Strategy games, by nature, are open to exploitation. The game’s very setup, its rules, its AI, are doing what they can to prevent you from achieving victory. You, on the other hand, are trying to outmatch and out-think it in order to achieve your objective. This constant back-and-forth eventually leads you to find the path of least resistance. In Red Alert 2, this meant Prism Tank or Kirov spam, depending on your faction. In Rome: Total War, it meant horse archers. In these kinds of games, there’s almost always a winning path you will get to sooner or later.
So far, Democracy 3 has proven to be the exception. The game, developed by Positech Games and released in October 2013, places you in control of a Western-style democratic nation as its elected head while you guide it through all of its problems.
Democracy 3 serves as a more-or-less realistic simulation of a functioning democracy. There are a wide variety of people and interest groups that you need to please, and any action you make will have consequences. In other words, you can’t just convert to fascism and rule indefinitely with an iron fist. There will be pushback.
I learned this the hard way in my very first campaign. After making my way through a moderately helpful and occasional UI-breaking tutorial (a feat in of itself considering the game’s simplistic layout), I chose to play as the United States and found myself staring at this screen:
It’s a lot to digest; I was running up a debt, had a problem with vigilante mobs, and my most pressing concern was that I was only popular with around 8% of the electorate -- I didn’t spend too much time thinking about how I was able to get elected in the first place with those numbers. All of these were issues that needed to be dealt with, but the one that scared me the most, like any politician, was the 8% popularity. So I got to work, enacting any policy I could that looked like it would boost my popularity. It didn’t matter where on the political spectrum that particular policy fell, but if the voters liked it, so did I.
For a time, it worked. My popularity steadily rose, topping out in the low 50s. But this is where Democracy 3’s depth hurt me. Just like in real life, not every potential voter is created equal. Some voters are more politically active than others. Some “voters” are probably not even that likely to vote. And while my general approval was rising, I was starting to piss off the people who cared enough to act.
In the meantime, my lack of balance was really starting to hurt. While I was staring at poll numbers, the country’s GDP was taking a hit. Our national credit rating was downgraded four times in the span of around two years. Considering the outcry that happened when the United States’s rating was downgraded from AAA (fantastic) to AA+ (merely very good,) having a rating in the C territory was a legitimate crisis.
Thus, I dropped everything and focused solely on solving our debt problem. Military expenditures were slashed, followed by state pensions. I spent what little political capital (an actual value in this game) I had on enacting any policy that would make the government money. I cut military expenditures a second time. I basically committed the cardinal sin of politics by ignoring what the people cared about in favor of actually fixing the problem. I quickly found that this was a horrible idea.
First of all, all of my budget cuts and money-making policies took a while to take effect, meaning I was still stuck in this debt for a little while longer. But the reaction of my voters was pretty instant. I lost the support of the “patriot” group -- my loudest supporters -- due to the repeated military cuts. Meanwhile, two other groups crossed beyond “Impeach President Yost” territory into even more dangerous waters. The first was a collection of the super-rich who were apparently angered at my implementation of a tax on mansions. The second was a radical minority group who were denouncing my government’s racist actions. The sad thing is, I don’t even know if they had a legitimate point or not because after a while I stopped paying attention to the policies I was enacting, so long as they made money. My intelligence adviser urged me to treat both of these groups as extremely dangerous. I decided that installing closed-circuit cameras in town centers and wiretapping some phones would solve the problem.
Meanwhile, my government’s death spiral continued. My approval rating was rapidly dropping and, in spite of all my austerity measures, we were still losing money (although part of this was due to by a global recession which I may or may not have caused). We bottomed out at 7% popularity. Finally, around three years into my first and last term as leader of the free world, it all came to an end.
I’ve died thousands of times in video games over the years, but this death was probably the most humiliating. I, like most strategy gamers, fancy myself as an armchair ruler; if I was in power, things would be fantastic. Finally, I had that chance. This game was all about ruling -- there was no safety valve of simply declaring war on your enemy and crushing them to placate your people. If you wanted to do well, you had to be a good ruler. And I failed. Miserably and utterly. I was a worse leader than the President on House of Cards, and he had Frank Underwood actively trying to ruin his life.
My main failing, and the beauty of Democracy 3, was that I failed to appreciate that everything is connected. Every decision you make has several consequences on multiple levels, and if you fail to account for all of them, then you’re in big trouble.
Refer to the first screenshot, the one that showed the game’s main screen as opposed to the focus group voter and my untimely demise. Each of those little bubbles represents a different facet of what’s going on in the country, from our technological prowess, to our alcoholism rate, to our transportation infrastructure and foreign relations. If you make any decision to affect one of those bubbles, you’re in turn affecting several others on the main screen. All you need to do is mouse over each bubble to see the exact relationship.
In the above screenshot, I’ve taken a closer look at my popularity with ethnic minorities, the group that prematurely ended my political career. Had I bothered to pay attention to them in my United States game, I would have seen the factors that actually affected their approval of me - discrimination acts, the country’s racial tension, our border controls, and our level of foreign aid. I could then have moved to actually address the issue, perhaps by loosening (or tightening) border controls, rather than wiretapping some phones and installing CCTV cameras and calling it a day.
Positech Games has attempted to feature previous versions of the game in educational curriculum, and I don’t blame them for doing so. Democracy 3 is one of the more accurate political simulators I’ve ever played. If you fail, there’s a reason why and you know it. Unlike other strategy games, there are no shortcuts to victory. It really got me, for one, to truly appreciate the difficulties of running a modern government and dealing with all of its intricacies. Despite all of my posturing to my strategy gaming friends, this game taught me that if I was actually in control, things would go downhill very quickly.
At least, unlike real-life politicians, I get an infinite amount of second chances. After asking around for some advice, I fired up a game as Germany and was actually able to balance the country’s economy fairly quickly. We made it through my four-year term more or less intact, at which point I was crushed in the election. But hey, at least I didn’t die.
Democracy 3, developed by Positech Games is currently available in Steam's Summer Sale; it was released in October 2013.
Zach Yost is an educator in the Washington, DC area who teaches high school students from a wide variety of backgrounds. He keeps telling himself all of his strategy gaming experience will be good practice for when he finally gets on “Survivor.”