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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 December, 2004, 05:34 GMT
Online games play with politics
By Roberto Belo
BBC News website technology reporter

Screen grab of The Political Machine game, Ubisoft
US vote provided the launching platform for political games
After bubbling under for some time, online games broke through onto the political arena in 2004.

The US presidential election provided a showcase for many, aimed at talking directly to a generation that has grown up with joysticks and gamepads.

Experts say this reflects how video games are becoming a mainstream part of culture and society.

The first official political campaign game was technically launched during the last week of 2003: the Iowa Game, commissioned by the Democrat hopeful Howard Dean.

More than 20 followed suit, including Frontrunner, eLections, President Forever and The Political Machine, which allowed players to run an entire presidential campaign, including having to cope with the media.

Others helped raise the stakes during the Bush/Kerry contest by highlighting a candidate's virtues or his vices.

Press-to-play politics

The phenomenon has astonished the forefathers of political games, a handful of multi-discipline games enthusiasts keen to push frontiers.

Gonzalo Frasca
It's up to us to explore what we can learn from ourselves through play and video games
Gonzalo Frasca, University of Copenhagen
"When I started researching political games at the university, about five years ago, I thought it was going to be something that would take decades to happen," said Gonzalo Frasca, computer games specialist at the Information Technology University of Copenhagen.

"I must admit that I was the first person to be surprised at seeing how fast they have evolved," added the Uruguayan-born researcher, who has so far created games for two political campaigns.

Many artists and designers are experimenting with this form of gaming with an agenda in projects such as The aim is to comment on international news events via games.

Play to explore

The ability of games to simulate reality makes them a powerful modelling tool to interact with actual situations in an original way.

Gamer playing
Games are no longer exclusive entertainment territory
"Video games generate strong reactions mainly because they are new, but also because our culture needs to learn how to deal with simulation," Mr Frasca told the BBC News website.

This was the case with the one he created for a political party in Uruguay, Cambiemos, an online puzzle game that offered a view on how the country's problems could be solved by working together.

"It's up to us to explore what we can learn from ourselves through play and video games."

Ultimately, Dr Frasca sees games as a small laboratory where we can play with our hopes, fears and beliefs.

"Children learn a lot about the world through play. There is no reason why we adults should stop doing it as we grow up."

Gaming know-how

But experts estimate it will still take at least about a decade until this new breed of video gaming communication become a common tool for political campaigns.

Game controller
Games' simulation skills have a big communication potential
This is hardly surprising, compared to other forms of mass media like the worldwide web. Only a few years ago, most politicians did not have a webpage, while now it is almost a must-have.

Dr Frasca said: "Political campaigns will continue to experiment with video games. They represent a new tool of communication that can reach a younger audience in a language that can clearly speak to them."

"It will not replace other forms of political propaganda, but it will integrate itself on to the media ecology of political campaigns."

UK turning into nation of gamers
01 Sep 04 |  Technology
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25 Oct 04 |  Technology
Game appeal for Uruguay's voters
23 Oct 04 |  Technology
Academics take on video games
21 Oct 04 |  Technology
Games blur news and entertainment
16 Sep 04 |  Technology

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