Play the political game

It's politics as usual, but computerized, in a new game that simulates a real presidential campaign.

May 06, 2004|By Janice Park | Janice Park,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

People who eat, breathe and live politics can run a political campaign in the free world the way they always wanted to - a computerized version, at least - thanks to Stardock Entertainment.

The Political Machine is a strategy game that forces players to make the calls that they believe will put their candidate into the White House as players become campaign managers for their favorite horse in the U.S. presidential race.

A nightmare for those wracked by indecision and a challenge for people who would love to take a crack at engineering a bid for the Oval Office, The Political Machine makes PC players decide what sorts of advertising to get out about the candidate and his opponents, what the campaign speeches should say to specific constituencies, and whether a candidate should show up on a cable television pundit's show.

You can even get the candidate help from a celebrity friend, just as real candidates often do.

Next month, The Political Machine will retail for $29.95 at stores. Gamers also will be able to order it from www.politicalmachine.com, where beta versions of the game can be downloaded and played now.

The game's interface is relatively easy to understand as you navigate through red, white and blue screens by clicking on text icons for setting up the campaign.

Caricatures of possible nominees George W. Bush and John Kerry, along with a fun mix of donkey and flag graphics, help transport the player to an atmosphere reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon.

A player starts the game by picking his candidate from different animated versions of past and present politicians and fashioning that candidate to his liking. A gamer can play Frankenstein by altering the different facets of a candidate.

Each player is assigned a limited number of points that can be used to accrue the attributes available. Each category has a point value of one to 10 - with 10 being the best.

If the player thinks looking good will be his candidate's ticket to the Oval Office, he can use 10 points to get the full "look effect." After a player has created his personalized political dream, he can then determine the status of the world at large. He can create a country struggling through an economic recession or enjoying global peace.

Most of the game's complexity comes in forming a strategy that will last throughout the campaign season without the candidate stumbling. For example, a player can hire a public relations consultant for his campaign team, but the player must know how to use his talents. The game is set up to reflect that key states must be won, and players must determine how to win those states.

Strategy is what separates political junkies from Average Joes. A player with run-of-the-mill political knowledge might find himself hitting his head in frustration because he does not know which issues have been identified in the news as most important to various states. For example, the outsourcing of jobs is a major issue in a state such as Pennsylvania, and reforming Social Security is a key topic among the many retirees in Florida.

Stardock officials say they took great pains to match the game to real life. All of the game's statistics, issues and demographics are based on reality.

Game developer Brad Wardell says that the game arrives at an opportune time. "Right now Americans are split 50-50 between Bush and Kerry," Wardell said. "A game like this can only be made when the country is like this. We wouldn't have been able to make this game in '96."

Wardell says the presidential campaign and the game's strategy have much in common. The game shows why politicians do not take a stand on controversial issues, how money comes into play and why fund raising is so crucial.

Thanks to the addition of the ersatz television pundits, the game's serious edge is blunted. A player can place his candidate on shows such as "The O'Maley Factor," "HardHitter," "Barry King" and others.

Besides showing the media's immense impact on a campaign, this part of the game lets players add splashes of personality to their computer-generated candidates through their answers to the pundits' questions. A vast array of answers range from the traditional to the absurd.

For example, when asked what the candidate might do to prevent the bankruptcy of the Social Security system, an option among the answers is to kill off elderly citizens.

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