Wot I Think: Democracy 3

I rename this land Graham Britain

Democracy 3 made Alec into Nick Clegg and Adam into an Orwellian nightmare, but their terms are over. Now Graham has been elected to tell you Wot He Thinks about Positech’s political policy simulator.

Democracy 3 is a game about a user interface. Look at this thing.

The most compicated game of Checkers.

Look at those bar charts. Look at all those big, round buttons. I’ve played a lot of games with cluttered interfaces, but this whole game is nothing but obscure iconography. Are you intimidated? Don’t be. Watch what happens when I mouse over something.

It's also a spider diagram.

There was a flowchart under here the whole time. Democracy 3 is a game about a big menu that’s an undercover flowchart.

You use that big menu to shape your chosen country, selecting whether you want to rule as the Socialist party be a lilly-livered, sweater-wearing, egghead liberal, or whether to get into bed with big business and let their oil-slick fingers frack your precious lands. The game’s surface level allure lies in the way it promises to let you live out your political ideals, to see them either turn you into a beloved leader or a pariah, and see the UK, France, Germany, USA, Canada or Australia, flourish or crumble under your decision making.

The seductive power of that promise makes it easy to overlook the ways in which the game is limited.

As linked above, both Adam and Alec had different experiences, but my very first rule as leader of Britain ended in unchallenged triumph. I put alcohol tax to 50% and changed the drinking age to 21. Then I put the maximum amount of money possible into the intelligence services, and installed CCTV cameras on every street corner. I ended the sales tax, increased income tax to 50%, and set corporation tax to around 25%.

Then, I poured the extra money I was gathering into science funding, laptops for every school student, food stamps, free school meals, subsidised buses and trains, grants to help new businesses, state housing, child benefit, rent controls and unemployment benefits. Each of these stimulated the economy and, in turn, earned me more money.

Within four years of being in power, crime was eradicated and Britain was an environmental paradise. Within eight, illness fell to insignificant levels, our country was given the Kyoto award, and the science funding had given us a technological advantage that helped to eradicate poverty. I had a 91% approval rating, and eventually won a third term with 74% of the vote against an opponent who managed just 8%.

David Cameron: now you know what to do.

With a little patience, it’s not hard to become beloved (and in the game), and to lead your nation as a single party state. It’s even relatively straightforward to do so while living by (most of) your principles; by the time I was in my fourth term, I could do whatever I wanted, because I was so popular that there was little risk of me being deposed. I built a space station.

Democracy 3 is not about challenge, then. This was true in Democracy 2, as well, but there are ways to game its algorithm, exploit its odd balance, and “win”. At this point, the game fizzles out; there are no new decisions for you to make and you hit the term limit as a hero.

When you reach this stage, its easy to start pointing fingers. There’s a vast web of numbers beneath Democracy’s surface, representing your policies, the strength you’re willing to enforce them, and the population’s opinions of your actions. But there’s very little real politics. You never have to cope with anything as messy as a parliament or congress of fellow politicians working against your initiatives. You never have to call in favours or live by campaign promises. The same decisions present themselves over and over – do you want to allow software patents, do you want to extradite this criminal, do you believe this or do you believe that.

First of all, politicians shouldn’t point. Second, Democracy might better be thought of as a game about social engineering. You’re playing with a population, not via a political system, but through that big, beautiful menu.

Hover over any one of the icons on its main screen and the game shows you how each issues and policy connects with those that surround it, green, red and black lines each moving at different speeds to signify the strength of influence.

This is unrealistically diverse.

Poor people? The flowchart tells me they’re unhappy about unemployment and the alcohol tax, but they love the food stamps, the state housing, and the good state schools.

Hover over those state schools and I can see instantly that they are helping reduce poverty and unemployment. What happens if I lower the funding to those state schools and introduce national service? Let’s find out.

I click a couple of buttons and tweak a couple of sliders, and the flowchart dribbles in a different direction. New icons appear on the main screen. Some of them are probably red, signifying that I’ve done a bad thing.

Whatever decisions I make, the balance feels a little off. People really love food stamps, but they don’t care much at all about my turning the country into a police state. There’s no simulated Twitter demographic filled with feckless bleating.

Yet this doesn’t change my enjoyment of pulling on that web’s strings. It doesn’t need to be challenging, or realistic. It’s a cause-and-effect toy.

Free from the burden of reality or of needing to win, Democracy still makes you curious. What if I abolish all taxes? What if cancel all welfare policies? What if I close the state schools? It’s not balanced or deep enough to provide any pretense of what would really happen – that’s the promise it can’t deliver on – but approached frivolously, there’s lots of satisfaction to be found in pulling its levers out of childish curiosity.

That’s why I’m in love with that interface, which makes such a vast array of numbers immediately readable and playfully manipulable. It’s the reason why even when you see through the facade of its theme, it’s still fun to keep playing.

There's also no Russel Brand simulation.

I play a lot of 4X games, grand strategy games, games that are jobs, games with numbers stuffed in every corner. The numbers are an abstraction of whatever fantasy the game is trying to sell – football management, middle ages lord simulation. The interface, too, is an abstraction of what you as the player are trying to control.

So Civilization 5 is a game about conquering a world. It simulates that world as a complicated array of numbers, and relates those numbers to the player via a beautiful map. Players then take actions upon those numbers by, for the most part, clicking on buttons that float above the map, like that wonderful, economical ‘next decision’ button Civ V placed in the bottom right of its every screen.

That game’s map is great, but you don’t spend a lot of time looking at it. You spend a lot of time looking at the menus. A lot of games are like this, or used to be. It’s why HUDs have become more minimal, to stop you from having to play a first-person shooter by staring at the mini-map rather than the game.

Democracy 3’s triumph of design is that the menu is the way the information is communicated, the way in which you dive in to interact with that information, and the beautiful thing you look at. I like that because of the economy of it. It’s elegant in a way I admire separate from its impact.

But it’s also why your control over this cause-and-effect system is so compelling in spite of the simulation’s limitations.

It would have been so easy to obfuscate the logic behind the game’s responses to your actions with a bad interface, and doing so would have completely undermined the fun of just seeing what happens when you change something. What I’m arguing for here is that the political theme, while a neat narrative hook, doesn’t necessarily matter. There’s fun just in tipping a domino over and watching the ripple effect that follows. Democracy 3’s menu is great because it makes those ripples so easy to create and easy to follow.

If you want to play a deep, balanced politics simulator, and prove your ideals correct, then Democracy probably won’t satisfy past a couple of hours of play.

But if you want to teach someone about the basic connections that form society, Democracy 3 is the perfect way to do it. Let them tinker with its infographic, and they’ll come away smarter for it.

Or if you want to just have some fun, then set aside expectations of real governance, or your need to be liked, and instead be bold. Explore those what-ifs. Twist those nozzles, watch what pops up, and clap like a happy baby.

Democracy 3 is available to buy for £20 direct from its developer. It’s also on Steam.


  1. Syt says:

    That sounds rather disappointing. I was looking at this, but held off on account of the many “I got assassinated” stories.

    For all its flaws, Geopolitical Simulator (I only really played the first incarnation) at least attempted to sim domestic politics – every new law had to go through parliament, and more often than not you had to gain support for the initiative by sweet talking interest groups and opinion leaders to speak out in favor of the change. Changing society took time and careful planning. Not to mention that your career was often cut short if you went against party doctrine.

    • Dux Ducis Hodiernus says:

      You only really get assassinated if you rush the progressive policies all at once, and don’t take it step by step. It’s not hard to win the game completely if you just take it a bit slower.

      • Ross Angus says:

        I believe it was Russell Brand who said “The only winning move is not to play”.

        • Joriath says:

          Nah, that was the WOPR

          • Synesthesia says:

            hahah! now i can’t stop reimagining every wopr line in russel’s voice. D’you want to play a game, mate?

    • Zankmam says:

      Unfortunate for you, obviously.

      Personally, when I realized that GeoPolitical Simulator was… Just that, I was disappointed. It’s just too damn much. Too damn serious, too damn complex and detailed – for a subject matter I don’t care about *enough*.

      Personally, Democracy 3 would scratch my personal itch better.

      However, GeoPolitical SIm *did* have assassinations, I’m sure of it.

      I chose South Africa, started playing like a crazy bastard, and, in like, 2 weeks of game-time, I was killed.

      “Died in a horrific accident at a country fair”, when I was impaled by a bull. I’m sure that’s the game’s way of killing me and ending my rampage.

  2. TekDragon says:

    Game sounds like a hit and a miss.

    Funding education, infrastructure, technology, aggregate demand, and sustainability promotes a balanced economy? Hit.
    Pushing for too many technologically and socially progressive causes at once makes the reactionary right put on tea bag hats and threaten violence? Hit.
    Eventually everyone recognizes that you were right? Miss.

    What this game needs is a billionaire owned and operated main stream media that is constantly misrepresenting reality to the rabble.

    • Ergates_Antius says:

      What this game needs is a billionaire owned and operated main stream media that is constantly misrepresenting reality to the rabble.
      That more or less happens. Almost all socially/environmentally progressive policies you can enact (workers rights, maternity leave, carbont taxes, etc) will piss off the Capitalists group. When they really hate you the newspapers they own will start printing harmful stories about you.

      • TekDragon says:

        Obviously not terribly effective if it ultimately only convinces 5-7% of the population to vote against their best interests. In America there is a good 35% of the population that do not believe anything unless it’s said by Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, or one of the other college dropout mouth pieces.

        Democracy sucks, and a video game based on Democracy should reflect just how much it sucks.

        • Ergates_Antius says:

          Oh it’s utterly ineffective – the tiny drop in popularity it causes is massively outweighed by the positive effect from the policy.

      • battles_atlas says:

        Not at all. I created a progressive Utopia in two terms in office. By the third term the capitalists despised me so much they were being flagged as a terror threat. So I upped spending on security services (not so progressive, but its the only tool the game gives you) and that problem went away. The only other resistance the capitalists could mount was occasional smear campaigns in the press, but the effect these had on the electorate was a joke. It was like a .25% hit in popularity. Given at this stage I was getting 90%+ and the opposition 3%, it wasn’t too concerning.

        I really enjoyed my play through, but this game isn’t modelling democracy, its modelling a dictatorship. You essentially have no checks on your power. It seemed to me long as you keep the economy going you can pretty much do what you like and still get elected.

        Its lovely to experience a vision of politics that still believes that radical change can be effected, and its quite right to do so, but if you play it right its just too easy.

        • rgb_astronaut says:

          So, totalitarian state is the way to win in Democracy. How ironic. Is developer a die-hard supporter of Labour?

  3. SominiTheCommenter says:

    Damn you for linking to that Wikipedia article, I ended up on link to en.wikipedia.org and noticing that “a Maryland state circuit court determined that mooning is a form of artistic expression protected by the First Amendment as a form of speech”. Now, to read the rest of the article.

  4. Nater says:

    “People really love food stamps, but they don’t care much at all about my turning the country into a police state.”

    So this is a United States of America simulator?

    I wanted to try this game out; however no real politics kind of makes it kind of boring sounding to me. Also Totalbiscuit’s opinion was that the Dev’s political leanings (Liberal) are noticeable in the game.

    • 00000 says:

      Well yeah. If you’re going to make a game about democracy governing, then you’ll need to decide on a model of how society and free-market economies function. And with that model comes the parameters by which you can measure success.

      The reverse is also possible, you decide on the parameters which define success. Then adopt a model that defines how these parameters interact.

      From this perspective, I’d say this game is actually quite British.

  5. strangeloup says:

    I like the look of this, just as I liked the look of the previous game, but I think the £20 mark is a bit strong for what it is. If it drops to about half that or less, I’d give it a punt.

    Their Gratutitous [Whatever] Battles games are quite fun, but Kudos 2 might be the single most ghastly thing I’ve played, like some kind of Vapid Twat Simulator. So, uh, mixed feelings.

    • mwoody says:

      I dunno, the Japanese make some fantastic Twat Simulators, Vapid or not.

  6. mickygor says:

    I assume that it’s not work paying £20 for something that probably won’t satisfy past a couple of hours.

  7. Neferius says:

    “There’s no simulated Twitter demographic filled with feckless bleating.” I believe that would be the “Internet Crime” Situation ^^

  8. Strangerator says:

    Wow, so any move you make is correct so long as it is to the left?

    Should have been called the “Socialist Vindication Simulator.”

    Granted, in a fantasy world where Keynesian economics actually works like it does in textbooks, then all of that makes sense. Also sounds like for a game called “Democracy,” the people don’t seem to matter very much. Maybe that’s intended as some kind of commentary about how countries calling themselves “democracies” are really closer to dictatorships?

    • AngoraFish says:

      Please take your barrow and push it elsewhere.

    • battles_atlas says:

      Actually from what I’ve seen which policies work depends on the country, and in that sense people do matter. The US starts far further to the right than the UK, and reactions to policies will change accordingly. If you were to criticise ‘bias’ (which, for the record, is unavoidable in such a game) then its most glaring in the strength of socialist opinion amongst the British population. Its nice to be reminded there is actually still a strong leaning towards socialist principles for many Brits, but really the size of that vote seemed to be from a pre-Maggie and Blair time. Three decades of greed is good leaves its mark. Or maybe the disjuncture from reality comes from the lack of right wing papers acting as mouthpieces for billionaire tax exiles, and distorting public perceptions. Something is off, either way.

    • rgb_astronaut says:

      Bravo. My thoughts exactly.

  9. AngoraFish says:

    I am still waiting for a game that simulates real democracy. As noted in the review, this is a social engineering simulator, at best.

    Any game about democracy that can let you achieve 84% popularity is missing a huge amount of what is genuinely interesting about the democratic process.

    A really exciting game for me would be one where, if you get too far ahead in popularity, the opposition starts adopting many of your policies, or even outflanks you by cherry picking policies on the other side of the political spectrum.

    The natural equilibrium in most democracies is for the major parties to all sit somewhere close to the center.

    The really interesting politics, therefore, is the long-game, whereby you strategically cherry-pick politically non-controversial positions that over time shift the center itself .

    Occasionally you might take advantage of one of the very few instances where you’ve managed to maneuver yourself into a position where you are so popular (eg 56% support) that you can afford to take a popularity hit with one big policy change in a single area.

    Add to this the fact that if problems are solved, new issues emerge. Where once people might be motivated by reducing working hours and increasing the minimum wage, given sufficient affluence elections might be decided instead on which party is willing to eliminate the sales tax on personal electronics, or which party is most willing to lock up longest whatever group is the subject of the current round of moral panic.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yeah, its models of voter and party behaviour don’t really sound right at all. Look at how we have two Tory parties now, plus a spineless scapegoat third.

  10. Don Reba says:

    I feel tempted to get this game just for some ideas on UI design.

  11. tjrneal says:

    Alot of negative feelings here, yet not many that have actually played the game. It does alot right. Sure it makes some slightly controversial decisions, doesn’t encapsulate all of the intricacies of politics and economics, and isn’t perfect. But what does all that? Is there a game out there that aims for something like this and does it better? Very few. I think devs should be encouraged for making games like this.

    With all that said, while really liking the game I think popularity can swing to both extremes too easily. Massive social engineering over several terms is also too easy. More interesting opposition parties, less plentiful political capital, and a more robust voter support model would make this game even better.

  12. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    I’m not going to comment on the game, since it’s not really my cup of tea, but that was a really well-written review. It’s rare that I can get the feeling of having played a game just from reading about it, but that’s exactly what you managed here.

  13. Rath says:

    Got to the part where the Kyoto Award was mentioned, went off to listen to Bad Religions’ “Kyoto Now!”, returned to read rest of the article.

    That is the order of things.

  14. Donners says:

    I hope the developer has increased his own education sliders. Democracy 2 was littered with basic punctuation errors.

  15. ScorpionWasp says:

    One thing that these simulations always fail to account for are the motivations of the politicians themselves. There are never situations like:

    *”Getting this policy right will require ungodly amounts of tedious number crushing, careful analysis and constant monitoring. You could just play games instead and then blame the lackluster results on corporate greed, nobody will notice and they can’t fire you for the next 4 years anyway. Open your steam account?”

    *”You could buy a ton of cheap stock in the failing national textile industry, impose heavy protectionist bans on foreign textiles, thus forcing the local population to buy the expensive, low quality crap produced nationally, and then get enough money that you’ll never have to work a day again when you’re out of office. Do it?”

    *”This policy will get immediate positive results now, while having catastrophic results 8 years down the line. Nobody will be able to trace the latter back to that one decision you made 8 years ago, and even if a few particularly attentive and smart people do, there’s no chance of you getting convicted nor anything. Elections are next month and you need votes. Implement policy?”

    • ScorpionWasp says:

      It’s also interesting to notice how public services always work as intended and have exactly the precise effects omnisciently divined a priori, unlike in real life where the “customer” doesn’t get the option not to hire the service, thus eliminating any motivation the personnel might have to satisfy them (they can’t lose their source of income).

      • Tssha says:

        Of course, you’re making the fallacious assumption that money is all people care about. People are more complicated than that. There’s a lot of things that motivate a person.

        If money were the only motivating factor, we’d have no scientists (they’d all become doctors instead, same amount of schooling, similar aptitudes, better pay), no one would become a teacher without massive government incentives (again, better paying jobs for same amount of schooling), and social work would be the exclusive domain of those too incompetent to get a decent job anywhere else (social work pays dick, and again requires schooling).

        Thank goodness money isn’t the only thing that matters to people. Some folks actually value their vocations.