24 Mar Political video game simulates 2004 election
Video games often take some of the blame for a number of society’s ills, from problems with violence to childhood obesity. Through the morass of “Grand Theft Auto” and “Max Payne,” though, a truly informational and interesting game has emerged, an “Oregon Trail” for the 21st century.
Magic Lantern Games, based out of Illinois, has developed “Frontrunner,” a computer game simulating a presidential election from July to November of an election year. The game follows a single candidate throughout the campaign trail, in the process having to make policy decisions, garner endorsements and raise money. The campaign covers the key 90 days leading up the election and the time elapse within the game can be tailored to slow, medium or fast.
“It’s a single player game, and basically, any game can have between two and four active campaigns running for the White House. We wanted to play up as much as possible the democratic ideal — that it’s not always a two party race, although there are ideological leanings in the game because I think it makes the game more interesting, a little more fun,” said Paul Schuytema, “Frontrunner” lead programmer.
Each candidate picks where they fall on the political spectrum, from far left to far right, and this decides what issues they have available to them. The user can play as themselves or as a current political figure such as John Kerry or George W. Bush. Also, in the future, Magic Lantern plans on offering expansion packs with additional historical figures.
“We designed the game system so that the computer under the hood has no sense of the United States as 50 states. Those are all parameters we set in the scenario, which happens to be a modern-day scenario. The game is engineered such that we can recreate [Abraham] Lincoln’s presidential election, with fewer states and instead of a private jet you travel by rail,” Schuytema said.
This creates a number of interesting matchups, as well as enhances the game’s replay value. “Everyone’s interested in this election, but after that a way to really enhance the experience is to go back in time,” Schuytema said. “You can play around with the fun stuff, with a modern candidate versus an old candidate and see how that plays out.”
In the past, election video games and simulations have been more detail-oriented, with the player forced to input large amounts of numbers — such as demographical statistics — in order to receive the predictive output. “Frontrunner” is different in this regard, in that the game has the demographics built in and that the game is first-person action, not unlike the popular “Sims” games.
Schuytuma welcomes this comparison. “The hallmark of ‘The Sims’ is that you’re given a sandbox and you can play within that sandbox. The sandbox here is the American political process from July to November, and the things you play with aren’t showers and couches and hot tubs, but issues and endorsements and talk shows.”
This first-person action can also make the game more educational, according to Kurt Squire, professor of informational technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “A good game gives players control over what’s happening, which is important for increasing learning. The fact is that you’re learning a bunch of facts about an election and you’re also literally getting experience in an election. This is much more effective than just giving someone abstract verbal information.”
Dawn Maye, publishing director of Magic Lantern, agrees. “Hopefully, it will really get people engaged in the process of the election, and seeing how the issues that you choose are going to affect the different states. In the back of my mind, I’m hoping that if this catches on, it really will get people more excited about politics, so we will have a more active democracy,” she said.
According to Squire, video games can easily lead to this kind of motivation. “People are much more engaged and tend to learn better when they have a clear goal in front of them,” such as winning a presidential election, Squire said. “Games also typically stimulate your curiosity quite a bit. Just by interacting with games, people start to interpret the core assumptions behind the premise and gain insight into what is perceived as the key roles and the key variables in an election.”
So the game is interesting and educational, but the question remains: Can it accurately forecast a presidential election? There’s no way to tell until November, but Magic Lantern thinks it has the formula pretty well figured out. Maye points out that “[we] have been so painstaking in taking state populations and creating the artificial intelligence based on actual demographics and voting patterns. We’ve really done our homework with this game.”
The programmers knew they were on the right track when they ran a test game of George W. Bush and Al Gore, giving the two candidates all the issues they ran on during their 2000 campaigns. According to Schuytema, “Virtually all of the states went as they did in the election, but Florida flicked back and forth between Democrat and Republican. We could see it in real time: it was blue and then it was red, blue then red. It was at that moment that we thought, yeah, this seems pretty accurate.”
“Frontrunner” will be available spring 2004 through Magic Lantern’s Web site. It will be available only for PCs at first, with a Mac version due out later in the year.