“All politics,” the famous saying goes, “are local.” More than that though, all politics are personal — especially for those actually doing the politicking. After all, no matter one’s good intentions, it takes a certain degree of excessive self-confidence and ego to look at the sprawling mess that is the American political system and think, “Yup, this miasmic vipers’ nest is just sort of place I belong.” Which is fine of course, except that those sorts of people are the same ones who end up making the decisions that affect the lives of everyone else.
There is, however, an new option for those who are interested in the mechanics of the political system, but aren’t (or, at least, aren’t yet) willing to actually make it their life’s work: Political Arena, a just-launched video game project on Kickstarter. The game bills itself as “a first-of-its-kind political sandbox where no two playthroughs are alike, complete with high stakes campaign strategizing, backroom legislative dealing, special interests, and the ever-watchful press.” Think The Sims but with elections; think City Skylines but with lobbyists and pissed-off citizens groups; think Minecraft but with campaign finance issues and looming scandals.
“It always boggled my mind that there wasn’t a proper top-to-bottom sim of U.S. politics — especially considering all the games that exist on the market,” Political Arena creator Eliot Nelson tells Mic. “If we have American Truck Simulator — which is great, by the way! — we should probably have a game where you can navigate Congress.”
Slated for alpha testing release in 2022 and a full launch just in time for the 2024 elections, the game seeks to immerse players in as much electoral and legislative texture as it can, giving characters the ability to balance their limited time to accommodate fundraising, campaigning, and actual legislating. Players can schedule media appearances, wheel and deal with political power brokers, and plot their career paths however they choose. From lionhearted liberals to maverick conservatives to bombastic radicals, the game promises a unique experience for every player based on their own in-universe choices.
“I’ve tried in my career to make politics — even the quotidian, humdrum stuff — more compelling and accessible,” Nelson, a former HuffPost political reporter, says. “The drama and excitement of the big stuff is obvious — campaigns, scandals, close votes, et cetera — but one of my greatest pleasures is squeezing the news, drama, and humor out of, say, special interest groups squabbling over lower court nominees.”
“I see Political Arena as a natural extension of that: a way to compellingly tell the story of politics,” Nelson continues. “But this time, give people a genuine ground-level view in a way that is tremendously fun, engaging, and ruinous to your evening plans.”
Making a game that is fun, engaging, and ruinous to your more productive plans is a challenge in and of itself, but all the more so when it comes to doing so within the confines of political minutia. It’s a challenge Nelson says he understands — and was prepared to address straight on while he was crafting the the game.
“We want this to be insanely fun and insanely informative, and the two are closely intertwined,” he acknowledges. “If it’s not deeply entertaining and engrossing, people won’t spend any time with it, but if we skimp on the realism, it loses a lot of its appeal and cachet. If you found out that the makers of FIFA created an extra position on the pitch to make things a little easier for you, it would be a total mood killer.”
“Some of the best ‘educational games’ are really just very good simulation games, whether it’s Madden, Kerbal Space Program, or even Oregon Trail,” he notes. “If the subject is alluring and the game draws you in and makes you want to play time and again, you’ll naturally develop a more intuitive and holistic understanding of whatever the subject is over time.”
A quick scan of the game’s Kickstarter page offers a glimpse at the tone the game is trying to establish — accurate, but holding no illusions about the absurdity of American politics. For Nelson, politics is always balancing on that edge between funny and profoundly impactful.
“Politics can be inherently funny, so yes!” he answers, when I ask him if comedy is a necessary component of the political system. “One time a member of Congress asked if Guam was going to tip over!”
“But,” he added, “it’s also profoundly broken, and produces life-shattering outcomes for millions on a near hourly basis. So no!”
While exploring those “life-shattering outcomes” in the confines of a game might not be for everyone, there’s no question that the mystique and, yes, circus-like atmosphere of American politics has created a very real audience primed for this type of entertainment, after years of binging Veep and The West Wing. Still, it’s easy to see a game like this coming across as glib and caricatured on one side, and at the same time being dull and dragged down by the more picayune and uninteresting aspects of politicking. Furthermore, it’s not as if politics today has a great reputation to begin with; the acrimony, self-aggrandizing, and frequent ineptitude that’s come to define the real-life Washington could just as likely turn people off from wanting to spend their free time immersed in a digital version of it. The question in part becomes whether there are not only enough people who, like Nelson, are already onboard as both political obsessives and committed gamers, but also enough prospective players who don’t necessarily share both interests already.
For his part, Nelson seemed optimistic that his game can negotiate that tricky balancing act.
“I think people understand that politics contains multitudes, and there will be moments of levity and uplift, but also profoundly offensive moments of dysfunction and corruption that make you want to scream,” he told me. “Our challenge is not to overemphasize one or the other.”