The physics of goo

“Take Back Illinois” political game

More proof that the trend towards political video games is accelerating: The Republican party of Illinois has just released the Take Back Illinois online video game, designed by the brilliant dudes over at Persuasive Games. It’s intended to highlight the positions of the state’s GOP in several key issues, including medical malpratice reform, education, participation, and economic reform. Each area is represented by a little minigame, and the first one out is “medical malpractice”.

My verdict? It’s incredibly cool, and possibly one of the best political games I’ve ever seen. That’s because political games are usually caught in a design dilemma: If you foreground the game’s “message”, it’s usually at the expense of gameplay — the game is boring. But if you focus on merely creating killer gameplay, then the play takes over and the sense of “message” can be lost. The best games are thus ones that try to illustrate a dynamic process, because dynamic processes are sort of game-like to begin with. That’s why economics and law can, oddly, be a lot of fun to study. You think of a bunch of rules, set them in motion, and see what happens; then you tinker with the rules and see what happens again. It’s just like any of Will Wright’s good Sim games.

In the medical malpractice game, the concept is deceptively simple. You’re looking down on a city in “god” mode, and your citizens are either healthy, slightly ill, or critically ill. You have to try to quickly locate the critically ill ones and get them to a hospital before they die. But the hospitals have their own budgetary restraints, and can only handle so many patients; shove a couple of sick people into one hospital and it’ll be “full” until they heal. Thus, you quickly wind up in a frantic juggling game, when you realized that the hospital nearest to a sick person is full and you have to route them all the way across town, praying they don’t die before they get there … kind of like real life, right? The political content arrives in your ability to increase or decrease the maximum malpractice awards that people get for suing hospitals. Decrease it, and, according to Republican logic, the hospitals save money and presto! They can handle more patients, and the game becomes easier. Similarly, you can increase the research support for medical safety and training, and that makes the game easier too. By letting you twiddle with a couple of simple policies, the game lets you “see” precisely what the Republicans would like to do to Illinois — and the good things they hope would come of it.

One could, of course, argue with the logic of the game. Democrats would say that a far better way to decrease hospitals’ costs would be not to limit malpractice — which they’d argue is an issue of justice — but to rein in the enormous profits of pharmaceuticals, thus bringing down the cost of drugs. But whether or not one agrees with what the Republicans are trying to teach with this game, the point is, the way that it teaches is wonderfully elegant.

If anything, it’s almost too much fun: The play value of the game almost overrides the message. For example, I discovered that while I could get a higher score by following Republican policies (and helping the hospitals improve their care), I found it more enjoyable to let the health-care system degrade into chaos. It’s more exciting that way! I got more nail-biting thrills out of having the hospitals quickly fill up and turn patients away, forcing me to desperately route the nearly-dead patients somewhere else. It’s just like any video game that has settings for “easy”, “normal”, and “hard”. The “hard” setting is brutal — you get killed and killed and killed again — but it’s also just maniacally fun, as virtual chaos and mayhem are wont to be. Still, all in all, this is one of the best political games I’ve yet played.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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