This week's Election Tuesday post is by Ian Bogost, author of Persuasive Games and Newsgames (with Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer), among others. It discusses political games and communication (or lack thereof).
Recently, the journalist Monroe Anderson asked Obama strategist David Axelrod “why so many voters were so clueless as to how President Obama had spent the first two years of his first term.” Axelrod's response: “information gridlock.” Essentially, the White House hadn't been able to communicate effectively with the public about its accomplishments. Anderson siphoned this state of affairs through the lens of games, asking two speakers on a newsgames panel at a journalism conference how games might be used to communicate “Obamacare” more effectively. The two responses are pretty good game designs. One involves simulating the experience of different illnesses: “Let them walk through and let them see it with the Obamacare version and without the Obamacare version, not telling them which is and which isn't.” The other is a game about “how to survive without health insurance...People will say, 'Oh, wow'; if these things happened to me, I'd be screwed.”
In the presidential election of 2004, Gonzalo Frasca and I helped create the first ever official US presidential candiate game, for then-Democratic sweetheart Howard Dean. Several more officially endorsed games appeared that election cycle. In 2008, only a couple surfaced, including Pork Invaders, a silly Space Invaders knock-off from the McCain campaign. This year, as far as I know, not a single official political game was conceived or created. Meanwhile, the two designs Anderson's panelists suggest are just the sort I love, just the sort I have been advocating for in my research and my game development for years. The problem is this: neither the Obama White House nor the Obama campaign would ever make games like the ones Anderson's interviewees suggest. That's not because the designs are bad; ironically, it's because they are good. As I've argued before, the representation of policy choices and their outcomes is anathema to politics, because the latter is concerned more with politicking than with policy, with campaigning over legislating. This is a different sort of failure to communicate, one rooted in the widespread misconception of politics as a matter of professionals getting, keeping, or losing their jobs, rather than citizens living in (hopefully) better and better communities. Meanwhile, the administration and the campaigns alike keep Facebooking and Tweeting their soundbites, hoping two sentence answers will be enough.