Citizens to Elect Tom Cross
By Columnist
updated 10/18/2004 8:48:15 PM ET 2004-10-19T00:48:15

Already tired of hearing politicians say "visit my Web site" every five minutes? Wait until 2008, when that stump speech staple may be replaced with a new candidates' call: "Play my game."

Imagine the possibilities.  Would-be voters won't have to listen to snooze-inducing policy speeches -- they can play the policy instead.

The future of politics arrived late last month when a group of Illinois-based Republicans launched “Take Back Illinois,” a four-part web game that explores the party’s relationship to state-wide issues like healthcare, education, jobs and volunteerism.

Simple to play, "Take Back Illinois" is basically an interactive argument for the state's Republican party, which in the real world is locked in a tight race with Democrats for control of the state house of representatives. 

The point, said David Dring, press secretary for Republican Illinois House minority leader Tom Cross, is not only to educate players on the issues, but just to get them involved.

"We're just happy if people are able to pay a little bit of attention to politics and public policy and have fun," he said.  "It's like what Bill Cosby said on 'The Fat Albert Show': 'If you're not careful, you might learn something.'"

Since its launch, "Take Back Illinois" has logged over 60 thousand sessions according to Dring. 

Beyond shoot 'em ups
The last year has already seen a string of politically-inspired games, from the mass market "Political Machine" where players run a presidential campaign to screeds like "John Kerry Tax Invaders" and "The Anti-Bush Game."

But "Take Back Illinois" and "Activism," a web-game sponsored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee represent a new line in political gaming - the party-funded interactive campaign speech.

Video: Political games "I believe that in four years this will be major part of politics,” said Ian Bogost, the brains behind both “Take Back Illinois” and “Activism.”

Bogost is president of Persuasive Games, a small game developer that's been active in promoting game technology as a means to understand big ideas.  

Persuasive Games made news earlier this year with "Howard Dean for Iowa," a Web game where players had to ring doorbells and holds signs in the quest to register more "Deaniacs."  "Howard Dean for Iowa" won kudos for its link to a campaign considered technologically savvy, but was also criticized for lacking any political substance.

"It was great for outreach, but not great for issues," recalled Bogost.

When some former members of the Dean campaign wound up working with the GOP in Illinois, they approached Persuasive Games about developing a new game. "We steered them to talk less about politicking and more about policy," said Bogost.

The result is a game where success is contingent with staying on-message with party policy.

In the health care portion of "Take Back Illinois," for example, tiny townspeople amble through a crisply animated downtown area.  Small bubbles above their heads indicate wellness. The goal is to keep the hospitals open by minimizing medical malpractice awards. Fail that goal and the hospitals fade to gray -- leaving the townspeople to their fate.

Similarly, schools fail if standards aren't balanced in the education component. And don't count on creating jobs without tax breaks and training.

The game's messages are explicit  --- lower medical liability equals better health care -- and the process of playing a game built to espouse political beliefs can be an interesting experience, particularly if players don't agree with the message. 

That is part of the allure of political gaming, Bogost said. 

"People are using it as a platform -- even if you play against it, you're still aware of the rhetoric," he said.  "And there's rhetoric in a lot of games. In "Sim City" there is a lot of rhetoric about managing taxes and building highways and crime."

A visit to the Illinois game's listing of high scorers reflects the player's awareness of the game's spin.  "Vote Kerry P" reads one high scorer. "Down with K" reads another.

The point, according to Bogost, is that the educational potential of a game reaches far beyond a buzzword-laden stump speech. 

"The world is not that simple," said Bogost.  "We can introduce that complexity."

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