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Politics creep into the world of gaming

Experts disagree over whether political video games will make a difference on Election Day.
Monday, November 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:29 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Somewhere in America, people with user names such as “little whip,” “Dr. Guy,” “Draginol” and “Darviathar” are making posts online. Their entry titles include “Why No Matter Who Wins, We’re Going to Be Alright” and “10,000 Lawyers Mass to Attack 2004 Election.”

These are the participants in online forums for “The Political Machine.”

“The Political Machine,” a game developed by Stardock Corp. and released for the PC in August, places gamers in the role of campaign manager for a candidate in the presidential election. Through campaigning and ads, gamers navigate the 2004 election or a number of original election scenarios.

The game’s Web site, www.politicalma-chine.com, offers updates to the game, as well as a forum where Internet pundits can discuss politics and the issues of the day. The game and its forum represent a greater awareness of politics in gaming this election year, as seen in MTV’s recent “VG Unity” ad campaign. The campaign uses popular video-game characters such as Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog to urge people to vote.

“(Campaigns) are looking for any way to reach voters,” Chris Crawford said.

One of the fathers of political gaming, Crawford created two of the first political video

games, “Energy Czar” and “Scram,” published for Atari in 1981.

Crawford, who earned a master’s degree in physics from MU in 1975 and lives in Oregon, said his games had a purpose: “I wanted to educate people about the nature of the problems (in the world).”

Now, he said, political games are failing at that purpose.

“People are reinventing the wheel, and they’re inventing square wheels,” he said.

Crawford said the problem with games such as “The Political Machine” is that the real-life election is not a game but a race, andcandidates cannot impede their opponents the way players can in a game. That direct conflict is what draws so many people to games, he said.

“Campaign games have to have a model of what voters really want,” Crawford said, which reduces the complexity of formulating a stance on an issue to a simple choice.

“It’s a guessing game,” he said. “It’s not about politics.”

Crawford said he doesn’t think games such as “The Political Machine” will have any effect in drawing video-game players to the polls this year.

“Gamers tend not to be anti-social, but asocial. They don’t care about politics,” he said.

Both agreeing and disagreeing with Crawford is Chris McGhee, academic director of game art and design and multimedia and Web design at the Art Institute of Phoenix. McGhee said that although he thinks games such as “The Political Machine” might have a difficult time drawing the gamer vote or finding market share outside of politically minded people, smaller animation games might accomplish what bigger games cannot.

These minor games, written using the Macromedia Flash graphics program, have spread across the Internet and can be found on official party Web sites.

“(These) games have provided a great way to appeal to the youth,” McGhee said.

After the 2000 election, political parties went back to the drawing board in an effort to get more people to vote, McGhee said. After the early success of Howard Dean’s primary campaign in tapping the Internet as a source of support this year, campaigns refocused on the importance of the youth vote. Now, these Flash-based click-and-go games — such as “Click to Kick Bush Out” at www.democrats.org or “Kerryopoly” at www.gop.org — might fill the gap.

“It’s helping to mobilize the youth,” he said. “They feel they’re a part of the campaign.”

Yet the question remains: Will gamers vote?

According to 2000 census data released in 2002, it would be a drastic change. The two age groups that represent the majority of gamers, males ages 18 to 24 and 25 to 34, had respective voter turnouts of about 30 percent and 40 percent in the 2000 election. Those were among the lowest turnouts, behind only females ages 18 to 24.

Tom Warsaw, gamer and senior philosophy major at MU, said his roughly two years of studying political science convinced him voting wasn’t worth it.

“For one thing, your vote hardly counts for anything,” said Warsaw, who works at Gunther’s Games, an arcade at 1106 E. Broadway.

He said he sees the election of senators as a more significant process that many voters ignore because they don’t think it is as important as the presidential race. He said that although he follows politics on the radio and in newspapers, he doesn’t care about the presidential election.

“I don’t care because the president has no power — at least, he didn’t use to,” Warsaw said.


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