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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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue