The subject of politics in videogames is, to put it lightly, a bit fractious. As the years have progressed and peoples’ personal politics have skewed wildly due to factors like a rampant and uncontrolled press shored up by making profit from fascism and stoking hate, ineffective centrists doing their best doormat impression as they say thank you to the jackboots pressing into their lips leading to mass erosion of rights, and the continued rise of homegrown hard-right extremism staining every social media and content creation outlet like a poison, it should come as no surprise to find that videogames have come under fire for being “too political”. Quite what constitutes “too political” is generally left up to the interpretation of the complainant, but typically it’s because a game features a woman, or someone of colour, or a trans character; you know, the really big crimes.
The notion that almost all art is inherently political because almost all art is about something and therefore carries with it the ideas of its creator and the context of when and how it was created has been roughly swept under the rug, replaced by an unthinking and defensive systemic rejection to ever being even gently challenged. Despite geek culture historically being a place where the outcast, the weird, and the quirky congregate in a designed safe space where we can exult in a shared identity of being different, it’s become depressingly common for that space to be polluted by voices that want to be part of that crowd, provided the entire crowd that’s already there fucks off and is replaced by only people who look like them. Manufactured outrage is spread as if it’s representative of the whole, instead of the fewest, loudest voices when anything even vaguely critical of the status quo appears, as if a single piece of art which challenges or questions will somehow bring about the shattering of every gamer’s world.
Anyway, here’s a silly game about running a left-wing government and in doing so, actually doing some good for the world. Nothing controversial at all.
Democratic Socialism Simulator (Android, iOS, PC [reviewed])
Released Feb 2020 | Developed / Published: Mollieindustria
Genre: Simulator | HLTB: 45 mins
So this is a game about being a democratic socialist in charge of the US government – you, uhh, might have worked that one out already, I guess. It’s not a subtle title. If you’re not familiar with the ideology, democratic socialism is the notion that the state should build an economy based on principles of collective ownership but that the political system which oversees that needs to be based on a democracy. To break it down even more, basically it’s when the government does stuff like supporting workers’ rights by giving aid to unions over corporations, taxes the wealthy more in order to fund more national services such as healthcare, public transport, and education that are widely and freely available to all, and generally pursues a liberal left-wing social ideology. The democracy part means that the government legitimises itself by winning elections and being voted in. That’s a bit of a simplification, but hopefully you get the idea if you didn’t before. The closest real-world comparison is probably something like what Bernie Sanders’ government is imagined to look like, or a less warmongering or corporate-friendly version of Tony Blair’s Labour government in the UK in the early 2000s.
Anyway, establishing this kind of government is what Democratic Socialism Simulator is about. You are the President of the USA, you’ve just won an election and you’re on day one of your first term in office. Your party has a small but clear majority in Congress, so you’ve definitely got a mandate for implementing your ideas, and you’ve got the political clout to get them through the US’ labyrinthine and frustratingly outdated system. Well, you do at least, for now. The electorate in the US is a fickle beast, and the trick in building your glorious socialist utopia lies in not just winning an election, but retaining the popular support of the people; after all, what use is socialism that doesn’t work for the people? To that end the main gameplay challenge comes in trying to keep enough support to maintain your majority in Congress as well as get elected to a second four-year term.
You keep track of that by keeping an eye on a panel which displays a representation of your voters. This is one of the more unique aspects of the HUD. Each person on the grid represents a part of the electorate. Clicking on them shows their motivations and, as a result, what kinds of policy decisions they’re most invested in. This allows you to plan what policies you want to pass, and you can be a bit tactical about it as if parts of the electorate are devoted to you, it gives you a bit of leeway to pass laws which are favoured by other members of the public. Where each person is positioned shows their support for you; closer to the screen means they’re more in support of you, whereas some at the back can flash up as being actively engaged in orchestrating the violent overthrow of your government, but as long as they’re on their own you’re alright.
On the right of your screen are 3 bars which measure the economy, pollution levels across the US, and the general happiness of the working class. These are directly tied to your goals for the game. Obviously you want to keep the economy up, but unsurprisingly most policies cost money to implement so if you go into debt you’ve got to make some difficult choices that might not align with your ideals to pull the country back out of the red. The happiness bar is kept high by taking steps which help solidify the nation’s sense of class consciousness, such as improving public works or siding with unions. The pollution bar starts high, and you’re expected to try and reduce it to zero to meet the country’s emissions targets. Balancing these is one of the primary challenges; each time you choose to enact a policy or not you can see the effect your decision is going to have on each bar.
The most immediate comparison to how the game plays is a little phone title I once tried called Reigns. This game uses the exact same Tinder-esque swipe-left-or-right interface as that one. Each day someone comes to you with a policy and you get to swipe it left or right to decide what you’re going to do with it; the direction you swipe, incidentally, doesn’t conform to a political ideology (i.e. moving more left or right-wing, which I thought it might do at first). Instead, you have to pay attention to what your options are on-screen and drag each decision to the one you want to do. The 3 goal bars each move in real-time as you make your choices, so if you’re unsure you can see what the impact would be by dragging it left or right before you release the mouse and make your final decision. Occasionally you’ll be given the chance to make a really big reform to the US political system – say, for example, like increasing the amount of judges on a biased and hard-right Supreme Court (why yes this is topical good thing that would never happen in real life oh wait) – but if you don’t have a significant Congressional majority you won’t be able to implement that reform and instead you have to either discard it entirely or set it aside to return later in the game when you’ve hopefully gathered enough of a majority to do stuff.
Democratic Socialism Simulator is a simple game, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s easy to understand, and it presents its ideology in a fun, colourful way. However, I don’t think it was necessarily intended as a tool for convincing people of the merits of democratic socialism; I suspect really it was named the way it was to drum up a bit of mouth-frothing anger as an amusing way of annoying fascists, and that’s a victory all on its own. It probably even annoys some leftists who think it espouses a system that fundamentally doesn’t work due to the broken nature of the established political network in their own countries – after all, given the awful events of the last few years in the US, perhaps it’s not unfair of folk to feel jaded by a game that does, ultimately, rely on the idea that you can vote out corruption. Still, I’d love to think that this could, in some way, perhaps bring some folk around to realising that socialism is the best way forward for their country, but it’s hard to imagine a goofy little game could do that. It’s heart is in the right place though, and at least it’s still a nice thing to play.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.