As a kid, Nelson split his time after school watching CNN or playing “Sim City,” a combination that happens to be one of the better ways to describe the concept for his game. Nelson’s brainchild, “Political Arena,” is a strategy game where players budget their time between competing interests to navigate Capitol Hill, amass political power and enact their will on the American experiment.
Hollywood has already proved you can build compelling, critically acclaimed stories around the bureaucracy of the U.S. government. “Political drama” is an entire subgenre on Netflix. But video games have largely left politics alone, in part because the physical mechanics of moving around the chambers of Congress aren’t quite as gripping as firefights on “Fortnite’s” island. And how do you create a committee hearing or a presidential debate that doesn’t just feel like a series of long-winded text prompts?
Whether Nelson and his game’s developers can find a compelling way to entertain players with the political process remains to be seen. “Political Arena” is scheduled for an early-access release on Steam by winter of next year with a full release planned for Election Day 2023. Last week, Nelson and the team of a dozen people behind “Political Arena” launched a Kickstarter campaign for the game. So far, they’ve received more than $31,000 in donations with a goal to raise $100,000 by Nov. 6.
In an early build of the game, “Political Arena” plays out across a few central hubs, like an electoral map or an office on Capitol Hill, where players decide when to talk to the press or whether to meet with a megadonor. In its current state, “Political Arena” looks a lot like the management modes you’ll find in FIFA, Madden or NBA 2K, and that’s very much intentional.
“Some of the most effective educational products ever released are sports video games,” Nelson told The Post. “They’re incredibly effective at … imbuing in their players a really holistic and visceral understanding of their subject.”
To Nelson, “Political Arena” is a game intended to help players understand the forces driving modern American politics by simulating the closed-door negotiations, the lobbying and the perpetual fundraising for reelection. Patrick Curry, the CEO of FarBridge, the Austin-based studio developing “Political Arena,” said he wants the game to lead to a more intelligent and engaged political discourse next election cycle.
“I’d love to have people really understand and connect with the idea that their vote has outcomes in their lives,” Curry said. “Not just the big football game that is the presidential election every four years.”
Nelson left HuffPost at the end of 2018 to work full time on the concept for the game. While at HuffPost, Nelson wrote a newsletter with a humorist spin on the day’s political headlines. But Nelson says the news cycle can often feel like a “SportsCenter” highlight reel, continually cycling through provocative tweets and sound bites from politicians. And, because of that, Nelson said the average reader may think American politics are nothing more than a “Twitter-fueled boxing match, where occasionally there’s a Supreme Court nominee or a major bill.”
“The news is a great way to learn the news, but it’s a terrible way to learn the civics,” Nelson said. “The parts of [politics] that matter the most tend to happen either off camera or behind closed doors.”
It’s not really the media’s job to “play civics teacher,” Nelson continued, but he believes the public’s perception of the American political system doesn’t match with the reality of what’s happening in the halls of Congress. His goal is to help everyday political junkies have a “savvier understanding of politics” on par with the lobbyists and special interest groups prodding lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Monica Evans, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas with a background in game design, believes all video games are fundamentally educational. But the challenge for a game like “Political Arena,” Evans said, is finding the ways to translate the cerebral decision-making in politics to an engaging, interactive format on screen. Evans said murder mystery games often run into a similar problem.
“If you’re Sherlock Holmes, you’re spending a lot of time sitting in an armchair thinking really complicated thoughts about who did it and why,” Evans said. “Translating it into a game from a single-player standpoint is a little trickier.”
Overseeing the development of “Political Arena” from Austin, Curry said the key to turning an otherwise mundane simulation into a captivating game is to focus on the moments of drama, victory or defeat. Curry said Nintendo is perfect at crafting simulations like this, adding that the company could make filing taxes feel fun.
A few games about political systems already exist. “Crusader Kings” and its sequels let players take control of the personal and political stakes of a medieval empire. And last year, a game developer and professor at Carnegie Mellon University created a “Democratic Socialism Simulator,” where players enact policies as the first socialist president of the United States.
A fair number of board games already simulate the process of diplomacy or governance, and “Political Arena” borrows tabletop mechanics to introduce random chance to different situations, such as the types of questions raised at a news conference. Both board games and video games create “believable worlds that you can explore, but not necessarily worlds that currently exist,” Evans said. “Democratic Socialism Simulator” asks, “What if?” “Political Arena” asks, “What would you do next?” given our current political reality.
The politicians you create in “Political Arena” have five skills: intelligence, empathy, charisma, stamina and discipline — a.k.a. the ability to stick to the talking points during a debate or news conference. Players earn a set number of points to devote to each skill, determining their strengths and weaknesses as a candidate.
Characters slide onto the screen like some congressional aide slinking into your office, explaining unexpected dilemmas to which you will need to react. As you climb up the political ladder, there will be lobbyists knocking on your door, pundits to win over and business leaders to appease while you pass legislation or campaign for your next elected office.
No two playthroughs are going to unfold in the same way, Nelson said. At the start of “Political Arena,” players first run for the House of Representatives for their choice of district nationwide. You can run as a progressive Democrat in a rural, red district in the heart of Texas, for example. Just be prepared for an uphill battle.
The team behind “Political Arena” wants it to be possible for a dark horse to win over the heavily favored candidate. It’s just a matter of probability. Nelson said they’re working to capture all the variables that could lead to a certain outcome, like who wins an election or how a senator will vote on a bill. The trick is calibrating the likelihood of each variable, to weigh the dice so that one input doesn’t have an outsized impact on the game.
“All the best games, and really most video games, are a collection of dice rolls,” Nelson said.
Nelson is writing most of the events that players will encounter in the game, many of which are loosely inspired by headlines and scandals from the real-world news cycle.
“You could have this incredible politician who seems all lined up for victory and then someone in your party says something monumentally dumb,” Nelson said. “It consumes the news cycle, and then you lose your close race.”
Nelson readily admits that politicians “often do and say very dumb and offensive things” — and that’s actually what’s terrifying to him about his game. The team wants the game to be a “good faith” attempt to re-create American politics but, as Nelson says, “How do you re-create something that’s offensive without then being newly offensive about it?”
The goal will be to write characters, not caricatures, who represent the donors, pundits and voters in American politics. Nelson said he’ll be drawing from his time as a journalist to try to accurately reflect the stakeholders on various issues. But, Nelson said, the team is bound to “screw up” at some point given the game’s scope.
In an attempt to solve for this, Nelson said the narratives in “Political Arena” will always be based on what’s already happened in American politics. Curry said it will feel a bit like watching an episode of “Law and Order.” The events will be based on reality — it’s just that what happens on Capitol Hill can be hard to believe.
“Sometimes politics is so insane that any decent fiction editor would redline it out of existence,” Nelson said.