A government simulation is a game that attempts to simulate the government and politics of all or part of a nation. These games may include geopolitical situations (involving the formation and execution of foreign policy), the creation of domestic political policies, or the simulation of political campaigns. They differ from the genre of classical wargames due to their discouragement or abstraction of military or action elements.
Beyond entertainment, these games have practical applications in training and education of government personnel. Training simulations have been created for subjects such as managing law enforcement policies (such as racial profiling), the simulation of a military officer’s career, and hospital responses to emergency situations.
Games based on geopolitics and elections existed long before the emergence of personal computers and their ability to quickly process large amounts of statistical data. One of the earliest such games was ‘The Game of Politics,’ created by Oswald Lord in 1935 which remained in print until 1960. In 1954, the board game ‘Diplomacy’ was created, which differs from other wargames in that it features a ‘negotiation’ phase during which players reach agreements with other players, and then execute military moves simultaneously. National politics has remained a vital area of board gaming, with products such as the 1986 board game ‘Die Macher’ featuring elections in Germany, and ‘Wreck the Nation’ which satirizes the politics of the United States under the Bush administration.
After enjoying years as a play-by-mail game, ‘Diplomacy’ was one of the first games to move to take advantage of e-mail, and continues to be a popular email game. As computers became more sophisticated, games in this genre moved beyond e-mail to more complex simulations. One of the earliest titles in this genre was ‘Balance of Power,’ designed by Chris Crawford and published in 1985. This game features conflict at the height of the Cold War, using political and policy decisions to shape outcomes rather than warfare. If any armed conflict between the player and an opponent superpower results in a nuclear war all players lose.
Other Cold War era games included ‘Conflict: Middle East Political Simulator’ created by Virgin Interactive, and Spectrum Holobyte’s ‘Crisis in the Kremlin.’ ‘Conflict’ simulated a hypothetical situation in 1997 in which the player assumed the role of the Israeli Prime Minister and was obligated to employ various diplomatic and covert directives to defeat its rivals. Surrounded by hostile nations, the player was restrained by a very limited military force and was thereby encouraged to employ peaceful means to remain in power until he acquired more advanced weapons systems and power. In ‘Crisis in the Kremlin,’ the user plays as a protege of Mikhail Gorbachev (reformist); Yegor Ligachev (hardliner); or Boris Yeltsin (nationalist). The player could use the simulation to test certain strategies to lead the failing Soviet Union into a new era of prosperity or force its dissolution and integration into the new world order. This game introduced the concept of budget management, citizen and faction satisfaction, as well as multiple economic values and political spectrum.
Early political simulation games were intended more for education than entertainment. In 1987, ‘On the Campaign Trail’ was developed as a tool at Kent State University’s political campaign management program, and engaged students in decision-making regarding the campaigns for United States Senate elections between 1970 and 1986. Subsequently, a commercial market developed for packaged games involving elections and campaigns.
The 1992 game ‘Power Politics’ (and, before it, 1981’s ‘President Elect’) focused on domestic United States political campaigns. In 1996, this was adapted to the ‘Doonesbury Election Game,’ designed by Randy Chase (who also did ‘Power Politics’), in which players conducted a campaign with the assistance of a pool of advisors selected from characters in the ‘Doonesbury’ comic strip. A successor entitled ‘Power Politics III’ was released in 2005. In 2004, Stardock published ‘Political Machine,’ in which the player steers a candidate through a 41-week election cycle for United States President, developing policies and tailoring talk show appearances and speech content. The game is heavily tied to modern polling methods, using real-time feedback for how campaign strategy impacts polling numbers. In 2006, TheorySpark released ‘President Forever 2008 + Primaries,’ an election simulation game that allows the player to realistically control an entire election campaign through both the Primaries and General Election.
Some games in the genre involve enacting policies and budget decisions to sway voters. One such game is ‘Democracy,’ published in 2005. In Democracy, players make decisions during each turn regarding which policies to support. As turns progress, the player views how their favorability rating changes amongst certain types of voters. Candidates make promises before each election, and failure to follow through can result in lower support during the player’s reelection campaign. Another is ‘Commander in Chief,’ produced by Eversim, boasting an array of choices for domestic policy and decisions. Another such game is ‘Tropico,’ a 2001 game where the player takes the role of ‘El Presidente,’ the ruler of an island in the Caribbean during the Cold War era from the 1950s onward. The game is tongue-in-cheek in its presentation of banana republics, using a great deal of humor while still referencing such topics as totalitarianism, electoral fraud, and the interventions of powerful companies (United Fruit is implied) and the Cold War superpowers (the United States and Soviet Union). Another game that puts the player in the seat of a state leader, is ‘SuperPower,’ and its sequel, ‘SuperPower 2,’ whose goals are to produce economic stability and prosperity, but mainly revolve around foreign policies, with the abilities to interact with other countries in many ways. The game includes a great number of real-life treaties that influence countries.
Web-based games such as ‘NationStates,’ ‘CyberNations,’ and ‘Ars Regendi’ allow players to manage the day-to-day decisions of individual governments, and compete against rival nations. Less formally structured games are also played out in internet forums, where players manage governments and nations according to a set of agreed rules. Forum-based simulation games have also grown more prominent; one example is ‘SuperPower: Classic’ in which players register, apply for an open nation an avatar (administrator), and then send news article actions which help shape their policies, and aspects such as realism and cooperation are highly promoted. Other web based games simulate the politics of one specific nation. Players on such games play as fictional politicians and participate in debates, media activity, and simulated elections (e.g. ‘Politics Twist UK’ and ‘US Gov Sim’).
Other construction and management simulations require government management. For example, city-building games such as the ‘SimCity’ series of games published by Maxis simulates the experience of being a mayor. ‘SimCity’ features a real-time environment in which the player can create zones for city development, build roads, power and water utilities, and watch as their city develops based on their decisions. The game was originally published in 1989 and as of 2003 was in its fourth major release.
Strategy games frequently make use of government management challenges. 4X games (strategy games in which players control an empire and ‘explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate’) require the management of a government, be it tribal or interstellar. This includes tasks such as building infrastructure and conducting trade. ‘Galactic Civilizations II’ requires players to manage their approval rating to keep their political party in power. Domestic policy is sometimes abstracted with more emphasis on international conflict. For example, the ‘Civilization’ series gives players total control over resources, and radically restructuring an empire is a matter of clicking a ‘revolution!’ button. Other strategy games focus on government management to varying degrees. For instance, in the ‘Hearts of Iron’ games (set in World War II) the civilian population is only a factor with partisans and manpower, whereas in ‘Victoria’ a player must not only ‘hobnob’ and conquer, but implement the Second Industrial Revolution while warding off (ushering in) real political revolutions such as the upheavals of 1848 and communist revolt.
Government and politics have also been incorporated into adventure games. ‘A Mind Forever Voyaging,’ published by Infocom in 1985, was an interactive fiction game in which the player controlled a sentient computer capable of experimenting with potential future scenarios based on varying public policy decisions. ‘Newsweek’ said of the game, ‘It isn’t ‘1984,’ but in some ways it is even scarier.’