Fed up with Congress? See if you do better in the video game edition

August 24, 2012

A whopping 9 out of 10 Americans disapprove of Congress right now. But if they were in the driver's seat, would they act any differently? A new video game gives them that chance.

("For the People")

"For The People: Fantasy Politics" allows players to become the 436th member of the House of Representatives in a game played on Facebook and mobile devices. The game is meant to replicate the actual experience of being a member of Congress: Players must juggle their reelection campaign, meetings with lobbyists, committee meetings and votes simultaneously, gaining clout and funds along the way.

But those looking for the Congress of their dreams might not find it in this virtual world: The game tends to reward and encourage some of the behaviors that have helped make Congress so dysfunctional and unpopular.

On Capitol Hill on Thursday, game industry executive Shel Man unveiled the game, which he developed with input from former senators Norm Coleman and Evan Bayh. He believes there will be an appetite for the game in the broader public, particularly among the "30 million hard-core political junkies" he estimates live in the United States.

"There's huge interest for people to know more," says Scott Gluck, head of Capitol Hill outreach for the game, which is in a beta test phase on Facebook. "People want to be smart."

The game dutifully replicates some of the ways that the Hill actually works, down to committee votes and avatars modeled after real legislators. It's not clear, however, whether players will actually want to do what it takes to succeed in this virtual Congress.

As a virtual legislator, the only people who lined up to meet with me in my office were lobbyists and advocates for special interest groups. They urged me to do everything from "fund the space telescope," "protect online privacy" and "kill the Volker [sic] rule."

Should I accept or reject their positions? There wasn't really any basis on which I could make that decision outside of what they told me. The Volcker Rule lobbyist told me that it "is unnecessary overregulation and will hurt banks, which will then pass the costs on to consumers." But that was all the information I had to go by. I could chose to "negotiate" with them, but that consisted of pressing buttons to improve their mood or remind them of my sterling reputation, so their avatars' little red frowns would turn into yellow smiley faces.

It was a low-information discussion that could only move toward legislative action if I either agreed with the lobbyists or else curried favor with them by making them feel better, or making them feel better about me. (You could reject the lobbyist's position, but then it wasn't possible to move an amendment toward a committee vote, as far as I could tell.)

The committee process was much the same: In proposing an amendment, I had to convince my fellow members to come over to my side. The last three years of congressional voting records have been incorporated to calibrate how likely it would be for my legislation to pass. Some of my fellow committee members were invariably concerned about a proposal's cost, constitutionality and so forth. But the way to persuade them wasn't by making arguments or counterarguments in response to their criticisms. It was by playing cards that pushed them by virtue of my abstract level of "clout," influence and so forth. What would my legislative fix actually cost, and was it actually constitutional? I had no idea. But cynics would say that's a pretty good representation of how Congress actually works.

There is a downside to siding with lobbyists to push through legislation — among your constituents, at least. "You lose standing in the district," Gluck tells me. That could make it harder to get reelected.

But there's a fix for that, too: You can also chose to debate your opponent back home, where the political opinions are calibrated based on the actual leanings of the state you chose to represent from the get-go. And you're more likely to prevail if you tell voters what they want to hear.

Mann says that it's still possible to take "any position and win" the game. It just will take a lot longer.

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