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.
Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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