Iterative Design in Action: Making Politics Fun

When you stop to think about it for a minute, you’ll realize that games are all around us. I’m not talking about games that come in boxes or from an app store–I’m talking about the way people interact with each other in ritualized ways.

Let’s take a really easy example: school. Pretty much everyone has been through school, and knows how game like it really is. You progress through levels (grades), overcoming challenges (homework, projects, papers, etc) until you get to the boss battle (final), after which you get a score (grade) to show you how well you did. Along the way, there are rules we have to follow, penalties we can suffer, and rewards we can earn (gold star achievement unlocked!). Some people realize school is very game like while going through it and reject it for that reason, while others embrace it for that reason.

Another example that is fun to think about is dating. On a date, both parties have their own hidden goals (how serious they want the relationship to be, what type of relationship they’re interested in, etc), and part of the game is trying to determine what the other player’s goals are without revealing your own. Similarly, both players are trying to hide their own unattractive qualities while trying to uncover any potential deal breaker qualities the other person possesses. All the while, both players have to follow a long list of unwritten social rules about what is appropriate and expected.

Wouldn't you rather be doing this?

You can find examples like these throughout all societies. The rigid discipline and ranking system in the military? Sounds pretty game like to me. How about the parallel structure of promotions in the corporate world? The whole gamification movement is a way of making these existing patterns in activities explicit and exaggerated.

But I don’t just want to list ways in which we implicitly play games with each other every day. I want to talk about my challenging quest to make one of these game like activities into an actual game. The game like activity in question here is politics.

If you’ve followed the Republican nominee process this election cycle at all, or seen congress butt heads relentlessly since the 2008 elections, you may have an idea of just how game like our political system can be (and how the optimal strategies for the politicians in the game are often not optimal for the population at large).

In Corporate America, one of my goals was to take the game elements out of the political system and put it into a boxed game system. I want players to have conflicting, high stakes goals, have to form loose, short term alliances to get their way, and take some big risks with unknown information in hopes of out-bluffing their political opponents. This has actually been a pretty difficult task, so today I want to tell you some of the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve worked to make the system organic and interesting for every election.

Basic Structure

The basic structure of elections in Corporate America has stayed remarkably similar from the first version. Here are the basic steps taken:

1. 6 election issues are revealed to start the election. These election issues are legislation cards, which I will describe in detail a bit later. Suffice it to say, these are possible laws that will impact the game, and the winner of the election will decide some of them to pass.

2. Players get a chance to declare their candidacies and explain their positions on the election issues.

3. Players bid to determine who will win the election! To do this, players pledge money to whoever they want to be president, hiding the denominations so their exact contributions are unknown. There are three bid rounds, and abstaining for one round knocks you out of the rest of the election.

4. The player who gets the most money pledged to him or her wins! All money pledged to campaigns is returned to the bank.

5. The president gets a special executive privilege power as a reward for winning the election.

6. The new president can revoke one piece of legislation a previous president passed.

7. 2 new pieces of legislation are revealed to add to the election issues, bringing the total that are available to the president to 8.

8. The president passes 3 pieces of legislation of his or her choice (protests can influence the president’s options).

That may seem fairly complicated (ok, I’ll even admit it is fairly complicated!) but the steps are pretty straight forward once you get used to them. While this structure has remained similar over time, there have been some important changes.

For example, the executive privilege cards were added after a few playtests because it was clear that people weren’t motivated enough to run for the presidency. These powers are meant to be exciting and surprising, adding a twist to the game unlike anything else in it.

Another big change was limiting the number of bid rounds. I want the elections to be fairly open, allowing players to freely wheel and deal to secure victory for themselves, so the bidding was initially open ended. However, complaints from players about the system not being structured enough and taking too long, in addition to one very helpful playtester who broke the system by bidding $1 over and over made me realize that limiting the number of bids would improve the game. After playing around with the numbers a bit, I’ve found that 3 works out best, since it gives people enough time to bluff and psych each other out but doesn’t drag on unnecessarily.

Adding step 6 (letting the new president revoke some old legislation) ended up being important to mitigate increasing board complexity. Having as few as three laws modifying how the game works can be difficult to remember, so this is works as a good, thematic way to keep things clean, while also helping to give the president a bit extra power to make the position more attractive.

The final big change to this process has been adding more election issues and more legislation as options overall. If I recall correctly, I believe that it was originally 4 election issues and only 6 pieces of legislation for the president to choose from. While giving the president more power was a good reason to add more to the total pieces available for consideration, it was the 4 election issues that was the biggest problem, because it didn’t offer enough for players to disagree or care about while campaigning. Making players have opinions about which legislation passes and therefore have lively debates was a major challenge, and this is the first solution to it: give more options for them to talk about. With 6 election issues instead of 4, it’s much more likely that there will be some legislation some people care about a lot, and therefore more reason for people to challenge each other as presidential candidates.

It’s in the cards

While the structure of the elections has changed to make players care more about them, the biggest change has been tweaking the legislation cards to make them matter more to players. There have been a number of different changes I’ve made, so I’ll cover them one at a time.

Keep it Simple

I know I talk a lot about avoiding complexity, but I’m as guilty as anyone. I love games and have a pretty high tolerance for complexity myself, so I sneak it in all the time. One thing I discovered about the legislation in Corporate America, though, is that is has to be very simple to work at all. There are a couple of reasons.

First, as you may have noticed, the basic structure of the elections is already fairly complex. Especially when players are first learning the game, it’s tricky enough to figure out what to do when campaigning. They don’t need the extra burden of having to figure out how complex laws work.

Second, the cards are relatively small (normal playing card size, 2.5″ x 3.5″). That’s not a problem when you can hold and closely look at them, but in this context they get revealed to everyone, so players must be able to quickly understand what they do by just looking at them from like five feet away. When everyone has to pass a card around to even know what it does, it disrupts the process and makes it take longer.

Finally, it’s really important that players know what they feel about a particular piece of legislation quickly. Maybe this is simplifying nuanced issues to the point where they’re barely a simulation any more (actually, maybe that’s the perfect simulation of politics!), but for game play’s sake, it’s important that players know where they stand on an issue without having to carefully consider how that law will actually work.

So... what does this do again?

Here’s an example of an early law I wanted to include but couldn’t make work. For those of you unfamiliar, this card represents laws that protect intellectual property (copyrights, trademarks, etc). The idea was that it would make starting new businesses that rely on intellectual property more difficult (because it’s illegal to leverage IP other parties own), while benefiting existing businesses that rely on intellectual property (since they would effectively get monopolies on their products).

So… who wants this law to pass? Can you even tell me how it works? It turns out that including two rule modifications on one card was just too much, and I eventually had to scrap it for that reason. (It doesn’t help that the law itself is very poorly designed, since players who already have technology businesses want those businesses to make more money but also want to start even more technology businesses.)

If it ain’t broke…

One thing I was excited to experiment with in Corporate America was laws that would change the rules of the game. I thought it would be really fun to let the president modify how the game was played, since laws effectively do that in real life.

But I like exchanging money during the population phase...

The problem? If I’m doing my job right, the rules of the game are already perfect (whether I’m doing my job right is another question, I suppose). What I found is that a lot of the cool rule modifications I could think of just made the game less fun. When one of these laws happened to pass, the game would just become worse. That’s not exactly what you want to allow in a game you’ve been perfecting for months.

FCC (Federal Communications Commission) Regulations is a great example of this. It offers a zany modification to how the game works, but does so at the cost of what’s arguably the core mechanic of the game. It’s just way less fun when players can’t exchange money. So, it didn’t make the cut, and the game is much better for it.

Keep it relevant

This one might be obvious in hindsight. If you want players to argue about which laws to pass, make sure they care about some laws passing while preferring other laws to not pass.

So which laws fall into this neutral legislation category? Both of the cards we’ve seen so far (Extend IP Protection and FCC Regulations) are neutral, because no one wants them to pass. Any legislation that all players want to pass, no players want to pass, or no one cares about end up being neutral for the purposes of elections, since they will not inspire discussion or divisions.

Honestly, this is more of an issue of numbers than anything. It’s not bad to have one or two neutral laws in each election, but when everyone agrees about a majority of the laws, you’re going to have trouble getting people to care about the election in general. It took a lot of experimenting to get a good balance of laws people care about versus laws everyone can agree on, and I honestly still might have a few too many neutral laws in the game.

What do you mean it does nothing? It gets you the Tea Party vote!

Obstruct, sadly, did not make the final cut. But don’t worry! The game started with three laws with this same rules text (“Does nothing.”), and two are still in the game. As I mentioned before, it’s mostly an issue of balancing numbers here, and three was too many, but two seems ok (especially since the cards are kind of funny, simply convey a political message, and do actually give presidents some options to avoid helping their enemies or hurting themselves). In addition to obviously neutral cards like this getting cut, there have been many other less obvious neutral cards (like Extend IP Protection and FCC Regulations) that have received the axe, and I’m happy to say the game is better for it.

No one wants to be the villain (except me)

When I first conceived of Corporate America, I imagined that the government would be the bad guy, and one of the main benefits of becoming president is that you were able to steer the government’s evil power away from you and towards your opponents. The problem is that with this style of government, no one wants to be president.

Quick quiz: what’s worse, everyone else getting $5, or you losing $5? Answer: it’s a trick question, because they’re both the same. But, what feels worse, everyone else getting $5, or you losing $5? There’s been a lot of research on the psychology behind these kinds of choices, and it turns out that people dislike losing stuff waaaaaay more than they like getting stuff. This is one of the many reasons having the legislation deck filled with mean laws was not the right way to go. Even though deciding the lesser of two evils is still better than someone else deciding for you, that doesn’t make it any more fun.

This one's never going to pass in the game, proving how good a simulation of real life it is.

The main solution to this problem is to increase the amount of good legislation, the stuff you actually want to choose if you’re president. However, there was so much bad legislation originally, some of it needed to be removed. Universal Health Care is an example of a type of this negative legislation. In fact, all of the anti-monopoly cards were removed, having two strikes against them: they are negative and they are fairly complex.

Before moving on, I just wanted to mention one more benefit of increasing the positive cards and reducing the negative cards: people tend to remember the positive cards a bit better. I don’t think people forget the negative cards intentionally or anything–I think you’re just more excited when you know something good is coming, and therefore are more likely to actively pursue it.

Keeping it Civil

Alright, I think that gives you a pretty good idea of what it’s been like to turn politics into a game. It’s been a long and bumpy road, as designing any new type of game will be, but I’ve learned a lot and I’m very happy with the results. I’ve seen many lively and hilarious debates, and that’s about all I can ask for!

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