Democracy 3: Simulating government in a post-recession world

Cliff Harris, founder of Positech Games, has been tinkering with his head-spinningly complex politics simulator Democracy for the last nine years, and is preparing for the release of the latest version.

It's 6 May 2015, and the UK government has just been voted out of office by a thoroughly unimpressed electorate after five years of painful austerity. It was a painful blow for the despotically named Alan is Great Party, but the writing had been on the wall for some time as the focus groups and polls had been brutally clear. Military cuts led to a remote British territory being occupied by foreign forces, and certain wealthy pressure groups had begun plotting terrorist action following high wealth taxes and anti-corporation regulations. I suppose as Virtual Prime Minister, retiring to virtual obscurity was a better ending than being virtually assassinated by a virtual grumpy banker. Forgotten, rather than dead.

“One of the things that always amused my wife was the idea that the Prime Minister could be assassinated by 'Liberal Terrorists', but if you imagine a totalitarian regime, I can easily see an extreme version of the Occupy or Libertarian movements trying to overthrow such a government,” Cliff Harris, the founder of Positech Games, tells me. He's been tinkering with his head-spinningly complex politics simulator Democracy for the last nine years, and is preparing for the release of the latest version. Democracy 2 was released in 2008 before the global crash, and now the political landscape has changed considerably, requiring a complete retooling of the game's dynamics for Democracy 3. 

“We have a lot of things that are suddenly important in the political world that were minor issues before,” explains Harris. “Terrorism is a bigger concern, but public debt, the interest rates on debt and deficits are suddenly major issues. When Democracy 2 was designed, I had problems working out how to effectively discourage the player from running up a huge budget deficit, but now people are very familiar with the austerity argument, even if they disagree with it. So Democracy 3 models deficits and interest on debts properly, and has credit ratings for government debt, which makes a big difference.”

You'll also come up against familiar-sounding events, with the likes of fracking, internet censorship, bankers' bonuses, avian flu and extradition of extremists simulated through the game. No Leveson Enquiry dilemmas as yet, though: “There isn't actually a press freedom event, but there should be, it's a good idea.” Nice to see that someone believes The Alan is Great Party has something to offer post-government. Maybe I should follow the well-trodden path from Member of Parliament to consultant?

Another aspect of post-2009 politics that isn't simulated in the game is coalition. The game sticks resolutely to dual party politics, with an opposition AI that automatically opposes every government decision (“Insert Miliband Joke Here,"  Harris remarks). “A game where you get to run the government is fun, but a game where 90% of the time would be haggling with a third party is less fun,” Harris explains. “If you have multiple parties, and political consensus, then you get decisions with no effective political downside.” Is there room for a game that replicates the more grubby world of political horse trading? “I think there definitely is, and it would be fun to code some really sneaky backstabbing AI for that!”

These aren't the only challenges Harris has faced in updating the game for post-recession times, and he's written extensively on his blog about accurately simulating the French electorate's mindset, creating a functioning private sector and how socialists would react to the introduction of food stamps. True to the game's belief in democracy, Harris often leaves these blog posts as open questions to gauge feedback, ensuring that his biases are kept in check. “I've tried to make the game entirely neutral,” he maintains, while simultaenously accepting this is an impossible task. “You can likely tell I'm an environmentalist from the game, but probably nothing else. I've won [virtual] elections in every country as both a socialist and a capitalist, which must say something."

One way to match this success in game is to gradually shape public opinion to your party's beliefs by passing laws that change demographics, which is something that made Ministers in the Alan is Great Party a little uncomfortable. “If you pass really strong anti-union laws, you will actually see both union and socialist memberships decline over the long run. You can also influence Liberalism with policies like community policing. You can encourage a religious society over time by having marriage incentives, school prayer and faith schools. Over the long run, you should be able to sculpt society to the voter composition you want, as long as you can stay in power all that time.”

Pretty chilling social engineering when you think about it - surely having to simulate the political system this cynically has left Harris feeling pretty jaded about western democracy as a result? Surprisingly not. “When you play Democracy 3, you end up acting quite rationally in a way that appears cynical to outside observers. It makes me understand how some apparently crazy things governments do make sense in the context of trying to stay in power while avoiding disaster.” Definitely a mantra to keep in mind as we enter party conference season.

 

Democracy 3 will be released soon on PC, Mac and Linux, but is available now in Beta form for those who pre-order from the Positech Games website. You can read more about the development challenges faced on Cliff Harris' personal blog

Cliff Harris quips that Democracy 3's AI has an “Insert Miliband Joke Here" function.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.