The New Political Games Make a Point

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, June 10, 2007

Okay, wonks: Think you know how the political game works?

Now you can actually play it, or at least one part of it, from within the window of a computer browser.

A new, free game developed by a team at the University of Southern California makes a simple, quickly graspable point for those of us with short attention spans: It's not always the issues that determine the outcome of an election; it's how the congressional district map was drawn in the first place.

The Redistricting Game lets players bend the borders of congressional districts in a series of missions set in fictional states. Protect the incumbents, oust the opposition -- it's amazing what a few mouse-clicks can do. You read about gerrymandering in civics class, but it's much more involving to actually try your hand at it.

No game has ever made me think about the political process before, it's safe to say, but this one has me a little concerned about how the system works.

And that's the idea. This educational diversion, targeted partly at high school classrooms, is part of an emerging genre of games designed to make a social or political point while educating players about a real-world situation.

Jonathan D. Aronson, a professor and political scientist at USC, is a little exasperated that Americans sometimes worry about the potential for voting-machine tampering when there may be a more fundamental -- though, perhaps, drier and harder-to-explain -- problem in how districts are drawn.

"My question was, why would you need to rig the voting machines if you'd already rigged the election by making seats safe?" he said. He took the issue to USC's game-design school to see whether it could build a game on the topic.

The game's debut is timed to the fourth annual Games for Change conference set to kick off tomorrow at Manhattan's New School. The conference features panels on other socially minded games and address topics such as "virtual activism" in online worlds such as Second Life.

New School president and former senator Bob Kerrey said he has no doubt of games' and virtual worlds' educational potential. "I'm very much of the opinion that the content of games could be powerful tools for learning," he said.

Kerrey has actually tried a video game or two. Some students inspired him to check out the online realm of World of Warcraft, and he said he was fairly impressed, even if he didn't quite get hooked. "To be successful in Warcraft, you've got to be able to organize large groups around the same activity," he said. "That's a skill that has applications after the screen goes dark."

Kerrey, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, said he hadn't heard of the Redistricting Game, but he likes the idea. A while back, he got some students to put together ideas for a game that would explain how the electoral college works in presidential elections. He flew to Redmond, Wash., to see if he could drum up any interest in developing the game at Microsoft, but he didn't get any takers.

Microsoft, a sponsor of this year's Games for Change conference, is scheduled to announce a contest tomorrow. Open to college students around the world, it's meant to develop a game based on global warming.

The top three entries will receive cash prizes, and Microsoft is hoping those games will be slick enough to offer as downloads on its Xbox Live service, the online marketplace for users of the game console.

Jeff Bell, corporate vice president of global brand management at Microsoft, said he doesn't expect activist-created games to start crowding Xbox Live's most-downloaded list, but he's hopeful that the contest will uncover and encourage new types of user-created games and storytelling. "It's a seed corn we're planting here," he said.

Whether or not any of the finalists come up with the game world's equivalent of "An Inconvenient Truth," the idea that games can, like film, be used to influence or provoke has been catching on quickly.

A student-designed game based on the plight of Darfur had more than 1 million players last year. And last month, the New York Times started publishing what a small Atlanta firm calls "news games" on its Web site's op-ed pages.

A founder of those games' design company, Ian Bogost, says his company is trying to develop an updated version of the traditional editorial cartoon by using computer games to make an interactive experience from the news. The underlying gag of the first game, called Food Import Folly, is that Food and Drug Administration equipment and personnel have stayed roughly the same over the past decade, while imported food shipments have increased more than fourfold.

The Redistricting Game takes place in imaginary states named Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton, but its developers are hoping it will draw enough interest and support to warrant making a version that uses real-world maps and census data.

In the last mission of the game, players determine the state of Jefferson's districts without taking political affiliations into account. That level simulates what redistricting would be like if a bill championed by real-world Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) became law.

Aronson and the head of the USC's game-design team visited the District a couple of weeks ago and showed off the game to Tanner and his staff.

The congressman said he's a fan and intends to promote the game as a way of explaining a topic that is sometimes seen as esoteric and is often lost on people outside the Beltway.

Tanner doesn't usually spend time with computer games, he said, "but I will play this one."

The game is scheduled to be available tomorrow at

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