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The game we didn't know we needed in primary season: 'Democratic Socialism Simulator'

Todd Martens
Los Angeles Times
Employ radical ideas like taxing the rich in "Democratic Socialism Simulator," a new game released for home computers this month.

One of the strengths of pop music — and a large part of why I fell in love with music at an early age — is how immediate the medium is in comparison of other forms of mass media. When an event or a cultural debate erupts, chances are there is going to be a song about said topic more quickly than there will be a film or a television show. This means a music fan can constantly be in a dialogue of sorts with artists and the culture at large.

The independent game movement at times feels similar, where a bounty of short, topical games regularly respond to the world around us via the language of play.

Case in point: "Democratic Socialism Simulator." It's the game this primary season didn't know it needed.

Boasting cutesy animals and a lighthearted tone, "Democratic Socialism Simulator" places us in the role of a president who can swipe left or right on policy initiatives with abandon. In turn, the game makes public policy go down easy, and with plenty of humor.

A headline in the game's New Pork Times newspaper celebrates the "Dapper Nazi," as "economic anxiety and radical reforms are making the far right cool again." And critters offer us administrative advice. "You know," says a plump squirrel who serves as our nation's treasurer, "we could raise taxes on corporations that have obscene pay gaps between CEOs and workers."

Like the game of medieval power "Reigns" and the dating app Tinder before it, we make a decision by dismissing or approving a proposal with a swipe. We can reject, for instance, the corporate tax proposal on the grounds that CEOs work long hours. Or we can adopt it and try to save the middle class by redistributing wealth and services. Which works well, until the Supreme Court, stacked with judges by the prior administration, potentially rules it unconstitutional.

Challenges to your presidency abound. For one, there's Fox News — here staffed by literal foxes — who are ready to attack every move and sway public opinion with an inflamed headline (example: "Socialized health care is actual slavery"). Thus, I went into the game expecting one that would comically preach to the choir. And while the game's mission statement proclaims that it aims to imagine the potential tests of a Bernie Sanders (or Sanders-like) presidency, what resonated during its short play-throughs was instead what it said about governing during times of extreme political imbalance.

In short, it's a mess, as political factions in the game can take turns, depending on how demanding one intends to be, acting like bullies. This isn't really a long-term solution, as getting forcefully removed from office appears to be an ending that occurs with regularity. A note on the website of developer Molleindustria — a project of experimental game maker and educator Paolo Pedercini — argues that "Democratic Socialism Simulator" is intended to be far removed from a power fantasy, and indeed it is, as roadblocks from lobbyists, activists or even a public full of contradictory opinions regularly arise, regardless of the reforms chosen.

That's not to say this is full-on edutainment, either. This is a game, after all, in which a turtle proposes fixes to the homelessness crisis. And when our treasurer warns us of another financial crash reminiscent of the one of 2008, the doom-saying squirrel notes that at least it was a "good year for indie music." While the term "Democratic socialism" is in vogue this election season, sometimes as an identifier and sometimes as a label to be weaponized, the game shows how the meaning of a term can be loaded — or meaningless — depending on who is wielding it.

The actual policies at the core of "Democratic Socialism Simulator" aren't all that radical, in that they are all part of our current debates. Recent polls even suggest a relatively high percentage of the public is in favor of initiatives such as universal health care and free college tuition, and it's easy to feel good in the game when we tax house flippers and give significant tax breaks to those priced out of their neighborhoods. When money is tight, simply swipe right on a proposal to heavily tax those with earnings more than $10 million.

As the game asks us to juggle government finances, the people's power and greenhouse gas emissions, it's almost a guarantee that something will be out of sync at any given moment. The bottom of the screen presents us with a digital grid in which we can see how the public is responding to our initiatives. The further they move from us, the more likely we are to lose the public narrative and in turn control of Congress, which essentially handcuffs our ability to do anything effective. This is when we resort to adopting a dog or a cat to sway public opinion (plenty will have opinions on which animal you choose).

Yet even when I was being escorted out of office by the military, I didn't find the underlying satire of "Democratic Socialism Simulator" to be overwhelming negative. Sure, policies that benefit millions could be undone at random — or sometimes by an annoying question from a pesky fox — but the game is never arguing that progress should be linear or power absolute. We play because a better world only becomes impossible to envision when we quit.

DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM SIMULATOR

Developer: Molleindustria

Platforms: Windows, Linux, MacOS, Android (coming soon)

Price: $5