I’ve always been passionate about the idea of using games to teach, and for self-expression. As game developers we’ve fine-tuned our abilities to keep the player entertained, to teach simple concepts which build to more complex concepts over the course of a game, and to reward the player periodically to keep them engaged and motivated. All these techniques can also be well applied to education.

In 2007 I gave a talk in Tokyo where I lamented about how difficult it was for people to create and distribute games. It was a big issue at that time for those wanting to use games for self-expression. Since it was very difficult to create and share a game, few people were able to use games to talk about issues or communicate ideas. Most games at that time went through the hardware manufacturers: Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Or they were disc-based PC games which were distributed through stores. So there were gates on the type and quality of content. The only open alternative was to use Flash and distribute on the web, and while the quality of Flash games was not high, there were some folks using it for extremely interesting purposes (Molleindustria stands out). But the number of groups doing this was quite small.

One of the most interesting “serious games” I’d seen by this time was from the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election, the “Howard Dean for Iowa” game. The Dean for America campaign was extremely clever in its use of the Internet, pioneering many fundraising tactics and the use of social networking technologies. (These were detailed in Joe Trippi’s excellent book “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything”.) Seeing the Dean campaign make use of a game made me extremely excited for the future of games and politics. “Howard Dean for Iowa” was the first political communication-oriented game I had ever seen. Since then I’ve been fascinated to use the 4-year U.S. presidential election cycle to examine the evolution of the “political games” genre.

Since 2004 the game industry has gone through some incredible changes: mobile platforms are now the dominant way players access games, and PC titles have shifted primarily to digital distribution. It is now much, much easier to create and share a game. As a result we see that for the 2012 election cycle, the number of games which use political themes has spiked. In 2004 there were basically 2 titles: “Howard Dean for Iowa” and “The Political Machine”. This year it’s frankly difficult to count the number of games: there are many hundreds to be sure. So while creation and distribution has become much simpler, the challenging part now is discoverability. How do you find the political games which are GOOD?

A successful political game, one that is trying to communicate an idea or influence opinion, should be entertaining, engaging, and educational. This is the same metric for serious games in general: you want the player to enjoy the game, to keep coming back to it, and to learn.

There are plenty of political games this year which aren’t attempting to communicate an idea, that use the 2012 election purely as a theme. I found Whack-a-Mole games, fighting games, a bubble popping game, an Angry Birds ripoff, and a Triple Town clone among these, all using the election or the candidates. Of the political games which go deeper, the most common type of game is turn-based strategy, using the U.S. map as the game board, where the win condition is winning the election through winning individual states.

Data tracking is a new innovation this election season. Several strong political games keep track of how many players play for each political party or candidate, and report that information back to the player as a point of interest. Just as other games have increased their use of analytics to improve gameplay or monetization, political games will increase their use of analytics to learn more about the policies that players find interesting. “Budget Hero” is a good example of a game that uses this technique; we’ll certainly see more of this in the future.

Below are the six best political games I’ve played this year.

Comedy Central’s Indecision Game (iOS/Android)
Comedy Central Indecision Game

Indecision is largely an asynchronous trivia game, but has some strategic elements. The game is multiplayer only – each round, you and your opponent answer three political current event questions. You get points based on how many you answered correctly in the round and whether you’ve beaten your opponent. The points are then applied to states on the U.S. map, claiming the states and their electoral votes for your campaign. Whoever wins the most electoral votes wins the game! The number of points each state requires is relative to its size, not the actual electoral votes it provides in the election. The game is very fun if you can find a good partner to play it with! Think of it as “Politics with Friends”.

Indecision asks you to self-identify as Democrat, Republican, or Independent, and keeps track of which party answers the most questions correctly each day, each week, and overall – to see “who is smartest”.

The Political Machine 2012 (PC)
The Political Machine 2012

The Political Machine is in its third iteration, having first shipped in 2004. Gameplay is turn-based and centered around a U.S. map. You choose a candidate to play – or build your own – and then each turn, you control where to travel, where to give speeches or fundraise, what ads to run, where to build offices, and which endorsements to strive for. The game includes policy positions and information on each candidate, as well as demographic information on each state. Each candidate has certain characteristics which influence their capabilities, and talking points for speeches must match up against the interests of each location to ensure maximum value.

TPM can be played multiplayer or against an AI. If you’ve played Political Machine 2008, the 2012 version isn’t much different. It has an updated candidate roster, but most of the rest of the game is very similar. TPM is an engaging strategy game which also manages to teach you about some of the difficult trade-offs candidates make when running a campaign.

Win the White House (Web)
Win the White House

This game is similar to The Political Machine, but clearly designed for students. The game doesn’t use real candidates, instead it asks you to choose your political party and select five key policy issues which are important to your candidate. Each turn represents a week of the campaign, and you can fundraise, poll, do media and make appearances. The amount that you fundraise each turn dictates the number of extra actions you can take that turn. The effectiveness of media and appearances in winning over a state depends highly on the policy issues you choose to highlight – if you haven’t done polling in a state, you won’t know which issues are important to it, so you may find your appearance has no effect! The number of electoral votes and the amount of cash each state can provide correlate well with reality, so as you’re playing the game you’ll find yourself coveting California, New York, and Florida.

Win the White House is definitely more focused on students and has less real-world data in it than other similar games. Questions around policy decisions are peppered with silly answers, which diminishes their usefulness. The game is fun and free, and definitely worth checking out online.

VOTE!!! The Game (iOS)
VOTE!!! The Game

Epic’s game “VOTE!!!” is undoubtedly the best looking game of all the political titles this season. It’s not designed as an educational game, but as an entertaining tongue-in-cheek 3D fighting game which uses the election as a theme. You can play as Obama or Romney and beat the snot out of the other guy using a variety of props and costumes. Gameplay is very engaging and fun, just as you would expect from Epic.

VOTE keeps track of the number of times each candidate is chosen for play, and displays a running tally. Currently the count is 35.9 million for Obama versus 34.7 million for Romney! The game also includes a link that takes you to the “Rock the Vote” site to register to vote, a nice touch.

Election: Run for President! (iOS)
Election: Run for Presiden!t

Election is a turn-based card game played on a U.S. map game board. Cards are either “Campaign” or “Fundraiser” types, and are played on individual states – only one type of card can be played each turn, and the game is 12 turns long. When Campaign cards are played, you assign them an amount of cash from your bankroll, so skillful use of the Fundraisers are important to make sure you have loads of cash to spend on your campaign.

Election can be played solo or multiplayer, and as either a Republican or Democrat.

Race for the White House 2012 (iOS/Android)
Race for the White House 2012

RFTWH is another turn-based strategy game based around the U.S. map. You choose your four campaign focus points at game start, and can then sway public opinion in each state by going on talk shows and answering a few questions, rallying volunteers, or conducting an ad campaign, in a very similar manner to other games of this type. A unique difference is your ability to both conduct covert operations to spread false information about your opponent, and research dirt about them to reduce their reputation. But it’s expensive to do! The game distinguishes itself by asking you questions frequently, with the results affecting your overall public perception (although admittedly they are pretty silly questions. :) )

There is not much educational content to this game apart from the general concept of traveling from state to state and attempting to improve public opinion. But it’s an enjoyable strategy game that is definitely worth a look.

Of the hundreds of available political games this election season, these six games are the most worth your time. I recommend playing them while watching the election returns roll in on November 6!

It’s been about 18 months since my last serious post on the blog, something I’ve asserted time and time again that I was just on the verge of rectifying. But, you know, Tweeting takes up SO much time.
So living in Los Angeles for nearly two years now, my perspective on living here has evolved a fair amount. This blog entry should make a good contrast against the previous post. I’ll mirror the topics from that post somewhat so they make a matched set.

But first, a caveat. I live in Santa Monica, which I’ve discovered is not really Los Angeles proper. When I first moved here, I thought of the entire region as “Los Angeles”. But Los Angeles neighborhoods differ a lot, so while being in Santa Monica might seem like a minor difference it actually does have major lifestyle implications.

On driving

When we first moved to LA, I worked at THQ, and boy did I do a lot of driving. From Santa Monica to Agoura Hills is about a 30 mile trip, and it can be handled two ways: on the freeways, the 405 and the 101 (all the freeways here are “the something”, don’t ask me why), which takes between 40 minutes and 60 minutes in the morning; or up the PCH, the Pacific Coast Highway, which takes a very reliable 50 minutes. At night the freeway route is highly variable, from 35 minutes to 90 minutes, whereas the coast route is still… 50 minutes.

To give you a clearer idea of how I coped with nearly two hours of travel time each day, let me show you some illustrations. Here’s a picture of a daily commute on the 405:

Traffic on the 405

And… here’s a trip via the PCH, through Malibu:

Malibu Beach

You can guess which direction I usually drove!

When we first moved to Los Angeles, people said “be sure to live in an area you like!” This seemed like bizarre advice – it’s a big city, lots of things to do, certainly we’ll drive to wherever we find we like to play. But noooooo… don’t think like this, it’s a trap! One thing you can count on in LA is that the traffic is pretty miserable. We’ve gone on frustratingly slow two hour drives to the Hollywood Hills (12.5 miles away), and one hour drives to LAX (just 8.5 miles away). The longer you live in LA, the more secret passages for travel you will find – but in general, just stay off the freeway and you will be happier. The side effect of lousy LA traffic is that MOST of the time you will want to hang out in YOUR neighborhood, because the alternative is to jump into the lousy traffic.

But hey, we live in Santa Monica. The world we’re in, the west side of the 405, has a very different feel from the rest of Los Angeles. Over here it’s beaches, palm trees, mild weather, less traffic, less pollution… but if you live here, don’t pretend that you’ll ever see your friends who live “on the other side”. It’s a universe away. Frankly it’s probably easier to just talk to your friends on Skype then pretend you’re going to ever brave the traffic to go see them.

On food

I still really miss the restaurant culture in San Francisco. There’s a vibrancy to the restaurant scene there, and creative restaurants up and down the price scale. Here in Los Angeles, we’ve got some great high-end restaurants, but the mid-range and casual is pretty rough. One entertaining thing you CAN do here in LA that doesn’t work as well in San Francisco is to go to a high-end restaurant and watch all the snooty patrons: the wannabe Hollywood agents on their cell phones, the skinny models who don’t eat but spend their entire dinner preening, the Beverly Hills Housewives, etc. It makes the “no changes” policy on a lot of menus suddenly much more understandable. I wouldn’t want to try to appease a lot of those people either!

There are definitely foods that suit LA and once we figured out what those were, we ate a lot better for cheaper. Want a salad? You’re in luck! How about sushi? It’s very fresh. Indian? Uhhhhh noooo. Pizza? Maybe, if you are in the know about where to go. Italian? Well, mediocre Italian is everywhere here. But good Italian is a little harder to find.

Where we live, it’s just a few blocks to a couple Starbucks, a Peets, and two very good local coffee joints. There are two awesome salad places. We’ve found a great calzone, and after much experimentation a decent Indian take-out. So now we’re getting by.

But the bread here is nowhere near as good as in San Francisco. When you think about that, it makes sense. How would all those aspiring actresses fit in their skinny jeans if the bread here was amazing?

On weather

What can I say, the weather is gorgeous! I loved the dry heat in Agoura Hills, and even the marine layer in Santa Monica in June (“June Gloom”) is great, it reminds me of summer in San Francisco. Well, a little. Most of the time, the weather in Santa Monica is a perfect 70 to 75 degrees. It’s amazing. If anything though, there’s a little TOO much sun here for me. I know. Blasphemer. Once in awhile, I do appreciate a nice rain.

On Los Angelenos

The one trait that most defines LA for me is not the traffic, not the food, and not the weather. It is the self-centeredness. Many people in Los Angeles are IMPATIENT. They are IN A HURRY, and you are IN THEIR WAY. If you’re on the road, beware of people barging into your lane. At the store? I’m sure she cut in front of me so her organic kefir wouldn’t spoil before she got it home. In a restaurant, you just have to feel sorry for the staff with the customers being so NEEDY. You didn’t step on the gas quickly enough at that light? *HOOONK* Hey, you forgot the lemon for my bottled water! And don’t forget the straw this time! Whew.

There are certainly nice people in Los Angeles. But it feels like an accomplishment when you manage to find where they are hiding. There’s a secret club of nice people. With a secret handshake. Whenever I meet someone genuinely friendly, I want to just give them a hug for not succumbing to the general LA impatient vibe.

On pollution

Did I mention the pollution yet? No, I guess not. Well, after a while you stop noticing. It’s just like that perceptual adaptation experiment they did in the late 19th century that flipped the world upside down, people’s brains adapt and eventually they think it’s normal. Now when I travel places without pollution the sky seems egregiously naked.

Reversing goggles

Actually, out here by the breezy beaches of Santa Monica, the pollution isn’t so bad. Attending E3 this year, downtown, I was sneezing black again. But here where the marine layer tucks us in at night, yeah, the air may not be great, but it is certainly tolerable and we even get an occasional sea breeze. That feels like a win here in LA.

There were days driving back home from THQ on the 405 that we’d crest the mountain pass and then descend into multiple layers of pollution. That made us feel so awesome. Breathe deeply!

In summary

I’ve come to the realization that Los Angeles is basically New York. It’s a big frickin’ city with a wide variety of people and tons of things to see and do. But New York is compact and dense – whereas Los Angeles is sprawling and full of strip malls. New Yorkers are impatient, and hey so are Los Angelenos. If only we had a reasonable transit system here. You know how much it costs to take a cab home from downtown LA when you’ve had a few drinks? Probably more than you spent on the booze. So seriously, live in a neighborhood that you like.