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Tax, murder and capitalism: a brief encounter with Democracy 3

Image: GameSpot
Image: GameSpot
Image: GameSpot

In case you hadn’t noticed, politics is crazy right now. Strong and stable is weak and wobbly, vote against a coalition of chaos and you get a, er, coalition of chaos. Ironically, people seem to be able to achieve a lot more control and enjoyment from political simulations by way of video games.

A few political video games have recently been released. Orwell (2016), for example, places the player in charge of the world’s strongest surveillance system, enabling them to do much more than read the average person’s emails. On a similarly gloomy note, Papers, Please (2013) puts the player at the helm of the border police in a rotten Eastern European country. Let illegal immigrants or enemies of the state in at your peril – you can’t afford to lose any wages or you won’t be able to buy food and pay the bills. Elsewhere, This War of Mine (2014) is a survival game in which the player attempts to stay alive, getting enough food and avoid snipers, during a brutal political conflict. Look out for some writings on these later.

My investigation into political simulations started and finished a long time ago, but curiosity got the better of me this time. Not long ago I had seen the New Statesman run the 2017 political manifestos through Democracy 3. My friend Adam Koper had been doing it at Nouse in the 2015 election (so had the New Statesman, mind you, for the 2010 election as well). Time, I thought, to try it myself. This week, in the Steam Summer Sale, I had a go at what its developers call “the most complex and sophisticated political strategy game ever made.”

There is no shortage of information in Democracy 3. The game interface tells you all you need to know about how your decisions will impact the voters, the community and your other policies. Hover over the right icon and you see how a lack of funding or a high tax is worsening a social crisis. High crime and unemployment displeases the conservatives whereas pollution standards and green campaigning delights environmentalists. You can tell exactly how your policies are going to improve or worsen situations and decide whether they should continue, be modified or be scrapped.

What’s more, Democracy 3 provides detailed breakdowns of all the facts and figures. You can track the booms and busts of the economy, the previous results of opinion polls and the debt-to-GDP ratio of the country. Focus groups give you an insight into voters’ concerns – there’s no such thing as a single-minded voter. A voter may be a socialist but also earning a comfortable wage, trying to look after children and hoping to own their own car, so it is naïve to pander to a single factor.

There is certainly complexity and sophistication, but there are also far too many instances of ridiculousness. In one situation I achieved 90% of the vote, achieving a one-party state in all but name. In another, I enjoyed a level of public approval ranging between 90 and 98% despite a general strike and a major economic recession. Elsewhere, my party enjoyed a membership of a staggering 41,000,000, more than half the country; the real-life British Labour Party has something like 500,000 members.

The perennial threat to my leadership was to fall victim of assassination from the Battenberg group, a secretive alliance of capitalists and businessmen. It’s an interesting addition to the more pedestrian challenges that modern politicians face, but it was also something that would not go away. I lost six games in a row due to capitalist-backed assassination.

What’s more, the government is powerless to resolve an economic crisis if the capitalists within the nation are already peeved. When raising taxes prompts the capitalist murder of your leader, you have no choice but to watch the debt rack up and the economy suffer. Perhaps I just couldn’t deliver a strong and stable government for the people, but Koper and Nanidis suffer a similar number of assassinations, it seems.

Sometimes the embarrassing moments for the game are technical. Due to a bug, most games commence with your party having no members whatsoever. Some users link it to an broken element of the DLC, others to whether your simulation happens to involve a monarchy (so the UK, Canada and Australia are out), but in my play-throughs, the problem persisted regardless of either of these options.

Whatever the cause, the disadvantage you face is like starting a swimming race with a tonne of bricks attached to your ankle. Games begin with approximately 75% of the population belonging to the membership of the opposition parties, while your membership is condemned to remaining at nil. To avoid the bug, I could only play as half of the available nations. Democracy 3 was released in 2013, but these frustrating problems are yet to be removed.

I gave the game a number of goes, but the situation does not really improve. The option to remove assassinations as a game feature is there, but I was reluctant to make the game easier just to improve my experience. Eventually, while running an economy with a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 3500%, somehow while maintaining a 90% rate of public approval, I concluded that I should put Democracy 3 to one side for now.

Democracy 3 simulates politics in the short-term, sometimes by design and sometimes by the frustration it lumps on the player. The realism is there – you’re not going to turn Germany into a socialist utopia in five years – but so is plenty of stupidity – capitalists will kill you whether your economy is a free market heaven or not; having more than half the country’s citizens in your party is no guarantee of success.