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Where's my political simulator?
by Chris Hawke

Politics splits opinion. That's kind of what it's designed to do. If you go right back to the roots of the word, politus is Latin for 'that which aged white men cannot agree on but still bellow on and on loudly about in the House of Commons'. I think. Some favour the left, while others prefer the right. Russia was hyped for Communism a while ago, while America looked nervously on and threw money at every third world country considering going Red in hopes that Marxism would just go away. One may find no greater pleasure than reading Hobbes, Mill, and Machiavelli, while another thinks it's all just absolute rubbish. There is, however, one aspect of politics that mankind can all agree upon: there is currently no politically-minded video game out there.

There are, of course, games with politics in them; quite a few, in fact. Victoria II lets you introduce supply-side economic policies or tinker with taxes as you please, but these are merely minor distractions from the core of the game - endless wars waged to become the ruling power of the world. Tropico 3 had edicts like Prohibition and Propaganda, sure, but they were quick-fix clicks to patch up short term problems involving building stuff, and had no real impact in the game world. Civilization, Age Of Empires, and Supreme Ruler all have trinkets and tassels demonstrating political simulation, but they are sidelined by war, and action, and endless territorial fighting. Y'know, the stuff that actually looks interesting on a screen.

This highlights one of the main flaws with a possible political game: hell, it'd be boring. The back of the game box would be as barren and uninspiring as Ed Miliband's policies (High 5 to the three people who got that, including Ed Miliband). It doesn't quite have that same eye-grabbing effect of, say, a bunch of screenshots of heroic generals unfalteringly leading their men through explosions.

Now, for the first time ever in a video game, you can write Early Day Motions for use in the Commons! Awkwardly hold babies for misjudged official party posters! And, new for 2011, pay back £256 in government expenses for flannels after a national scandal emerges!

But, then again, have a gander at this. Yep. DLC included, you can pay just over £750 on trains. Nothing more than video game trains. The most uneventful, immobile, and utterly indifferent transport mode ever created. For 30 times the price of the average PC game, you can watch a string of carriages go from point A to point B. And that's brilliant. The fact gaming can offer such a ludicrously niche experience is testament to the fact it's such a broad, all-encompassing market. If people are prepared to pay £750 for trains, they'll go mental for a political simulator.

It doesn't have to look like greased sex. It doesn't have to run at 120 frames per second. It doesn't have to have a hundred different online modes and features. It just needs to be right. No basic 'do this and happiness 1+', nor simple opportunity cost management of 'this now' or 'that later'. Politics isn't like that; it's incredibly complex and stupefyingly intricate. A quick boost in jobs might lead to higher employment, but inflation will almost surely rise, meaning at some point monetary and fiscal policy must be tightened to avoid devaluing the currency. And what if these jobs are in a declining industry; how much will you have to increase the budget deficit to alter the main body of national industrial output, to halt the increasing structural employment and irate trade unions. And in balancing all this, how on earth can you introduce supply-side polices to increase potential productive output without annoying a small-but-vocal minority over your invasion of the country's vast historical heritage (unless you're in America, in which case... you have none)? It may not be visually stunning, but just like a good RTS, politics is an exploration of consequences: planning, timing and luck all lead to success or failure, meaning a strategic mind is key.

You're Prime Minister. During morning tea, a military official kicks the door open and shows you this picture. You rush to the nearest window... zombies in the street. Gasps from your staff, now also at the window, remind you that the burden of how to respond is on your shoulders. Calmly, you turn to your assistant, who readies his notepad and pen and looks back at you, terrified but ready to act. What do you do?

The actual options for political gameplay are almost endless. Maybe you could start your own party from a grass roots revolution, attempting to calm the joyous population as you look towards the future. Take on Germany as the UK, attempting to become the most attractive exporting power in Europe. Win a landslide in the US and finally conquer the public's fear of socialism. Of, just play as Norway and pretty much win from the beginning. Balancing the terrible forces of the economy, an overly demanding populous and self-interested foreign powers could lead to all sorts of wonderful outcomes - a Communist America, a dictatorship in Switzerland, or a unified African democracy.

The best bit is that everyone's got an opinion. No matter how actively you partake in local government, or if you just murmur 'If I were king...' while watching the news with your friends now and then, you have an idea of how things should be run. You have an opinion. With gaming, those opinions could be forged into a plan of action. Everyone would take different turns at every point of play, whether they favour the hard right or the radical left. Anyone who took controller or mouse in hand would implement a plan they had been thinking of on their own for years.

It's not got fast cars. It's not got loud guns. But politics is pretty interesting when you think real hard about it, and it's a criminally unrepresented genre in gaming. Unlike trains. Cocky, expensive virtual trains...

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- Chris Hawke

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