An Unfinished Election Game (Or, you can’t win everything all of the time)

I started creating a serious game during maternity leave that is likely going to remain unfinished now that I’m back to work full-time. However, I did want to at least capture some of my thoughts about the project here.

Essentially, I was just looking for a fun project to help maintain my sense of sanity while taking care of my newborn son.

Newborns. Cute, but not always good for my sanity.

Thanks to an episode of This American Life, I stumbled upon a blog post by the Sunlight Foundation that explores the fundraising potential of various house committees.  The This American Life episode further explores just how much time, effort, and wooing of lobbyists actually goes into getting re-elected to Congress. I’m a huge fan of numbers and relationships, so I decided to dive right in, either by creating a serious game or an interactive graphic.

Numbers. Not as cute, but much better for my sanity.

Because I entirely overestimated the amount of time I’d have to work on the project, I went the serious game route. (Babies take up lots of time! Who knew?)

First, you select a candidate. Eventually, I planned to ambiguate (made-up word for the post) the text items that appear on each platform. For early development, I picked categories that translated pretty directly into membership for certain committees.

After selecting a candidate, you walk through some introductory material about your background as a junior congressperson who just barely won because your opponent was exposed in a last minute scandal… and information about just how much fundraising you’ll have to do in order to get re-elected as an underdog candidate.

You get some advice!

Then you get to select your committee preferences…

… and then see how the committees you were actually selected for impact your fundraising potential.

Your preferences and experience are taken into account.  Of course, as a not-very-important junior congressperson, there isn’t a chance that you’ll end up on the Ways and Means committee. Sorry.

Once you’ve been assigned to your committees, the real fundraising work begins!  You select the number of hours you want to dedicate to various activities.  Depending on your choices, your popularity with your constituents, lobbyists, and family will rise and fall.

You also have a number of special activities, represented by click-able items on the desk – emailing your constituents for donations, calling a lobbyist and asking them to hold a fundraiser for you, and mortgaging your house.

However, it’s often not as straightforward as just asking. No one is going to hold a fundraiser for you if you haven’t proven your usefulness.  If you don’t have strong support from your constituent base, emailing them won’t result in donations.

Decide to mortgage your house and spend all of your free time meeting with lobbyists?  Well, your reception at home next month might be a bit chilly.

All of these actions, plus your committee membership and unimplemented special events (say, voting on a particular bill that affects a potential donor) would affect your ability to raise money toward your next election.

That’s the unfinished game. Here are my thoughts on how it might have all pulled together.

I love the philosophy that the strategy for winning a serious game should be the message you’d like the learner to remember. I especially love the idea of this being a semi-hidden message that the user only discovers through trial and error during the gameplay itself. For this election game, I wanted the message not just to be about the committees and numbers (as it appears on the surface), but also about sacrifice and life choices (this is the secret message part… shh!).

In Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, he talks about how we need more games around today’s challenges versus knights and swords. Though I’m not opposed to medieval warfare, I also love the idea of games that address the same sorts of conflicts I face in my modern life.

Generally, when I play games, I want to maximize my winning. My Sims reach the top of their careers, have great relationships with their families, throw amazing parties, and manage to have the biggest house on the block. However, in real life, winning at everything isn’t always possible.  So, in the finished version of the election game that exists only in my head, the user would be encouraged to try to balance work and family life…

… but the only actual way to win the election as an underdog candidate would be to not achieve this work life balance. You can retain your congressional seat, but only at the cost of a divorce. This isn’t meant to be a statement about the impossibility of having a happy family and a successful career (gulp!), but I did want to play with the idea that you can’t win at everything all of the time (unless you are one of my Sims).

Though the chances of me having time to finish this game in the near future are less than your character’s chances of being appointed to a lucrative congressional committee, you can still go here and click around my unfinished prototype, should you so desire!  Be warned though: winning is a feature that has not yet been implemented.