Sometimes, it feels like video games can predict the future. Electronic Arts' Madden NFL series has a pretty good track record when it comes to selecting Super Bowl winners. Back in 1992, Randy Chase's strategy game Power Politics made Associated Press headlines when it correctly predicted that Bill Clinton would be the next President of the United States.
Power Politics wasn't the first presidential election simulator – that's probably 1981's President Elect – but it was the most advanced, and early 1990s political analysts were impressed by the game's depth and attention to detail. Power Politics has proved remarkably robust, too. Twenty-four years after the game debuted, presidential simulators still follow Power Politics' basic template. The candidates may have changed, but the rules remain largely the same.
Election simulators turn the presidential election into turn-based strategy games, giving armchair campaign managers the chance to guide their favourite candidates to victory. Usually, every candidate act simultaneously, and players must anticipate their opponents' next moves while also juggling their limited resources. There's a time limit, too. Players need to sway as many voters to their side as possible before Election Day, when the computer tallies up the electoral votes and declares a winner.
Not every election game is created equal, of course. For example, only one of this year's major election simulators, President Infinity, includes the crucial primary elections. In the wake of the Iowa Caucus, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are all viable Republican candidates, and this November's presidential election will unfold very differently depending on who walks out of the Republican National Convention with the GOP nomination in July.
Spiritually, President Infinity is Power Politics' closest successor, offering a complicated and thorough simulation with all the visual panache of an Excel spreadsheet. In some ways, President Infinity offers too much detail: you'll have to plan your travel itinerary, schedule speeches, prepare for debates and manage your advertisements. Everything costs money, so you'll need to fundraise to stay competitive. You also need to manage an in-game currency called Political Capital, which can be used to buy surrogates who will campaign on your behalf as well as important third-party endorsements.
None of these actions affect voters directly. Instead, everything you and your opponents do changes candidates' momentum. When momentum's high, you'll win supporters. When it's low, you'll lose them. You can change your opponents' momentum by attacking them in ads or during public appearances, but if your campaign is too negative, that can backfire. On top of all of this, your candidate has a stamina meter. When that runs out, you'll need to let them rest.
That's a lot to pay attention to. Thankfully, there's also a way to make President Infinity play itself. Simply choose a candidate with very little money and no name value – someone without a Wikipedia page is a safe option – and don't take any actions during your turn. The CPU-controlled frontrunners will duke it out amongst themselves, leaving you free to watch the action.
On the Democrats' side, President Infinity's primaries don't get too interesting. Over the course of the 11 simulations I ran, Hillary Clinton only lost the nomination twice – to Vice President Joe Biden, who's not running in real life. Sorry, Bernie fans: despite his New Hampshire success, according to President Infinity, Sanders doesn't stand a chance.
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With the Republicans, it's a different story. In most President Infinity runs, Donald Trump drops out of the election by late March, thanks to a combination of momentum-killing debate performances, public speaking gaffes and media scandals. In fact, after ten simulations, the Republican card was caught in a five-way tie: Trump, Rubio, Cruz, Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush all scored two nominations. It took a tie-breaking 11th run to crown Marco Rubio the Republican candidate for President of the United States, and even then, Fiorina gave him a run for his money.
In the ensuing Clinton versus Rubio battle, President Infinity predicts a Rubio win three out of five times. On one run, Rubio won the popular vote, but Clinton walked away with the presidency. In two others, Election Day polls predicted a Clinton victory, only for Rubio to emerge the winner (as in real life, President Infinity's polling isn't entirely accurate). It's going to be a close race, but according to President Infinity, Marco Rubio will be America's next president.
The Political Machine 2016, another election simulator, disagrees. The Political Machine is simpler and more polished than President Infinity. The Political Machine has a friendly, responsive user interface, and players' actions – delivering speeches, deploying advertisements and building regional campaign headquarters – have a direct effect on states' electorates. There's none of this "momentum" stuff. Your actions either win voters or they don't.
The Political Machine is also the only election game that asks players to take a stand on the issues. In most games, President Infinity included, you can choose the topics of your speeches, but you don't actually choose a position. In The Political Machine, you'll need to advocate policy that both appeals to undecided voters and also won't piss off your own party. That's not as easy as it sounds.
In six different games of The Political Machine, Clinton won the White House four times – twice when I controlled her, and twice when I managed Rubio. That makes sense: in The Political Machine, the deck is stacked in Clinton's favour from the beginning. Clinton has higher stamina and fundraising ratings than Rubio and starts the game with more money. Basically, Clinton can get stuff done faster and more efficiently. That's a big advantage in The Political Machine – and not a bad quality for a president, either.
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That's one game for Rubio, and one for Clinton. So can the mobile titleCampaign Manager break the deadlock? As it turns out, not really. Campaign Manager only lets players take a few actions: you can create advertisements, mount a ground campaign and hire volunteers. That's it. There's just one currency, money, which is replenished by tapping on dollar signs that appear during the game. Both candidates start with the same amount of cash in the bank, and nobody has an advantage.
Campaign Manager is too simple to use as a predictive tool – generally, whoever the player is controlling wins. But by stripping an election simulator down to its base components, Campaign Manager reveals a common philosophy that all these games share. In election games, the presidential race isn't a clash of ideologies or personalities. It's a contest to see who can manage their resources most effectively. What a candidate says doesn't matter as much how and when they say it. Votes aren't earned, they're bought and sold.
In other words, when it comes to who's really going to win the White House later this year, video games provide us with only one clear answer: whoever is willing to pay the most for it.
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