Want to know what it’s like to run a campaign? The Political Machine 2016 is here to scratch that itch

 

Being both a politics fanatic and life-long gamer, I hold that rare and strange position of someone who squeals with delight every time a new political video game arrives. I’ve always advocated for more developers to use the medium of video games to tackle political topics and issues, but these experiences are few and far between. Even when they do happen, it can hit or miss. Sometimes it can be done well — with the earlier Civilization games providing a great insight into the strategic nature of international relations — and other times, well, we get a game like Playing History 2: Slave Trade. The Steam Early Access store currently features a game called The Political Machine 2016 and, having enthusiastically followed every beat of the ongoing US campaign, I simply had to give it a go.

The game, a sequel/update of sorts to The Political Machine 2012, simulates the challenge of campaigning and winning a presidential election and, as you can imagine, it’s absolute chaos. You begin by choosing your presidential candidate, with almost every 2016 primary candidate available to pick from — each with different attributes and policy positions that can help or hinder them in the race. Donald Trump, for example, begins the game with huge amounts of money but very little credibility, whereas Ben Carson’s low stamina is compensated by his high level of intelligence. Also, for some reason, Joe Biden is an available option too … #runjoerun.

You can also create your own character should you wish, but I personally enjoy making a selection from the dozens of real candidates on offer, just to see what happens when I pit certain politicians against one another. For example, I challenged myself to bring a Lincoln Chaffee victory home against Ted Cruz … and, naturally, I failed pretty miserably. Following that train wreck, I chose Bernie Sanders, interested to see if his self-described ‘democratic socialism’ made him as unelectable as pundits have claimed him to be.

Once you’ve made your choice, it’s time to get into the campaign arena, with an electoral map of the USA representing the visual hub for this virtual board game. The game then becomes a race against the clock as you and your opponent take turns to jet around the country, raising and spending money, promoting your brand and building ground resources to try and win over states for the most Electoral College votes. It quickly becomes clear, however, that there’s a lot more to it than that. As the game went on, I found myself caught within a number of sticky scenarios including: struggling to give politically diplomatic answers in a high-profile interview, agonizing over the decision to either hire a speechwriter or spin doctor, or desperately juggling my favorability ratings among the several important swing states.

On top of this, the game will challenge the player with random events that, should you react with the wrong approach, can threaten to slow the momentum of your campaign to a dead halt. When a natural disaster strikes on the East Coast, for example, it’s probably not a great idea to stick to your fundraising events in California. The game also uses census data and updated political issues to ensure the simulation remains contemporary. I found myself dealing with a whole range of subjects that feature regularly in real-world news, from the Keystone Pipeline and ISIS to marijuana legalization and Planned Parenthood.

Games like these often limit you to binary choices as you deal with generic issues such as raising or lowering taxes, so it’s refreshing to see a simulation which gives the player the freedom to tackle complex issues with a variety of different positions. The aforementioned census data also allows you to check out the social, economic and demographic biography of all of the 50 states, informing the way you campaign within each. With regards to the marijuana issue, for example, I was sure to make a big deal of it in California, even dumping some of my cash reserves on political ads to dominate the golden state’s airwaves.

Whilst it is far from being a wholly accurate simulation, The Political Machine’s depiction of the US presidential election, at the very least, captures that essence of unpredictability that continues to characterize the real thing. The Political Machine 2016, despite its cartoony aesthetic and satirical vibe, made me realize how damn hard it is to even run a presidential campaign, let alone win it. For that reason alone, I would recommend it to anyone who has any sort of interest in that rare intersection between politics and video games.

Speaking of winning, I should probably mention that my in-game Bernie Sanders, after fighting through a rollercoaster of an imaginary campaign, eventually made it to the virtual White House. Feel the hypothetical Bern.