Sep 13 2005

Computer Game -Democracy

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 11RCN @ 2:38 pm

Keynesian Economy Simulator

  • Format: PC
  • Publisher: Positech
  • Developer: Clif Harris (probably in his bedroom)
  • Price: $19.95+VAT (Approx. £13 – £14)
  • Reviewed by Alan Graham

(Bourgeois) Democracy: the game

I had heard about this game and was intrigued, so when I saw the demo on a magazine I installed it immediately. Two hours later I shelled out to download the full version from the maker’s site. Most simulation games involve running a household or a business, a civilisation warring with neighbours or realistically flying a plane. How many allow you to play around with the economy, see the likely effects of different reforms and if you’re not happy with the result: edit the data files yourself, add new dilemmas, policies and situations? Well this one does.

A computer game may appear a bizarre way to put across political ideas but most games contain some political elements whether it’s Command and Conquer’s Cold War conflict to Fallout’s post-Apocalypse world dealing with the effects of radiation. What stands out about this game is the portrayal of everyday political decisions on people: either by showing the way governments prioritise with taxation or how mild reforms cost peanuts compared to military spending but could have immediate results if the will was there to implement them from those in power. The simulation genre is targeted at a very sophisticated audience, those who like to analyse the game world and work out winning strategies.

The social model

The full game allows you to run the economy by being the leader of a host of industrialised countries including UK, Japan, Germany, USA, and Russia. It uses a sophisticated neural network to simulate the population and each decision you take reflects on their support of the government.

The population is split into various groups: poor, middle earners, wealthy, liberal and conservative, socialist and capitalist, state employed, trade unionists, the retired, motorists, smokers, environmentalists, the religious, and patriots. Each individual can of course belong to more than one group: the socialist parents who like to drink and commute to work whilst the wealthy self employed may smoke and be capitalists. Not to forget the religious organic farmer.

The game is a constant work in progress so there are problems with the fluidity between these groups but it manages to put across the concept that people are influenced, in different ways, by different policies. A socialist trade unionist who supports your efforts to increase pensions and NHS funding may be annoyed by high petrol tax.

Balance

Balance seems to be the driving force of this game: putting political ideas and concepts across in a neutral way and allowing the gamer to see the expected effects of their decisions. From a socialist perspective, the information given can be debatable.

You can block proposed laws. For example, when it comes to a countryside access law you can either block access:

Private land is private land. This is the very basis of private ownership and capitalism. If the owners wish to restrict access to their land, this is entirely up to them. This is nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt as class war by disgruntled socialists.

or support it:

Its crazy to have so much open, and often entirely unused, land in private hands while our cities are so overcrowded. This law will allow all citizens to enjoy the beauty of our countryside, whilst retaining the final property rights and ownership privileges of the landowner. It’s a good compromise.

Supporting such a law pleases socialists but displeases farmers, while improving equality. However the effect is reversed if it is opposed.

Policies

The game includes 75 different policies that can be implemented, ignored or modified, including introducing free school meals and reintroducing university grants. Some policies lead to situations, some bad some good. A high rate of asthma means you need to deal with air pollution, hammering motorists means fuel protests.

I experimented as a neo-con to see the effects. Hammering the poor results in class war on the streets, to tackle it meant either spending lots of cash fighting the causes of poverty or CCTV on every corner and armed police on the beat. If you attack the poor then assassination by Communist guerrillas is on the cards, similarly, maximising income tax leads to your intelligence agencies detecting plots by the capitalist and wealthy elite to organise a military coup!

Dilemmas

Each turn you are presented with a different dilemma and have to choose, sometimes the lesser of two evils: Ban animal testing or allow it, ban a fascist march or allow it to go ahead, meet a foreign minister of a country with an appalling human rights record to try and win them over or shun them for their crimes against humanity. I’ve suggested the following: the media claims you’ve gone to war based on a lie and whether you deny or admit allows you to move forward not back on the issue or have it hurt your popularity by way of the voter cynicism in your politics level if it turns out to be true.

Measures of success

The measures of success in this game are not just measured in economics or opinion polls, there are other statistics to show how good your society, such as lifespan, literacy rate, crime rate, poverty rate, equality, air quality, car usage, and unemployment. These all show how your policies are affecting society.

Decreasing the poverty rate decreases the crime rate as less people are driven to crime, but modifications need to be made. When luxury goods are taxed and Corporations made to pay their fair share, a black market is created and tax avoidance takes place. The crime rate is not affected however! This reflects the reality of capitalist society. In Britain, government spends £millions on campaigns targeting those on the breadline claiming benefits they are not formally entitled to. At the same time, corporate crooks who hide assets in shell companies and offshore tax havens are ignored while they defraud the tax coffers of £billions.

Turn Screen

A nice addition is quotations to read whilst you wait your turn, including Lenin – Capitalists are no more capable of self-sacrifice than a man is capable of lifting himself up by his own bootstraps; and Thatcher – A world without nuclear weapons would be less stable and more dangerous for all of us.

Customisation

The beauty of this game is the option for customisation. All the statistics, data and policy effects are included as standard spreadsheet files. Drag the files into Excel, OpenOffice or Notepad and you can modify existing policies or create your own. On the game’s message board fans can suggest their own modifications.

I was bemused by the ability to provide subsidies for cleaner fuel, rail networks and bus lanes but allowing private companies to reap the rewards, so I suggested the ability to nationalise the railways and the buses. And the customisation is what takes this game and turns it into an economic model. The opening screen changing from The Queen has asked you to form a government… can quite easily become The workers have taken over the factories… The police force can be modified to become the citizens’ militia and any other policy you can imagine can be tried and tested.

Rating

As political simulations go this one is the best there is available to date. True, the simulation is of reforms and some of these need tweaking but overall politics are presented unspun and the effects of government decisions are shown in clear terms.

For me the most important part is the underlying model and the ability to customise this however you wish. At around 12MB I would recommend anyone interested in politics to give it a try. Given the ability to modify it could even become a cheap and quick way to put across a practical demonstration of economic and political ideas.

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