Politics is serious business. It often feels existential. Exhausting. Irritating. Cork dry. Confusing.
Can it also be fun?
Eliot Nelson insists it can. And to prove it, he makes politics a game.
A video game.
For the past three years, Nelson has been working on Political Arena, which he considers “the first truly in-depth video game about American democracy.” For those of a certain age, think SimCity meets the Oregon Trail – with a bit of Grand Theft Auto thrown in. Nelson wants to educate the masses on the ins and outs of how their government really works. And entertain them too.
“Politics is gripping,” Nelson told us. “It’s one of the most popular topics of all time. The thrill of wielding power is inherently exciting.”
As an early online advertisement for the game puts it: “Seek fame or disgrace in a fully simulated political world, complete with high-stakes campaign strategies, backroom, scandal, special interests and the press. Be the politician of your dreams (or nightmares) .”
From DC-in jokes to storyboards
Nelson spent the early part of his career as a journalist in Washington. His beloved Congressional newsletter, HuffPost Hill, was an extension of his personality—a mixture of genuine silliness, serious legal reporting, and lots of jokes.
“It was the only tip sheet I would recommend to my friends who weren’t in politics,” said Jess McIntosh, who was a press secretary for former Senator Al Franken and now advises the video game project. “I still miss it.”
The first version of the game will be released later this year. Nelson acknowledged that the post-Jan. 6 environment has cast a dark cloud. But, he added, “Politics contains crowds, and there are moments of levity and dark humor.”
After crowdsourcing over $100,000 in seed money on Kickstarter, he assembled a sleazy team of game designers, marketers, and gray industry veterans. They wondered how the gameplay should work, delved into storyboards and sought input from hardcore political junkies and strategy game fans.
How the game works
The main focus of Political Arena is the acquisition of power.
You start by creating your own politician, choosing a limited number of points to spend on a few skills and character traits. Are you a media-obsessed, populist braggart or a legislative lion? Is your goal to become president, master of the senate or a spitball-throwing house banker?
To simulate the real world, the software generates politicians who are as closely aligned as possible to the politics of their district or state. Do you want to be a certain senior senator from Kentucky? Name your new avatar Mitch McConnell and have fun.
For now, your opponent is the computer and the scenarios he throws at you. But in future versions of the game, players will be able to compete against each other online.
There are three types of currencies in the game: money, fame and political capital, which is a kind of clout score. Just like in real life, the more you collect of each, the better you do. For example, you may be asked to deal with the political fallout when your vice president tweets a racist meme or is caught having an extramarital affair with a secretary.
“This isn’t the kind of game where you kill orcs with an axe,” Nelson said.
Patrick Curry, the chief executive of FarBridge, a studio in Austin, Texas that helps develop the software for Political Arena, said his team is also working on “boss fight” moments — those intense confrontations at the end of each level. in a classic video game.
A boss fight can be a high-stakes press conference or a campaign debate. “And it doesn’t have to look like a PBS version of the debate, either,” Curry said.
‘How and why our politics happens’
Long before he left HuffPost in 2018, Nelson, a lifelong gamer, had wondered how a video game could reach a very different audience.
“It’s like trying to understand football without ever watching a football game,” Nelson said. He added, referring to Oregon Trail, “People are more fluid about what you need in your cart and how much buffalo meat you have to carry than about how bills are passed.”
McIntosh, Franken’s former press secretary and political adviser, said games can teach Americans how their democracy works by creating a level of intimacy that journalism can’t quite match.
“It’s weird that you can recreate just about any experience in life, including going to the supermarket in another country, but you can’t play a political campaign,” she said. “It feels like it’s more important than ever to understand how and why our politics are taking place.”
Attempts have been made in the past to make video games about politics. But either the technology wasn’t advanced enough to make it attractive to a large audience, or the focus was too much on education and too little on fun.
Perhaps the closest thing to a commercial precursor to Political Arena is President Elect, a primitive simulation game that debuted in 1981 and went through several iterations before fading from memory in the late 1980s.
When we last spoke to Nelson, he was working out quirks in Political Arena’s legislative voting system to enable what he called “Joe Manchin-esque, last-minute negotiations” on the Senate floor.
He was trying to figure out how to simulate the adrenaline rush of watching a big vote like the one to pass the Affordable Care Act in 2010. happen all the time in the real congress.
“A game where the good and the bad are not played would only make things worse,” he said. “Politics is partly coercive because of the warts.”
What to read?
The congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol has subpoenaed Peter Navarro, a former White House adviser to Donald Trump, Luke Broadwater reports.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi approved a proposed ban on lawmakers trading stocks amid bipartisan push led by vulnerable members of the House, Jonathan Weisman reports.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said the agency was working on new health guidelines as Democratic governors begin to lift pandemic-related restrictions, but warned against acting too quickly, reports Sheryl Gay Stolberg.
postcard FROM WYOMING
Two stories from one phone call
CHEYENNE, Wyo — For pro-Trump Republicans in Wyoming, Representative Liz Cheney has been out of sight on the campaign trail, but not out of mind.
She has not appeared at a state Republican Party state party in over two years and has not attended a personal event for any of the party’s 23 provincial divisions since 2020. Her opposition to Trump has forced her into a sort of exile from the Republican Party apparatus in Wyoming.
And her former political ally, now taking on her after winning Trump’s endorsement?
Well, they don’t talk much.
The last time Cheney spoke to her Republican primary opponent, Harriet Hageman, was a few weeks after the 2020 election. In separate interviews, each shared her side of that conversation.
Cheney had just publicly urged Trump to admit he had lost, a statement that proved highly unpopular with Wyoming Republicans. She called around to gauge the political backlash in her home state.
When she called Hageman — the two were so close politically that Hageman introduced Cheney at the state party’s 2016 convention — Cheney said she expected to agree on the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory.
“She’s someone who’s committed to the rule of law,” Cheney explains. “She’s a lawyer.”
But the conversation didn’t go well. Hageman recalled telling Cheney about Trump’s objections to the election results in Georgia, Pennsylvania and other battlefield states.
“I just said, ‘I think there were some legitimate questions and we have every right to ask them,'” Hageman said. “This is America. We can ask questions.”
Cheney recalled informing Hageman that it was unconstitutional to object to the electoral votes of other states. And she said she warned against setting a precedent that would allow Democrats in Congress to decide the legality of Wyoming’s electoral votes.
“I was surprised she didn’t seem to be exactly where I was on the matter,” Cheney said. “I thought it would be her.”
Hageman said Cheney ended the conversation with a swear word and told Hageman it was time for Mr. Trump and his allies to accept the results of the election, given his numerous legal defeats.
“I said, ‘We have the right to look into that,'” Hageman said. “And she just told me, ‘You’re wrong.’ And I haven’t spoken to her since.’”
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