Cliff Harris of Positech Games and Mark Batten of Red Marble Games kindly provided me with a review copy of Democracy 2. My impressions, though very positive, were not influenced by their generosity.

When I was eight or nine years old in the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to be in a school that could afford a computer lab. We used this lab for three things, as I recall. The first was to learn what was then known as “word processing,” so thank you for that, Microsoft Works and Mavis Beacon. The second and third things were The Oregon Trail and Number Munchers.

I learned from playing these games. In the case of The Oregon Trail, I still remember very clearly a lot of what I learned, though in retrospect I think that I was allowed to keep spending time playing the game well past the point when it had anything more to teach. So I mean no disrespect at all to the legendary Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium when I say that Democracy 2 has more substance and value as a teaching tool than The Oregon Trail ever did.

Democracy 2 is a strategy game developed by Positech Games, a one-man studio out of the UK. Released at the end of 2007, the game is a turn-based government simulation that is both comprehensive and detail-oriented. It’s a fun, complex, challenging game that is packed with information and nuance.

As I’ve discussed previously, there are lots of ways to approach a game about government. SimCity looks at government at a city level, through the lens of civil engineering. Civilization looks at government at the broadest level possible, and contextualizes it as one factor among many that influence the characteristics of a nation. Democracy 2 is focused squarely on the domestic governance of a more or less democratic state in a fictional world that largely resembles our own.

What point is the game trying to make?

Unlike Budget Hero, Democracy 2 doesn’t feel as though it has a political axe to grind. I’m not saying that Budget Hero had one either, just that it felt that way. If you look very hard, you can find policies in Democracy 2 that seem to always help or hinder you—ignore education and community policing at your peril, for example—but you’ll fail if you pursue a strictly ideological agenda in any direction.

In my book, Democracy 2 is a serious game even though it is not designed specifically for education or as a “persuasive game” (a game with an agenda). No, Democracy 2 exists for the reason most products do: to make money. Positech founder Cliff Harris may make games about things he’s interested in, but he’s understandably concerned with how his games are selling.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, although it does make me wonder how much research went into the game’s statistical models. Is there data to back up the assertion that retired voters care about healthcare and pensions, but not about education? Why is it easier to provide small business subsidies than to enact a rural development program?

Statistics about the policies and spending of real-world countries is provided in an in-game “Encyclopedia,” but this information is not attributed to any source. The irony here is that American Public Media games like Budget Hero and Consumer Consequences do cite respected research organizations with regard to their numbers, but still come across as partisan. Either I’m one of those overly self-critical liberals, or… lies, damned lies and statistics, I suppose.

Because I think it’s funny, I should mention that Positech is offering free copies of Democracy 2 to politicians:

The problem with running a country is that everyone who does it is entirely unqualified for the job. Every new president or prime-minister is having his or her first go at it. There are no ‘practice’ countries for people to have a go with before they try doing it for real. [Theory] is great, but experience is better…

Interestingly, Harris says he’s had better results advertising the game on politics websites than on games sites. It would be interesting to hear about the experience of non-gamer politicos. Was the interface manageable? Did they find the simulation plausible? Was it fun for them?

How successful are the presentation and gameplay?

If gameplay is “a series of interesting choices,” then you could be forgiven for wondering whether Democracy 2 is a game only a policy wonk could love. The decisions you make during the course of a game are very specific—we’re talking “How deeply do you want to cut funds to your telecommuting initiative?” specific. Take a look at the main game screen below to get a sense of the amount of information players are asked to process every turn.

Black circles in that picture represent policies or programs over which the player has direct control. Blue circles represent more abstract ideas, which can only be influenced indirectly. Orange circles represent crises (the less common green circles represent things going well). The bars in the middle of the screen indicate the government’s popularity with various groups of voters.

Don’t let all that scare you off. For a game that tries not to oversimplify, Democracy 2 has a surprisingly gentle learning curve. There are really only a few actions players need to perform succeed at the game: cutting or implementing programs, adjusting funding and highlighting the relationships between policies, voters and the economy. Analytical skills, reading comprehension and transferrable knowledge about real life politics are what matters most.

The player’s basic goal in Democracy 2 is to get reelected as many times as possible, without being assassinated, thrown out of office for ballooning the national debt, or otherwise disgracing him or herself. The nature of the game lends itself to players assigning themselves other goals based on their beliefs (improve the environment, for example, or move to a free-market capitalist economy), but these are not built into the mechanics.

Democracy 2 is a game about relationships. Each element of the game—policies, programs, situations, voter satisfaction—is connected to other elements. The key is to balance the things you have to do to offset crisis situations with other, more popular actions.

What makes the game strategic is the fact that you can’t do everything all at once. With the exception of pledges made during campaign season, every action in the game requires an expenditure of political capital. That capital amasses over time, at rates that vary based on the loyalty of your cabinet ministers, who are themselves loyal to various voter groups.

There are problems with the game, most notably with its representation of foreign policy and elections. In the case of foreign policy, you’re limited to a scant six policies, compared to dozens in areas like law and order or the economy. There is never any direct communication with the outside world or with other governments. Fortunately, this comes across as a compromise made for gameplay reasons. This is a game about domestic politics, not international ones.

Democracy 2’s minimalistic elections are harder to live with, both because elections are a major feature of democratic society and because getting reelected is the only concrete goal in the game. Elections play out simply: the turn before an election (three months in game time), you choose two pledges from a list. Promise to increase equality, lengthen lifespan, lower crime—take your pick, because it doesn’t really matter. You’ll win or lose based on your popularity. If you don’t fulfill your pledges and are reelected, the game warns you that voters are upset come the following election cycle, but I never lost as a result.

I suspect that both foreign policy and elections were left out of the game because to implement them would have required a significant investment of time and resources, and because they couldn’t be easily fit into the existing game mechanics. They would have had to be represented as something akin to minigames, and these would have run the risk of either overcomplicating the game or being so simple and poorly integrated that they broke the balanced core game and ruined the illusion of realism.

If Democracy 2 is not completely accurate, it is at least complex in ways similar to real life. As a result, it has real value for educators. The key is to keep in mind something pointed out by Aaron Whelchel in his excellent paper Using Civilization Simulation Video Games in the World History Classroom. Whelchel was discussing historical games, rather than political ones, but his point stands:

“…faults can actually be used, in conjunction with more traditional methods such as texts and lectures, as a way to not only teach students correct historical information, but also how to deconstruct artifacts from their own culture in order to detect biases, factual inaccuracies, and structural flaws in the models used by the game developers.”

Does it make an impression?

Yes, it does. Civics teachers at the middle and high school level should take a serious look at Democracy 2. What the model United Nations club is for international relations, this game could be for domestic policy (with the added bonus that students not inclined to attend extracurricular activities might actually participate). Players not accustomed to games of this type would need some instruction, but a single computer lab session could bring everyone up to speed. Positech does offer educational discounts for the game.

In my last post, I argued that games need to be fun before they can be used for learning, and I’ve had a blast with Democracy 2. Anyone with an interest in strategy games or politics should at least try the free demo, available here for PC and here for Mac. I’ve put about eight hours into the full game so far, and I’m not done with it yet. When you’re ready to buy the full game, you can get the original PC version from Positech and the excellent Mac port from Red Marble Games. Both versions run $24.95, and are available for direct download or on CD.

If you’re an educator, student or gamer with questions about Democracy 2, please take the time to comment. Finally, here’s a short slideshow I put together for an educational technology class about the game: