I returned to Democracy 3 in an attempt to put right the wrongs of my previous administration. On my first visit, I broke Britain, crushing its culture and creating a country reminiscent of Clockwork Orange, filled with gangs and ultraviolence. During my second stint in government, I expected to inhabit the middle ground, hoping to discover stability in mediocrity. As always, the plan didn't quite work out and the actual experience was far more interesting than I'd anticipated.
Democracy 3 made a funeral pyre of my idealism. My first encounter with the game began with a plan. I wanted to create a balanced society, avoiding mawkish pandering to special interest groups and instead doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. I placed my laptop at the feet of Jeremy Bentham’s pickled remnants, consulted the teachings of John Stuart Mill, and prepared to make Britain great again.
By dusk, armed gangs roamed the streets and once peaceful citizens brandished weaponry of their own in an attempt to claim back their towns and cities. Anarchy in the UK and, worst of all, my chances of re-election were close to zero. Who would vote for the man who had failed so spectacularly and so quickly? Nobody.
I’d tried to introduce policies and spending plans that suited my own political beliefs, which manifest around the idea of a large, benevolent government that magically assists without interfering, and protects without becoming paternalistic. Partly because of the game’s tight web of cause and effect, and partly because I enjoyed pushing the simulation to its limits, when welfare became social malware, I pushed the country over the edge, encouraging the collapse. The playthrough hadn’t begun as an experiment in dystopian design though, it had become that because balancing Britain was much more difficult than I’d expected it to be.
There’s a great deal to admire about the model, which mostly hides its number-crunching behind attractively austere displays. I was impressed that the game forced me to face certain realities of rule, chipping away at my own beliefs and bias, and exposing the flaws in my naïve expectations. That, so I thought, was the game’s strength, which perhaps meant that it was a critique of the various democratic systems that it simulates as well as a game. It’s telling that GDP and popularity are the marks of a successful country. Sure, groups of people vote for the player because they like policies and plans, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually happy. They might just like the fact that they’re ideological opposites are in the line of fire as substances are banned, arts spending is slashed and tax shelters prong into position like obscenely large golfing umbrellas.
I thought of the game as an increasingly desperate tug of war, not between two parties, but between the many interest groups. The gentlest pressure on one strand might enrage the environmentalists, losing their votes, but please capitalists and motorists. No one person belongs to a single group so within an individual voter’s mind, pressure is applied to another series of strands. The outcome of every decision is complicated but if the goal is a muddy middleground, with long-term goals replaced by short-term survival tactics, the scope of the game is diminished. Part of the pleasure of real life simulations is that we can attempt the outrageous and the unexpected, occasionally succeeding.
As I played through a more complete version of the game last week, my intention was to find the perfect balance, to become the minister of mediocrity, but around the middle of my first term, something changed. I rediscovered my idealism.
I knew I was onto a good thing when the tabloids started jabbing at me, hoping to land a knockout blow as I did nothing more offensive than bringing spending into check and attempting to shore up the budget against the crashing waves of the ongoing global recession. I was doing the right thing but, the media moguls thought, I was doing it in entirely the wrong way. Rather than cutting spending on healthcare, education and the arts, I opted to raise corporation taxes, limit road construction and implement a mansion tax. The rich were angry but partly in thanks to their habit of eating one another, they didn’t represent a significant portion of the population.
Yes, they could attack me from their red-top fortresses and glassy gerkhins, but even the most scandalous revelation only dented my party’s popularity for a brief period. The people of Democracy 3 can be fickle but they know a good thing when they see it and as slow-burning policies came to fruition, Britain was becoming a centre of technological excellence, attracting international corporations who seemed happy to pay the punishing taxes to gain access to the educated minds and advanced facilities that stemmed from their investment.
Without realising it had happened, I’d started to engage with the game on an emotional level again. Previously, I’d reduced the decision-making process to an intellectual pursuit. I was tinkering with a machine that created votes, attempting to calibrate it for maximum output. By accidentally creating some elbow room for myself, loftier ambitions were now revealed and regained my idealism. A few short years after becoming the Almighty Leader, I'd increased spending on health and education, ensuring that the taxes taken from those who owned a great deal would directly benefit those who had very little. Britain was on the path toward equality and, to my amazement, prosperity. Opinion polls reckoned the government had an 80% approval rating.
It’s been a rewarding experience, not only because I’ve felt more of an affinity with the people of my country at this pass, wanting to do what (I think) is right for them rather than what is necessary, but also because I’ve discovered the breadth of the game. Rather than trampling on the ideological approach, Democracy 3 confronts it with cruel realisations that demand flexibility rather than surrender.
As I head toward my fourth term, I can see that the economy is going to become a problem. The ever-expanding public sector is squeezing businesses out of existence and that’s harming small people with big ideas as much as large corporations with tiny consciences. And then there are the capitalist terrorists, pin-striped bully-boys with bombs under their bowlers. My intelligence organisations reckon an attack is due any day now but I’m not convinced that they’ve done their research properly. After all, how could they when I cut all of their funding to build a new opera house?