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A View from Henry Jenkins

Playing Politics

Continuing to explore innovative uses of digital tools for campaigning, Howard Dean, this year’s cybercandidate, has commissioned his very own computer game. The game simulates the process of getting out the vote in Iowa, including pamphleting, canvasing, placing signs, and…

  • December 24, 2003

Continuing to explore innovative uses of digital tools for campaigning, Howard Dean, this year’s cybercandidate, has commissioned his very own computer game. The game simulates the process of getting out the vote in Iowa, including pamphleting, canvasing, placing signs, and moving people to the local precinct to caucus. The game was developed by game designer and theorist Gonzalo Frasca, working with Ian Bogost, as another illustration of news gaming. Information about the game was sent first to selected bloggers, including yours truly, before being released to the mainstream media.

Interesting, the Dean game appears only a few weeks after Slate columnist Steven Johnson wrote: “The U.S. presidential campaign may be the first true election of the digital age, but it’s still missing one key ingredient. Where is the video-game version of Campaign 2004? Political simulations are practically ubiquitous in the gaming world, but you’re more likely to find a game that will let you stage a Spartacus-style slave revolt than one that will let you win the Iowa caucuses.”

Johnson, for example, calls for a Sim which would allow you to replay historic campaigns to try “what if” scenarios. In fact, one of my all time favorite games was created by the Doonesbury folks during the 1996 presidential campaign. It allowed you to put together your own tickets drawing on more than 100 real world candidates. You planned their strategies top to bottom, including mapping their schedules hour by hour and state by state. You developed advertising strategies, press relations, travel plans, and debate tactics. You struggled against unexpected scandals. And the score was determined on the basis of the electoral college. My son, then in early high school, played the game for hours and then came out to explain that Clinton was in Ohio and Dole in California because they carried a high electoral value. He loved the game so much that he tried to take it to school to play in the computer lab during his study hall. The school had a policy allowing educational software, disallowing games, so predicably enough, the librarian who had to enforce this policy told him, “You can’t bring that game to school.” This game, as much as anything else, excited me about the educational potentials of gaming.

The Doonesbury game was a top-down game: you played the candidate or the campaign director. The new Howard Dean game is a grassroots simulation – you are there in the streets, trying to win the election one vote at a time.

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