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Last Updated: Monday, 25 October, 2004, 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK
Playing the president
Dot.life - where technology meets life, every Monday
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

George Bush and John Kerry,
The US Election has inspired lots of games
Politics has been called many things.

The art of the possible... too serious a matter to be left to politicians... showbiz for ugly people.

Some even call it a game, and that is coming true for the current US presidential election.

In another demonstration of the way the tussle between Bush and Kerry is breaking new ground, more computer, web and phone games have been produced for this contest than any other.

At last count more than 20 US election themed games have been created.

Campaign clicks

The games range across the full spectrum from earnest educational efforts to the most partisan propaganda. They are aimed at everyone from the most casual observer to dedicated policy wonks.

Frontrunner, eLECTIONS, President Forever and The Political Machine take the whole election as their premise and let you, in varying amounts of detail, run an entire presidential campaign.

The games force players to work out where they stand on issues of the day, ask them to cope with the media, and to campaign hard.

Political Machine, produced by games giant Ubisoft, lets people play against each other online.

The surprise is that it has taken so long for political parties and their supporters to use games in such large numbers said Gonzalo Frasca, a game researcher and developer who works at the Center for Computer Games Research at the Copenhagen's IT University.

Screengrab of The Political Machine game, Ubisoft
You can run the campaign your way
Dr Frasca helped campaigners for Presidential wannabe Howard Dean create the Dean For America game to help them take the message to voters.

But even he has been surprised at the number of games created around the current Bush/Kerry contest.

"This tells us is the relevance of videogames in our cultural life," he said. "It is becoming more natural that games have to deal with current topics."

He thinks political parties are turning to games for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, they help to communicate with that section of the population that typically is least interested in national and international issues: young people.

He said it was good for gamers to see that politicians using such a language to try to communicate.

Secondly, a game can convey the complexity of an issue in a way that even the most eloquent of candidates would struggle to match.

"Commercial political sims [simulation games] can be great, for example, for understanding complex issues such as how the electoral system works, and why you can win the popular vote but fail to be elected president," he said.

One game, Staffers, lets players take the part of a worker in a campaign office and challenges them to beetle around answering phones, drinking coffee, stuffing envelopes and dealing with the public.

Biased bits

Beyond these games, the titles on offer start to get increasingly partisan.

There are the standard games that let you morph the faces of the contenders or slap them around.

John Kerry and George Bush before one of the televised debates, AP
Games let you stage your own debate
Then there are games made with Flash which let players control the candidates as they fight it out in a joust, boxing match and even a hip-hop dance off.

Sorrent has produced a phone version of a boxing game and the results of each bout are being uploaded to see which presidential candidate has golden gloves.

A similar game by UK game firm Masabi lets people bash a candidate. Others let them get Bush-themed ringtones or to insert Bush malapropisms into conversations.

Then there are all the games produced by supporters of the candidates that try to educate waverers about the opposition.

Some of these are very crude. For instance the Republicans produced a game John Kerry: Tax Invaders which made claims about how much Kerry's campaign promises would cost. Another pits Kerry versus himself in the boxing ring, claiming to indicate changes in his beliefs.

One bizarre game lets you play President Bush as he defends the Queen from gun-toting attackers in London.

This use of games is also interesting because there is little evidence that they have much effect on voting behaviour.

Dr Ian Bogost, who also studies videogames says research following the Howard Dean game showed what effect such tools can have.

"It did succeed at improving players' understanding of what the campaign meant by grassroots outreach, as well as what specific tasks are involved," he says.

As the game was intended to get fence-sitting supporters involved, there's no doubt it helped, he says.

"But politics is complex and it may be naive to think that any medium represent a silver bullet that can be traced back to the moment of decision for a particular position or vote."

Mr Frasca agrees that it is hard to say whether games influence voting behaviour or are simply ways of letting supporters explore and reinforce their beliefs.

"They are a part of the ecology of political messages," he said, "They do not work by themselves, but they work together with the other media."


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