Power to the people!
Democracy 3 is a stat-heavy simulation game released via Steam and the App Store. The player assumes the role of a nation’s leader, be it a Prime Minister or President. As the title implies, it is the third in a relatively successful indie series. UK based developers Positech Games have offered previous titles in the series at a discounted rate to ‘educational sites’. The game has also been considered by the United States’ Department of Defense for use as a simulation tool. Like many games that give the player the keys to high office, the game promises the power to run things your way (its marketing slogan is “Take Control of your Country”). Having spent a few days’ gaming time playing Democracy 3, however, it is clear that Positech have another point to make altogether.
Democracy 3 divides citizens into a number of segments (such as Patriot, Liberal, Capitalist, Environmentalist, or Religious). As President or Prime Minister, the player must make policy decisions to address problems that periodically arise. Of course, different segments of the population vary in how they respond to these choices. Want to introduce CCTV cameras to deal with that crime epidemic? Conservative citizens will respond positively, but you will lose Liberals’ support. Want to increase public schools’ funding? You will have Parents’ support, but Capitalists’ impression of you will sour. Want to bring in a carbon tax to reduce emissions? You can guess how people will react to that decision.
Should you decide to only implement those policies you want to introduce, you swiftly find yourself voted out, or more commonly, you will be assassinated. It was interesting to read the hatred that assassinations received on the Steam community blog, including the claim that the game was ‘broken’. Interestingly enough, other players who spent considerable time trying to master the game defended this feature, encouraging others to invest time in figuring out the game’s structures.
This is where the game’s point lies: the threat of assassination ensures that, much like a real leader, the player needs to make decisions and support policies that they would otherwise not adopt. Rather than simply getting to implement those policies you want, to please your favoured constituents, Democracy 3 demands that you represent the will of your electorate, including those you despise. Your very life depends upon your ability to do this.
As the game goes on, the successful player will strike a balance between compromises that they cannot abide and only implementing their pet political projects. For instance, while playing, I was unwilling to deport asylum seekers knowing that they would likely be persecuted in order to score some much-needed conservative votes. However, I had fewer qualms about introducing more CCTV cameras.
While frustrating at first then, Democracy 3’s assassination mechanic works as a comment on the limits of power and the nature of democratic government, it shows just how difficult and self-defeating the task of representative politics can be: try to please too many citizens, you will satisfy none and not gain enough votes to be re-elected. Focus on too few, and the disenchanted will take up arms against you.
This also brings about an interesting paradox: while we might condemn politicians for not sticking to what they believe in (and this is a common complaint), voters will punish leaders who veer off too far from populism. As a result, electoral politics often involves being damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t. Politicians, due to the fact that their entire livelihood depends on them being liked (or, more likely, tolerated) by the electorate, live a professional life full of compromise. In Australia, this has been the case to such an extent that political theorists such as Elizabeth Porter have questioned whether politicians are even able to act compassionately.
Of course, the assassination mechanic is an imperfect way to explore this issue of politics’ amorality. For one, assassination might be deemed an overly dramatic way to end a player’s game, an outcome that is as lacking in subtlety as it is seemingly unlikely. The mechanic is arguably less appropriate in the Australian context, given that the nation has not seen a political figure assassinated since the 1994 murder of John Newman.
More importantly, the self-defeating nature of representative government is a theme Positech could have explored in a more nuanced way than via assassination. For example, the game’s interest groups could conduct public pressure campaigns and garner support from other voter groups, threatening to tear down the player’s government should they not listen. This kind of activity is far more common than assassinations.
Nonetheless, when played as intended, the game garners sympathy for an otherwise despised group of people. Much like Papers, Please forced the player into empathising with the faceless bureaucrat at the border, Democracy 3 forces us into the shoes of those most hated participants in public life: those politicians who introduce and support policies they don’t really believe in.