Britain is in tatters. Everyone is stoned, prostitutes line the streets, environmentalists are rioting outside power stations and CEOs of huge corporations can do whatever they want. This isn’t some grim vision of the future, it’s what happens when I’m placed in a position of power, as I have been in Positech Games’ Democracy 3.
A game of numbers, charts and graphs, it at first appears to be a workmanlike simulator of politics, but underneath the maths and algorithms are emergent narratives waiting to burst out: tales of scandal and corruption, of good intentions leading to an enraged electorate, of browbeaten leaders desperately trying stop their cabinet from falling apart. I’ve never found ruining the country so enjoyable.
Western democracies such as the USA, France and the UK are up for grabs, each providing a similar experience beyond a spot of flavour text. All nations have a two party system, and none of the various legislative bodies like the House of Lords or House of Representatives are present, with each nation simply having a “government”.
It’s a shame to see such homogenisation, especially since it makes playing as different countries feel more or less the same, even though the populations have some quirks that set them apart. Over in Blighty, for instance, the electorate is more liberal, whereas the French have more socialist sympathies.
The first day in office is an intimidating one: a spiderweb of policies and important information is laid out before new leaders, and clicking on any of them leaves the player snared like a fly, trapped in lists and demographics that paint a vivid picture of the nation. Blue nodes reveal statistics and the impact of various policies, dominated by graphs with the causes and effects of the situation below.
Press the ominous blue GDP button, and you’re whisked away down the rabbit hole, unlikely to escape for a long time. Causes for the current GDP are many, from the price of oil to corporation tax, shown with a great deal of transparency. You won’t have to be an economist to see the impact that tourism has on the GDP, and selecting any of these causes will open up yet another window that breaks down that aspect of the nation as well.
What begins as an investigation into the UK’s GDP can quickly become a half hour spent analysing the effect of petrol prices on car usage which in turn has an effect on the environment, and every single one of these things will inform the electorate on how to react to your government – especially important come election day.
The white nodes are where all the tweaking and manipulation happens. Perhaps you want to build a nation where nobody has to rely on cars. You can force the electorate’s hand by increasing petrol by moving a slider, the effect of which – from the forecasted costs, profits and impact on voters – is clearly displayed. This might, initially, increase your coffers while slowly taking cars off the roads, and it also could have the knock-on effect of increasing the health of the nation as well as pleasing environmentalists. It will, of course, cause the motorists to grumble, but you might eventually be able to win them over by investing in the upkeep of the roads that snake around the country.
Everything is connected in Democracy 3, with very little happening in a vacuum. Hovering over any node brings up the strings that connect it to other nodes, voter groups (that are made up of individuals that belong to more than one group) and any national crises, with red strings denoting a negative impact and green ones denoting a positive impact. The way everything is related makes the task of running a nation daunting, but it also inspires a more thoughtful approach to leadership where even the smallest decision must be considered in the grander scheme. A tiny increase in alcohol tax could cut down on binge drinking, boosting productivity and pleasing the money-hungry capitalists, but it may also lose you youth supporters. Drunk 20-somethings don’t like a killjoy.
One’s control over the country is limited by political capital, calculated by the effectiveness of the ministers in one’s cabinet, and more capital is generated every turn. Sometimes this leads to clicking next turn several times without actually doing anything, which can be a bit of a bore, but even during the turns where nothing can be directly changed, there’s always research that needs to be done. Whether it’s finding out how to please a specific group of voters, or planning the construction of a national monorail system, there’s rarely an instance where a leader’s attention is not required.
A pragmatic approach where one distances themselves from the digital voters can make a playthrough of Democracy 3 very easy. The only goal is to keep being re-elected, and one can game the system with little difficulty, fixing the economy with a bit of common sense and pleasing the majority of the voters to ensure a victory at the polls. That defeats the purpose of Democracy 3, however, which certainly isn’t about winning.
One of the greatest complaints about modern politics – though it is far from a modern issue – is that politicians are more concerned with re-election than having a positive impact on the nation or, and forgive me for being naive, making life better for the people living there. Treating Democracy 3 like a competition is a bit like perpetrating that – possibly accurate – stereotype, or worse, just makes it dreadfully dreary. Experimenting with policies or trying to see if your own personal political utopia would actually function in the simulation is where the game becomes a joy to play.
In one game, playing as the leader of the Pants for Everyone Party in the UK, I decided to see how Democracy 3 would react to the dreams of deregulation I held when I was student, suddenly becoming interested in the way my country was run. I legalised marijuana and prostitution, I decreased corporation taxes, and cancelled pollution controls entirely. And then I waited.
A few months later and the UK was in dire straits. The GDP was up, and the country was the wealthiest it had been in a long time, but it was hard for anyone to enjoy that wealth as they suffocated beneath the toxic smog, got harassed by bands of organised criminals or shared their streets with rioting environmentalists. Repairing the damage cost me the one positive impact of my decisions: all the lovely money.
Much of Democracy 3 happens in one’s head, between turns. I found myself agonising over decisions, and feeling terribly guilty over the consequences of many of my actions. When I increased petrol taxes to limit car usage, an action taken to attempt to alleviate an asthma epidemic, I became torn when I realised that the very people I was helping were likely to also be negatively affected. Parents worried about the health of their children might also be motorists who need to use their cars on a daily basis and they might also be poor and unable to deal with the increased taxes. The aforementioned connectedness of every element of Democracy 3 leads to some of the most complicated decisions and no small amount of moralising and rationalisation.
Democracy 3’s challenges are internal. It asks you to juggle your personal politics with a desire to fix the country, rather than dealing with tricky AI opponents or a tough-to-read electorate. But there is a problem: too many aspects of our political systems have been simplified or glossed over for the sake of user-friendliness. The simulation it presents isn’t the full picture.
Political opposition is the lifeblood of a democracy, yet it barely exists at all in Democracy 3. You could be forgiven for forgetting that there’s an opposition party until the election date, because they are only present when the polls come in. The opposition is merely who people vote for when you’ve pissed them off. You won’t know what their campaign promises are, and the only reason anyone votes for them is because they don’t like you – it’s a negative vote and nothing more.
Random events are problematic, too. Every so often, at the start of a new turn you face an event that requires immediate attention. The appointment of a UN ambassador, a foreign power demanding extradition of a suspected terrorist, a financial crisis – all of these have the potential to be interesting problems that require a lot of thought, but they end up being bland, with only two possible responses. Choose the liberal ambassador who is popular with foreigners or the patriotic one. Extradite the suspected terrorist or don’t. Numbers will change, but nothing more. You won’t receive an angry response from a foreign government, and you’ll never hear about your ambassador ever again.
Sometimes you don’t even get to do anything. Things just happen and there’s nothing you can do immediately. A financial crisis here, a political scandal there. They are out of your control, but you can instantly see the affect they have on your country and the opinions of the voters – but often there’s no way to fix the problem before it spirals into something terrible. Woe be the Prime Minister who has to deal with a financial crisis before an election, as you’ll see the voters flock to the opposition while you stand there, completely impotent. Having a game abruptly end due to a random crisis is a rather unsatisfying conclusion, crueler than even a death at the hands of a roguelike. Thankfully, such dramatic events are rare, and it would take some nasty luck for one to land before an election.
Few of Democracy 3’s issues couldn’t be improved by diligent modders, however. It’s been designed with tinkerers in mind, and is the easiest of all Positech Games’ titles to fiddle around with. Steam Workshop support is also being added, hopefully soon, so it won’t be too difficult to apply them. There’s a lot of room for growth, from new nations to lead or economic tweaks changing currency values.
Democracy 3 demands a particular mindset to appreciate, where one’s eye is not constantly fixed on winning elections, but it’s a grand political adventure for those willing to experience a story told by numbers and polls. There’s also a surprising, understated beauty about how everything is seamlessly tied together, with every decision echoing throughout the elegant spiderweb.
Its politics without the arguing and mudslinging, without spin doctors or demands for birth certificates, where every voter is well-informed and acts in their best interest – so maybe it’s not so much a simulation of real politics as it is a laboratory filled with political and economic models waiting to be messed around with. But I’m comfortable with my petri dish, even if it is currently on fire.