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.
Getty
Show Hide image

BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.