out whether or not the bailout of the American auto industry really was a success, nor are there records to prove if Rice had anything to say, good or bad, about it. Indeed, it doesn’t matter where a candidate stands on the issue, but rather where the electorate believes a candidate stands on the issue, something determined by what both candidates say of themselves and of each other. If I insist that Rice opposed the bailouts, lie or no, people will think it’s true, and will vote accordingly. And the same goes for Clinton and Social Security – this cynical sword cuts both ways.

    WEEK 12:

The national polls have my candidate in the lead, but it’s too thin of a margin to feel safe – just 10 electoral votes, if trends stay the same. I’ve been focusing on a few key states, securing that cash flow, but this is a national election and to win I need to turn this into a national campaign.

This is when all the PR Clout my Outreach Center in Michigan has been accumulating comes in handy. I ring up some contacts at the National Union Action Network, politely reminding them of all the good work Clinton’s campaign has done to aid the interests of American workers, particularly those in the automotive industry. It’s not long before NUAN comes out publicly in support of Ms. Clinton. Big news, and a big boost for my candidate on two important issues: Reducing Unemployment and the Auto Bailouts.

Not a moment too soon, either. The Rice campaign has been busy in Ohio and Pennsylvania, painting their candidate as quite the budget hawk – polls say she’s got a double digit lead on Clinton when it comes to deficit reduction. It’s no surprise, then, when the Tea Party puts their weight behind Rice, further legitimizing her in the eyes of her base.

   

Moreover, Ohio is now officially a battleground state – its luminous magenta shade, a sign that Awareness levels for both candidates are high, demands my attention. I may need to deploy some political operatives there soon. Losing Ohio is not an option, and Clinton’s lead there is less than minuscule.

Then a call comes in from New York – it’s an offer for my candidate to do an interview on the well-known news show satire, the Coldcut Repertoire. This is a chance for national exposure, just what my candidate needs right now. But it also has its dangers.

During an interview the candidates have to think on their feet. They need to answer promptly, choosing from a limited selection of responses, balancing the potential reactions both of the show’s usual audience and the candidate’s own base. If they don’t line up, your candidate might end up energizing the opposition or, worse still, be branded a ‘flip-flopper’ – sheer political suicide. With her high Intelligence, I think I can trust Hillary to handle herself. I make the arrangements.
   


   
It ends up being a near thing. Clinton’s first answer, regarding her stance on the War on Terror, was not to the live audience’s liking. Watching, I cursed myself for advising her to tow a hard line for the sake of independent voters. But the followup question allowed Hillary to make her more general anti-war stance clear – no war with Iran, no thank you. This got a better response from the crowd, and the consensus afterwards was that Clinton’s answers were ‘brave’ – exactly the kind of adjective I like having attached to my candidate.

    WEEK 20:

We’re halfway through the season and accelerating fast. Already it’s time to pick running mates. Free to rove the interstates, glad-handing and professing her unshaking belief in you, a running mate boosts your candidates Awareness in whichever state they’re stationed, as well as every adjoining state. This can help build up support in a region your candidate doesn’t have time to directly grace with her presence – for me this would be New England, with its assumed healthy Democratic majorities. The campaign hasn’t invested much if any time there, favoring hotspots like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and – most recently and somewhat unexpectedly – Delaware.

The choice of running mate is, admittedly, not as momentous as it might be, particularly in light of the most recent, real-life Republican vice presidential nominations. The opportunity to compliment one politician’s qualifications and charisma with another’s would make for more nuanced gameplay, but in the present iteration of The Political Machine the decision is not a ‘game changer.’

Still, it’s more fun to treat it like one. And when Condoleeza Rice chooses the original game changer herself, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, it’s clear I need to make a statement of my own. Michelle Obama seems like the right choice to me – Palin’s celebrity needs to be countered by a media darling of our own. Plus, child of the 90’s that I am, I like the idea of an America where both parties’ presidential tickets are all-female and multi-racial.

In the same spirit, I’ve sent Hilary on a tour of the West Coast, talking up Green Jobs and Alternative Energy and raising more cash with the help of my Money Man. This is proving an effective regional strategy, but the economy is foremost in the national mind, and Rice is still the most trusted when it comes to Reducing Unemployment and the Deficit. I need to speak on these issues, and I need to reach as many ears as I can. Luckily, while the nation may be in debt, my campaign is solvent – a good thing, because buying ad space isn’t cheap. In preparation for the heated weeks to come, I hire a Webmaster to cut my costs and a Stylist to get my candidate ready for the camera. The whole entourage heads down to Florida and bunkers up in one of our larger Campaign Headquarters.

    WEEK 30:

As it happens, Condoleezza Rice is in favor of investing in Social Security. This is a key issue for many of the most reliable voters, particular in Florida, and a wise stance considering the general popularity of the program. But our Headquarters quickly yielded our campaign some valuable info: she’s rarely if ever voiced this opinion.

You have to understand, both Pennsylvania and Ohio are in the mix, and if Clinton/Obama 2012 loses either one, they need to win Florida. To lose Florida is to lose the White House, to lose everything.

I produce a television ad, and I spare no expense – we’re in for a penny, in for a pound. The central thesis: Condoleezza Rice wants to gut Social Security. She wants to tighten the belt on the retired, to scale back the promise of a comfortable old age after a life of hard work and paying into the system. Shame on her!

It’s not a proud moment, but the feeling of seeing a healthy bump in the polls – that shift of shade from contested magenta to cool, secure blue – more than makes up for the twinge of conscience. And anyways, they’ve stooped to the same and lower on any number of occasions. I’m just showing them that two can play.

I see a curious report in the news later that day – what has to be a faulty information about our wealthy, well-connected friend in California, the Money Man. They claim he’s withdrawn his support for our campaign. I try to get ahold of him on the phone, but for some reason I can’t get through to him. It’s both troubling and inexplicable, and the two effects amplify each other.

But I don’t have time to worry about that. Clinton has a razor thin lead in Ohio, much too close for comfort. In situations like this, I need the help of political operatives. Some, like the Spin Doctor or the Political Analyst, grant benefits or bonuses in the state where they are stationed. Others, like the Speech Writer, operate behind the scenes to improve a candidate’s attributes, such as their Charisma or Appearance. Most Political Operatives are acquired through the expenditure of Political Capital, the resource generated by the third kind of HQ – the Consulting Center. Operatives are crucial late in the campaign, with the power to give you that little edge you need in those tight situations.
   
Ohio is one such situation. With 100% Awareness for both candidates, both bases are riled up, and all but a slim percentage of independents have made up their minds. There is, however, a way to gradually reduce a candidate’s Awareness value. Hire an Intimidator, and he’ll tear down signs and put pressure on the opposition, doing what it takes to keep them away from the polls. With eleven weeks left in the campaign, it would be a much more sure thing than trying to court those last few finicky independents.

I couldn’t do it. Even in a game you need some scruples. Voter intimidation is a line my campaign won’t cross. Courting the independents are risky, but it’s worth a shot. I contact a particularly snide smear merchant to lampoon Rice in Ohio, someone those dedicated centrists will find convincing. A dirty business, democracy.

    WEEK 39:

I figured it out. It wasn’t before I lost a number of good operatives, but I finally figured it out. What happened to the Money Man – what happened to my Analyst in Pennsylvania, and my Decider in Washington. Dedicated supporters, disappearing, phones disconnected, e-mails ignored – the Rice campaign is using Fixers.

Trench-coated and wrench-wielding, Fixers are the anti-operative. They are the ones who can intimidate Intimidators, coercing any operative, no matter how dedicated, into bowing out of the public eye.

There are only two weeks left until election day, and it’s down to the wire. Clinton’s kept that slightest of leads, but it won’t matter if we don’t secure the battlegrounds. We go for broke, spending every dollar we’ve got, wrestling Rice for the trust of a divided America.

   

    WEEK 41:

When I found out we lost Pennsylvania, I knew the stakes. Our projections made it very clear- we needed Florida. The loss of Indiana was just something we had to bear, and after securing Michigan and Illinois, I knew our betting on the Auto Industry had paid off. But the electoral jewel of the Midwest is Ohio. When it went blue, there was a rousing cheer from the crowd gathered at the prospective post-election victory/consolation party in my mind.

South of Virginia, there was no love for Hillary. Since early on, Rice had been building her base in Georgia and the deep South, and I had no hope of winning the southwest – Texas was awash in a sea of red.

I held my breath as Florida swung into view. This was it – it had to be.

When Florida went blue, it all became worth it. I imagined elation, the thrill of victory. Champagne corks flying, confetti twirling down. After the better part of a year, going from airport to airport, state to state, our next stop was going to be Washington D.C.

At the end of the game, you’ll find the winner’s bobble head leaping for joy as her running mate stands by, ceding her the glory. There’s no champagne, but there’s some digital confetti, and a rundown of what factors decided the election, and just how the victory was won. It will let you know if you won the popular vote, or if you scraped by with an electoral college victory. It will also tell you just how important money was.

It was always the plan to outspend Rice. As Hillary’s bobble leap with glee, the game let me know that the plan had succeeded. Money can’t buy you love, read the screen, but it can apparently buy you votes.

Such cynicism. But that’s how the game is played.

____
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.

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