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In this case, politics is a (video) game

A screenshot from the forthcoming strategy simulation game, Political Arena.
Eliot Nelson
A screenshot from the forthcoming strategy simulation game, Political Arena.

It's been a long couple of years in politics. And it can be frustrating to feel like politicians treat it like a game, with people as pawns.

But a political journalist thinks there may be some appeal in a new strategy game that gives players a front-row seat to the ins and outs of politics in a fictional political world. The game tackles the good, the bad — and yes, the very, very ugly.

It's called Political Arena and its creator is Eliot Nelson, a journalist who wrote a political newsletter for HuffPost until 2018.

"You can legislate, you can campaign, you can navigate the media, you can weather scandals, you can try and pick apart the myriad interests on K Street and other special interests," said Nelson.

In the game, a player can customize their own politician and then decide how to invest their time, what issues they prioritize and how "weak" or "strong" they are in certain skills.

How the game unfolds from there, Nelson said, is up to the player — and of course, the voters that make up the game's simulated political world. But he stressed that players don't need to be top-tier gamers — or political junkies — to dive right in.

"Now, if you want to dive in and be a sort of Machiavellian operator and be a Nancy Pelosi or Mitch McConnell, you absolutely can," he said. "But if you're not familiar with politics, if you're not familiar video games, the game will very much hold your hand."

The team behind Political Arena launched a Kickstarter campaign last month with a goal of raising $100,000. With just a few days to go until the campaign closes on Nov. 6, the team had already raised more than $90,000. A full release of the game is planned for Election Day 2023.

Nelson's been working on this game since 2018 when he left HuffPost, and said he's drawn inspiration from his work as a journalist, as well as from a lot of games already out there. He cites the experience of sports video games like NBA 2K and Madden NFL, as well as simulation games like Sim City.

A screenshot from the game Political Arena.
/ Eliot Nelson
Eliot Nelson
A screenshot from the game Political Arena.

He also was inspired by the popular educational game Oregon Trail, where users set off across the country in a covered wagon, hoping not to die of dysentery.

"It's that simple formula that we're trying to recreate with Political Arena," Nelson said. "Oregon Trail never had any lessons in it. You never just stop and answer a quiz. It was a fun and immersive and — dare I even say? — addictive game that has did such a successful job of familiarizing tens of millions of people with this relatively arcane corner of American history."

Video games can mix entertainment and education

Christie St. Martin, who is the CEO of Gamers.Vote, a nonprofit that works to mobilize gamers, said she likes that the game gives players the opportunity to "step outside of your own political beliefs and see it from the other side." She's not affiliated with the game's team, but says she sees a clear civic hole that the project fills.

"There really is no content that's happening around educating about this process or the system in general," she said. "Wouldn't it be really important if we found a way to do that from high school and make it gamified so people actually enjoyed the process of learning anything as it relates to democracy?"

Nelson and the developers behind Political Arena are launching this game at a time when people's views of politics are pretty bleak — which begs a question: Can it actually be fun to play, especially for people who might not consider watching Senate floor speeches on C-SPAN a riveting evening activity?

Steve Place, an adviser to the team building the game, thinks it certainly can be.

"A lot of people, when they see the game or they hear about it, they're like, 'Well, you know? Politics isn't fun.' And yet, you know, people's entertainment interests kind of say the opposite."

Place, who worked with the Obama administration on efforts around competitive video gaming — or esports — cited examples like Netflix's House of Cards or The West Wing that have gripped the attention of general interest audiences.

The game tries to portray the messy parts of politics realistically

Producer Diana Williams, who is a former executive at Lucasfilm (best known for Star Wars), said that first and foremost she wants this game to be enjoyable to play.

"We are making a game that for someone who decides to engage with it, to purchase it, to sit down and play it on their PC... that they have fun," Williams, the head of Kinetic Energy Entertainment. "And if through while having fun, they are able to also say, 'Hey, I didn't know this about x y z,' then we have also done our job."

But she also said she hopes the game attracts people who are curious about the political process, and to offer them a more honest view of how politics happens than the way it's portrayed in say, Schoolhouse Rock.

"Schoolhouse Rock didn't quite cover things like the fact that lobbyists show up with like great dinners and things to sway people's opinions," she said. "It's very gray. There's no black and white to the democratic process."

The game taps into some of the less savory sides of politics, too.

The trailer for the team's Kickstarter is styled like an attack ad, and players can choose to put proverbial skeletons in their fictional politician's closet and see how voters respond.

But the less thrilling parts of the political process do get an edit.

"This not a game where you have to sit through hours of committee testimony, but you may have to deal with the fallout when, in hour four of a committee hearing, you fell asleep and were caught. And how do you deal with the fallout from that," Nelson said.

One thing that was important to Nelson as someone with roots in journalism was that the game feel as authentic as possible. He enlisted help from some veteran political operatives like Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and at EMILY's List.

"Some of my first questions were, 'How are you going to handle women candidates? Do they have different challenges than men do? How do we make sure that's accurately reflected in the game?" McIntosh said.

It's considerations like these that help make a game feel more real when people play it, according to producer Diana Williams.

Williams compared it to when the game Assassin's Creed II launched, and "everybody marveled... that when somebody was climbing a building, a crowd below reacted."

"Why that was so groundbreaking is because it's what we do in real life. If we see someone on a building, we're going to look up," she said.

Much in the same way, Williams said she wants to make sure that when a player creates a politician and moves through the simulated political world in the game, the world responds in such a way that takes into account the politician's race and gender identity or expression.

"The best way to keep a player engaged, and the best way to keep someone really into the story and into what they're doing and what they build is by having reactions and events feel as realistic as the technology allows us," she said.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.