This was a piece that I originally wrote for PC Gamer, back around the time of the 2010 elections. But they never ran it, so I got their permission to put it up here.
What happens when no-one wins an election? All of the manifestos carefully crafted for the 2010 election by our political overlords were, more than usually, a complete waste of time. But us lovers of alternate histories couldn’t help but wonder how they would have ruled if they’d actually won, outright, and what the outcomes of those bizarre manifestos might have been?
Only PC games can answer this question. Cliff Harris’s Democracy games are amongst the most bizarre simulations created, being as much a visualisation of the politic and economic topology of various countries as a game. You play the role of a newly elected party leader, trying to get re-elected as many times as possible, whilst trying to retain as many principles as possible.
It’s not easy. In the Democracy games, almost every policy and economic decision affects other policies, the voting intentions of the population, and various key statistics about that population – many of which also affect each other. So putting a tax on petrol annoys motorists and pleases environmentalists, while reducing GDP and car usage. A reduction in GDP annoys capitalists, and reduced car usage improves air quality – which itself pleases environmentalists, and affects serious issues like pollution and asthma epidemic. Your aim is to cobble together a support base from a variety of factions, at just the right time to get re-elected.
The interface that presents all this is infotastic. The entire game is menus: striped tubes connecting linked issues, policies and factions, with the speed, direction and colour of the stripes indicating the amount and influence of the effects of each issue / policy / faction. You can remove and add policies at will, though Democracy 2 puts limits on your actions, depending on the loyalty, popularity and experience of your cabinet members, much like in reality.
So what would happen if we used these games to do what the political parties couldn’t, and carried out their election manifestos? With Democracy 2 as our laboratory and Great Britain as our petri dish, would we forge a utopian, economic powerhouse with Lib Dem ideals, or craft a new, compassionate society with the policies of the Conservatives? Would the Monster Raving Loony Party lead us to a new renaissance? Would environmental terrorists blow us up? Let’s find out.
How I Did It
- Using my copies of the manifestos (yes, I bought them all), I’ve tried to determine the actual pledges that the parties had. I’ve matched these up to the extra policies you can implement in game and inputted them as the in-game start conditions for each party. For example, the Lib-Dems pledged to cut the size of the Department of Health by half (which I interpreted, perhaps erroneously, as the whole of the NHS), so I’ve simply slashed funding to the state heath service as one of their first moves (http://tinyurl.com/libdemmani); meanwhile, UKIP claimed they’d spend an extra 40% on Defense, cumulatively every year, so I tried to replicate that throughtout the sim.
- For scientific rigour, I’ve run the simulations in Democracy 1, then attempted to duplicate the results in Democracy 2 to see how the extra features react. Of course, with assassinations, booms and busts, it was hard to keep the games parallel, but I did my best. When I wrote this, Democracy 3 wasn’t out yet.
- Every party had the same background situation; terrifying economic volatility, a huge public debt, low interest rates, and relatively cynical voters; any policies we instituted are as near as we could get to the real party’s policies in that situation.
- Democracy 2’s simulation is more complex, but doesn’t feature the UK. I’ve used a mod that adds it to the game, available from here.
- (I’ve also tried to replicate each of the then party leader’s speaking / writing style as much as possible – so GB is all passive and far too many clauses, NC is vapid and sincere, DC is… Tony Blair.)
Labour Wins: The Eternal Empire of Godron Broon.
Gordon writes: “Och? We won? I have to run this place for another 5 years? Mandy told me that if I insulted the voters and did my best Vincent Price smile, there was no chance I’d have to serve another term, I’d get to have a holiday, and then the complete cock-up of the economy would be the Tories’ fault. Right, right. What did we promise? Hmm. Looks like we said we’d throw money at everything, whilst also cutting costs. How the bloody hell did I work that one out? Oh; eyebrows Darling did the maths.
The Pledge – A Fairer Society: As Labour pledged, I make tax fairer – dropping VAT and pushing up income tax, so the upper and middle class pay more – and funnelling the profits into supporting business and a high tech, green economy. When you cut taxes in Democracy tax evasion drops, so the Keynesians out there will be happy to know I’m actually collecting nearly as much tax as before. Transport, from new motorways and airports, to electric cars and trains, gets buried under cash, which is a huge stimulus to the economy. I also fulfil my commitment to deal with terrorism by giving GCHQ and MI5 enough money to monitor everyone in the country through spy satellites. Their first finding is that religious types don’t like the money I poured into hi-tech (Stem cell research), and are plotting against us. Let them, I think. It’s just as I’m signing a bill into law upping the minimum wage that the first bomb hits. It kills off Miliband Senior, which is no great loss. Onward!
Cabinet In The Woods: The debt is going down, but the liberals are getting antsy, pointing to my television-monitoring, the soaring homelessness and my rejection of freedom of information, to say that the comrades and I have been building a police state. Everyone else is getting antsy about the soaring crime rate and the disease epidemic – I even have to conduct a show trial for Miliburn, as he was threatening to “spend more time with his family.” Mandy is erasing him from the official photographs as I type. The next assassination attempt does for Blunkett, though thankfully his dog Sadie has survived him and will thrive in her new role as Home Secretary, where she will oversee the expansion of the DNA database. At this point, Archbishop Rowan Williams excommunicates me, and the polls have us on just 11%, with only a year left before the election. There’s no way I can pull this off again… Is there?
Great Browntain: Ten years pass, and Great Browntain goes from strength to strength; a technocratic, authoritarian, egalitarian utopia. The few Labour party MPs not killed during the multi-faith terror campaign have sadly moved onto more fulfilling roles in the Falkland gulags, so are spared the sorrow of seeing our beloved leader shot down at the 12th attempt by extreme Anglicans. It is with great humility that I, Comrade Mandelson, have agreed to step into his brogues, proudly dragging this country forward into a bright, red future.
Lib-Dem Victory: The Rise and Fall of Nicholas Clegg
Nick writes: “How the hell did the Lib-dems end up in charge? That’s a very good question, Tim, and a good question is a question worth answering. Answer it I will. Our goal is to answer that question, not in the old discredited way that the other two parties would have, but a new way. For a new question. A hopeful way for the 21st century. So thank you for that question – Tim. Vince has just passed me a note saying “answer the damn question, you crawly windbag”, which is a vital point, and a point we can trust…”
The Pledge – Education: As the Lib-Dems pledged, I immediately slash 50% of the NHS and defence budgets (I presume cancelling the Trident replacement and the new Eurofighters), and use it to raise public sector pay, increase state pensions, reform the schools, and provide student grants for all. I fiddle with the tax system, reducing VAT and moving the bills onto the wealthy, polluters, motorists and airlines; the excess subsidises the rail networks, rural communities and small businesses. Then we sit back, and wait for all of these changes to trickle through.
It’s My Party, They’ll Cry If I Want Them To: With all this intervention, it turns out that the liberal-democrats themselves are a bit pissed off, so I get Nicky to lay into the Monarchy and chop back the security services; now the liberals are happy, but the patriots are pissed off, and get more pissed off as the defence cuts kick in. The NHS cuts are literally killing us (through an asthma epidemic) as well as destroying us electorally, but it stabilises quickly as we use our massive surplus to pay off our international debts, then cut income TAX, VAT and corporation tax. A despairing gang of generals attempt to mount a coup, but are shot down at Downing Street; all’s going well, the UK’s well on the way to a technological utopia, and the Lib-Dems are proving that they’re not just a one issue party.
“Vince here. While that supercilious meat-puppet swanned about saving the world, it was the job of twinkletoes here to keep the UK economy on the straight and narrow; it turns out the generals were just one prong of the attack though, as Nicky was assassinated by a lone patriotic gunman, just before the election. Without a leader, even one as flaccid as him, we couldn’t compete, so I start talks about coalition… with Labour.”
Tory Victory: Cameron and on and on.
Call-me-Dave writes: “No, I need the spotlight to bring out the blue in my eyes. Well, can’t you photoshop it in afterwards? And could you airbrush out the frown lines? Great, great. Oh, hi! Yes, we always knew we were going to win an absolute majority. With policies like ours, how could we not? I mean, basically, the plan was to keep our heads down and wait for Gordon to cock it up. Job done, Bullingdon boys in Number 10. Oh. The economy’s screwed.”
The Pledge: Tories are traditionally great believers in fulfilling their pledges, except when no-one’s watching, but sadly everyone is. So we spend the first month dealing with the deficit; that is, cutting taxes on the rich and corporations. Mad Cow disease re-appears, and wipes out our support amongst farmers. I freeze public sector spending and state pensions, and transfer the funds to the NHS. Then I cut corporation tax, and replace it with pro-environmental taxes, to get this country working on a, y’know, progressive footing. We push down the huge defense bill (which, with a spy scandal, has the patriots up in arms, but I back the monarch and they love me again), and transfer the funds to subsidies for the railways, green local transport and SMEs (small businesses). Then we limit unskilled workers entering the country. We cancel the Heathrow expansion, as our GDPs booming (mainly due to the longest boom in global economics ever) so we’re running a tremendous surplus with low unemployment.
A Well-Hung Parliament: The trade unionists are whingeing now, the liberals are enraged and I’m condemned by the pope; cynically, we drop middle class income tax in the budget, and promise to cut it more for the next election. A military whistleblower knocks down our right-wing ratings again, and running up to the election the polls are nightmarishly close – we win by a tiny majority again, and the party’s grumbling. Again, the economy is doing great guns, but our poll ratings are held down by dreadful events – more foot and mouth, another spy scandal, sweatshops caused by our cancelling the minimum wage. We last the next four years without changing much, and win the next election by a huge margin.
It seriously looks like we’re going to win the next election standing on our heads – but we forgot the pledges we made in our manifesto and are kicked out. Well, that was a good stint. I’ve become the longest serving Conservative PM since Robert Jenkinson in the 18th Century, and we only got kicked out because I’d made the country too perfect, thanks to an endless global boom, and couldn’t match the election promises I’d had to make. Looks like you can take the silver spoon out of the boy, but you can’t take the boy out of the… the… Coulson! I need an analogy!
BNP: Our first step; the death penalty for drug dealers and terrorists. It’s in the manifesto, don’t act surprised. Then national service, stronger prisons and police, and strong education and health systems. Then a prison island in the south pacific for the paedophiles and rapists. Then voluntary local currencies and tax cuts. Then… bugger. We’ve been bombed, by everyone except the conservatives. Should’ve kept one or two spies, perhaps, rather than throwing all that money at the army. Um… and that deficit? Ouch. At least we’ve got the homeless off the streets and into uniforms. Um… except I got hounded from office for being so in-debt. Funny, I was sure I’d be assassinated; turns out it’s really hard to turn liberals militant.
UKIP: As an elderly arm of the Tory party, UKIP has lots of spending commitments, particularly for pensioners. Their tactic, from their manifesto, seems to be to solve lots of problems through spending huge amounts of money – such as a 40% increase in the already-huge military budget, £30 billion on flood defences, more spending on cutting foreign ties… unsurprisingly, I find it utterly impossible to balance the books according to their manifesto and get hounded from office by my own party.
Green: The Greens, of all the parties, took the most care at the last election to completely cost their policies, which makes running the country as them surprisingly easy. As the only remaining national party of the left, they obviously slash defence and use it to pay for a huge variety of environmental and union-friendly proposals. Sadly, in our run-through, despite their clever costing and variety of progressive incentives, they lost the right wing entirely early on (with Patriotic plots galore), saw internet-based crime go through the roof due to their support for tech, and were wiped out by a horrendous global recession – as Cliffski always says “events, dear boy, events.” Before they could be kicked out by the electorate, Prime Minister Caroline Lucas was executed by a Patriot death squad that penetrated Parliament itself. Y’ouch.
Monster Raving Loony: The party now run by the late Screaming Lord Sutch’s cat promised many things, most of which are hard to implement in a simulation. Changing the ‘X’ you write to vote to a tick, because “X is as good as writing ‘monumental cock-up’” isn’t in the options. As are dedicated pogo-stick lanes on the motorways and allowing Hovercrafts to go anywhere they like because they’re inflatable, so “being hit by one is less painful” than a car.
As the manifesto seems to have been written by a five-year old with ADD, and most of their policies are anarchistic, anti-authoritarian jokes, I just remove all the funding I can, to end up with the sort of small government that backwater survivalists in Montana dream of. This results in inner-city riots, attacks by every sort of pressure group, drug addiction, gridlock, an antisocial behaviour epidemic, armed robberies and, weirdly, huge support from the trade unions. They must like a joke, then. Meanwhile, an enviro-mentalist group called The Green Brigades is sending me death threats and bombing our cities, while celebrities keep endorsing me. I have to fire half my cabinet before they can quit, but it doesn’t stop the Green meanies blowing up the undefended Downing Street and me with it.
Interview with the developer, Cliff Harris (conducted early 2011).
How did you go about building Democracy & Democracy 2?
The original game was based upon a sudden epiphany when reading a book about robot chimpanzees, when I realised that a neural network could be used to represent the interconnectedness of the political and economic system, not just robot chimps. Once I had that idea in my head I had to code it. The original game was a bit basic in terms of presentation, and I thought that it had a really good base, so I did a sequel that basically expanded on it and made it more palatable in terms of shininess.
Do you have any background in psephology, economics or politics?
I thought psephology was the study of meringues, so definitely not, but in my defence I did study a degree in economics at the London school of economics, plus won my school award for being best in economics. So I guess I have some background there.
Are there inherent biases in the game? Liberals don’t seem to go militant so often…
This is by design, in that liberals do not have a terrorist group, in the same way commuters don’t. I might be showing my Englishness there, but a lot of the social groups in the game have no conflict state beyond ‘aggressive tutting’. I guess the worse case is that they don’t join your party and will not campaign for you in the election.
Have you ever been a member of a banned… I mean, a political party?
I have, and I am a member of one now, but I don’t publicly say who, because I think regardless of the answer people will think it’s skewed the simulation design, and hopefully it hasn’t. My own politics have varied dramatically over the last twenty years anyway.
Do you think politicians should play the game? What might they learn from it? Are there any problems that could have been averted through using Democracy?
They should definitely play it. I offered it to politicians for free once. it’s literally insane they don’t. It is a great tool to practice managing a large scale complex political economy. You wouldn’t be happy for your brain surgeon to learn on the job, but our Prime Ministers do exactly that. What Democracy teaches you is to consider the long term implications of short term policy changes, and to consider knock on effects. I would like to think that a lot of practice with the game might have actually taught people prudence, rather than just how to say the word, for example.
If you were making the games today, what would you put in?
The game really lacks an accurate model of the private sector for stuff we have nationalised in the UK. It’s the biggest flaw. I’d definitely put that in, plus some better modelling of house prices. Also, the game doesn’t have a ‘choose your child’s school’ policy, and that has such incredible ramifications for society, it should have been in there.
Are there any politicians Democracy can’t account for?
I think libertarians may be critical that the ‘crowding out’ of the private sector by the public sector isn’t modelled enough for them to pursue a libertarian agenda accurately, so possibly the game can’t model them well.
Any chance of Democracy 3? Or a Democracy “educational edition?”
I am busy making things explode for my next game, but I have pencilled in a return to this genre after that. I have lots of ideas on how to improve it.
Is there any way to win at Democracy?
No, you can only lose power, although you could argue that winning all of the achievements in a single game is a victory of sorts (in democracy 2)
I seem to get assassinated a lot by Patriots. Is that a design decision?
You should be more proud of your country, son.
Execution Summary – Bomb or Boot?
When and how our glorious leaders were carried from office.
- Brown – 14 years, bomb.
- Cameron – 15 years, boot
- Clegg – 4.5 years, bomb
- BNP – 3.5 years, boot
- UKIP – 3 years boot
- Green – 4.5 years bomb
- Loony – 3 years bomb
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