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Slave to the System

A cheap new video game lets political junkies play Karl Rove in a presidential campaign

During the early morning hours of Nov. 3, 2004, a compact disc went flying out of the tray of my laptop. I had just learned a lesson: Politics, no matter how exciting, is not always fun.

It seemed a lesson I should perhaps have learned earlier in life, but for four years I had waited for Nov. 2 to come, certain it would be a gosh-darn hoot. I thrived on knowing that George Bush would again have to face the vote of the American people. For months I had made Bush face that vote over and over and over again on my computer, in a video game called The Political Machine. And almost every time I played, he lost. No matter which candidate I picked to run against him—whether it was John Kerry, Wes Clark, Al Gore or even Jimmy Carter—I came out victorious. It was simple: Promise to be tough on terrorism in the swing states, support a woman’s right to choose in New York and California and keep a balance between fund-raising and speeches, and you should be able to buy the advertising you need to steamroll to victory.

Of course, things were not that simple for John Kerry in the real election. His windsurfing and silver coif did not deliver him to the White House, and for that the game had to pay. It was thrown deep into the recesses of my car.

This year, I went looking for it. And I found it—scratched beyond readability. I was annoyed and disappointed, but luckily the creators of the game Stardock realized that armchair campaign- advisors like myself would need an outlet for their control-freak tendencies. This month they released Political Machine 2008, which you can download or purchase at one of those IRL stores for $20.

While this edition immediately pleased me by having constantly bobbling bobbleheads to represent the candidates, it will likely upset Metroland’s Nader contingent, as it is not possible to run as a third-party candidate without messing with the game’s files. (I am sure some Paultards and Nadorks will take it upon themselves to do so.)

The game plays a little bit like Risk, a little like Sim City. A player picks a candidate for an assortment of current political players and then, while viewing a map of the country, picks states to travel to, and decides which speeches, advertisements, campaign headquarters and staffers are worth using, depending on current polling.

You probably don’t want to unveil a television commercial saying you would like to bring the troops home in Missouri, and by the same token you should probably stay away from criticizing Social Security in Florida. Standing against terrorism plays well just about everywhere, as does supporting a strong economy.

A trip to New York might land you a spot on a parody of the Colbert Report or The O’Reilly Factor, where you will have to pick your candidate’s responses very carefully. Polling, daily newspapers and advisors will let you know whether your campaign strategy is working.

Your trips from state to state may also land you hangers-on—some who act and look suspiciously like documentary film maker Michael Moore, others who make their skills a little more apparent. There are fixers, public-relations people, style consultants, and a bevy of folks you can trade political capital for. You can also store your political capital and use it for bigger things, like endorsements from labor unions or other special-interest groups. But for each day, your candidate’s actions are limited by his endurance and the amount of money in your campaign coffers.

Each candidate’s skills are rated—some are more likeable than others; some have more energy than others or are better at fund raising. You can even create your own perfect (or not-so- perfect) candidate. I’ve gone about trying to run certain Albany County politicians. None of them fares too well in a two-party system.

This week I decided to take Barack Obama out on a test run. His first opponent: Ulysses S. Grant. I made quick work of Grant in the 41 turns I had. Grant apparently had trouble utilizing the modern media to mount a successful campaign. My next opponent, Richard Milhouse Nixon, put up more of a fight and clearly had a better understanding of political strategy and media manipulation. I fear the day I will eventually have to take on George Washington himself. He is good at just about everything.

But this year I have decided not to take Obama head to head with John McCain. I don’t want to jinx anything, and more importantly, I don’t want to be forced to launch the game into the back seat of my car. It’s simply too much fun to give up.

—David King

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