Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Democracy 3 - 9/20 hours

I've had a pretty serious cold for the last few days, so playing Democracy 3 has been problematic. The combination of sleep deprivation and cough-syrup high has made me incredibly loopy. As you might imagine, that's not the best state to be in when you're sorting through menus and trying to find the correct combination of policies to transform America into a socialist utopia.

Or maybe it is, because I've discovered over the last few hours that this game is, indeed, loopy as fuck. I got an achievement for eliminating religion . . . in America . . . in less than eight years. It wasn't even something I was trying to do. I just started teaching evolution in schools and expanded the public education budget. I guess that means that in the world of Democracy 3, the right-wing conspiracy theories are correct - evolution really is a liberal plot to destroy Christianity.

That's probably not the explanation, though. Later, while playing Germany, I was able to eliminate all pollution and all crime. It was a pair of accomplishments that won me 90% of the vote. So, yeah.

I'm trying to imagine what that world would have looked like from a ground-level perspective. Some random guy gets elected with no party and no platform, but immediately sets about implementing broad social and economic reforms, moving from success to success, and totally transforming the nation. I'm inclined to think that no one would believe it. They would see what they expected to see, what they grew up knowing they'd see. Because their narratives would have inertia.

Or maybe I'm getting this backwards. Narratives have inertia, but so does reality. It's not just rational decisions based on cost/benefit analysis that drive policy. There are institutional barriers, path dependence, and cultural factors to deal with. You can't just look at numbers on a spreadsheet and say "this policy is better." In order to succeed in a democracy, you must in some sense be a mythographer. You must package your policies in a story of "how we get from here to there." Otherwise, your 3% gasoline tax increase will provoke riots in the street and completely torpedo every other point on your agenda.

Democracy 3 completely fails to capture that experience, the feeling that half the country is going to sabotage themselves to spite you. The out-of-control narratives that chain you to unworkable policy. The moderates clucking their tongues whenever you try to do "too much, too soon." You never have to mislead the electorate about your true intentions, choose between the public good and pleasing a donor, or grandstand over some meaningless, symbolic vote in order to demonstrate tribal unity with your constituency.

In short, it doesn't model democracy well at all. Real democracy is an absurd paradox of a system - something born of reason, but ruled by passion, a system that ostensibly serves the people, but in which the people often serve the system. And Democracy 3 doesn't really let you navigate those contradictions. It's more like a Philosopher-King simulator than anything resembling real politics.

I can't say for sure whether that's good or bad. I imagine, from a gameplay perspective, that having the game just arbitrarily shut you down would feel massively unfair, but on the other hand, politics is always personal, and Democracy 3 never seems to get that across.

It's something to think about. For now, I'll just say that it's fitting that I'm playing this game with a fever, because it often feels like a political fever-dream.

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