Game Idea: Political Operative Game


I’m trying to get in the habit of writing down ideas, both to keep a record of them, and also to flesh them out a bit.

A friend of mine works in politics, and she has the rather badass sounding job of political operative (her actual title probably sounds more benign). In essence, she helps elected officials get legislation passed, by gathering support, brokering deals, …threatening people? I don’t really know. But it made me think about how much that aspect of American democracy is absent or abstracted in games. In Democracy 3 for example, you have a budget of “political capital” each turn, and you spend it to enact new laws. As long as you have the capital for it, enacting or changing laws is as simple as just hitting a button. The laws themselves, and how the public reacts to them, is the point of the game.

This is somewhat in contrast to real politics, where the laws don’t really matter, but the process of passing them does. Now sure, some big ticket laws get passed now and then, but the vast majority are irrelevant at a macro level. Consider that the 111th Congress (’09-’10) enacted 366 new laws. Three hundred and sixty six! That’s a lot of bills. Literally, they cannot have all been that important. But consider this: though only 366 bills were enacted, 10,629 were proposed. Over ten thousand! That’s a 3% success rate. So while the laws themselves largely don’t matter, the process of introducing them and getting them passed looks very difficult. It looks like that’s where the real game is.

This could work as a board game, but it ends up just being a copy of Diplomacy, really. You could do something like, each turn players propose bills, and at the end of the turn, everyone votes. So you need to secure other people’s votes by doing favors for them or voting for their stuff, but they could betray you, you need to establish trust, etc etc. Nah, Diplomacy is a better game for this mechanic.

As a computer game we can track more variables. So here’s the basic set-up. You’re an elected official, and maybe to start the game you select some ideals/promises that you ran on. Each month, you can propose a bill. Bills have various attributes of who will like them and dislike them, but in a much more limited and simplified way than a demographic manager like Democracy 3. These aren’t meant to be hugely important bills like national healthcare, but rather more typical things like last year’s public law 113-10, “An act to specify the size of the precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins.” Those are the kinds of laws we’re passing. It might be fun to write up a procedural generator for bill names, it looks like they follow a template that’d be easy to emulate. If the content of the bill gets too complicated, you could even remove the liking system altogether, and just have passing laws count as points. After all, who cares one way or another about the size of the precious-metal blanks? No one, that’s who.

Anyway, you can’t pass bills by yourself, you need the support of your fellow officials. They might support your bill for various reasons right off the bat- maybe you share a party, maybe they like what the bill is about, etc. But more likely, they need to be won over. To win their promise of support (which they might betray you on), you need to make promises as well (which you might betray them on). The focus on the game isn’t managing the public, but other elected officials. In a manner like Crusader Kings II, maybe everyone has traits that inform how they feel about eachother and how they act. And we can track things like trust- which you can build by doing things you say you will. At the end of the month, you can put the bill to vote (you can just withdraw it if you don’t think you have the votes), and if it fails, you lose face, and if it passes, you gain prestige. At the end of each term, you run for reelection, and passing laws helps you get reelected.

If we wanted to throw some additional strategic decision making, we could add an element of lobbyists versus the electorate. Maybe to get reelected you need a certain level of popularity, but also a certain amount of money (the relationship between these two is likely nonlinear). If you do things the public likes, you get a lot of popularity and a little money. If you do things lobbyists like, you get a little popularity and a lot of money. Or you just abstract the reasoning a little, and have bills reward you with either popularity or money (or negatives thereof). So you’re trying to pass a mixture of laws that will balance these interests to ensure you get reelected. I think there’s some good mechanics there, but I could see it distracting from the main play feature of just getting the laws passed in the first place. And there’s some ludo-narrative satisfaction in having the laws be exogenously without meaning- like, you couldn’t play the game and think you’re doing some good but being pragmatic by passing some industry friendly laws. Instead, you’d be knowingly passing meaningless laws just to keep getting elected to pass more meaningless laws. Oh, hmm, that might be too depressing.

Anyway, that’s the outline of the idea.

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