Democratic Socialism Simulator was released yesterday for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. The Android version is still under review. It’s a casual, single player game in which you play as the first socialist president of the United States. You have to evaluate an endless stream of policy proposals, balance the budget, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, gain the support of different voters and build people’s power.
The title Democratic Socialism Simulator is a bit of a misnomer since the game doesn’t portray a democratic socialist society but rather the first years of a hypothetical post-capitalist transition via social democracy. I have made a few prototypes that modeled a democratic socialist economy but, at least as single player experiences, they didn’t differ too much from traditional resource management games. I thought the very beginning of such a transformation would make for a more interesting and timely subject.
In other words, DSS is an attempt to prefigure a Sanders (or a Sanders-like) presidency by focusing on the issues not fanboyism. Most of the proposals are lifted straight from Bernie Sanders’ platform so you can see it as an interactive flyer of some sort.
DSS borrows its gameplay from the game Reigns (which in turn, borrows its interface from the dating app Tinder). It’s a simple but infinitely expandable structure that can touch upon a lot of topics with very little audiovisual content. Aside from being particularly satisfying on touch screens, the swiping mechanic is a clever way to present a lot of variables and effects to the player. Dragging a proposal left and right visualizes its most immediate effects without cluttering the interface.
In Reigns you play as king or queen, going through a series of grievances from your subjects. Your goal is to stay in power as long as possible by not alienating (or favoring too much) the Church, the people, the army, and the treasury. This kind of agency is appropriate for a feudal setting but it doesn’t work in a game set in a liberal democracy, and in which the goal is to change the status quo.
In DSS your actions are attributed to the coalition supporting the president. The congress counter represents not only the seats held by the Democratic party but also the forces that actually support you across institutions and in the civil society. Some radical reforms require a minimum of support to be enacted. Your presidency is obviously limited to two terms with the possibility of losing the reelection.
The voters’ approval depends on their top two issues, and this is a crucial feature. In a time of polarization and tribalism, it’s easy to forget that the ideological alignment of most Americans is more complex, contradictory, and multidimensional than what the media portrays. We are tempted to conceptualize voters as standing on an axis going from “very liberal” to “very conservative”, a gradient of blue and red. That’s a simplification that favors a centrist view: since the left and right wings are assumed to be already politically engaged, the only way to expand support is to appeal to the moderate center. In reality there is evidence showing that swing voters can hold very progressive and very conservative positions at the same time, and that non-voters are all across the ideological spectrum. I believe this multidimensional model of affiliation is fundamental to create working class coalitions in the USA and abroad. Moreover, in DSS the electorate’s composition and top priorities can change as a result of your reforms.
But DSS is not just a power fantasy for leftists. The game speculates about the challenges to radical reforms that could come from the ruling class, Wall Street, mainstream media, deep state, and corporate Democrats. While the polls show that proposals like the Green New Deal or Medicare For All are extremely popular, the general public may not be prepared to even conceptualize the opposition that they would inevitably encounter.
The latest issue of Jacobin is entirely devoted to democratic socialist horror stories. The capitalists may be irrelevant in numeric terms, but they have an enormous leverage over “the economy” and the state apparatuses. They can collectively withdraw investments and use their media to frame the subsequent crisis as a political failure. They can outright buy politicians’ support. They can exercise their clout over liberal elites. The left in the United States has been marginal for so long that any conversation about what can possibly happen once in power has become irrelevant. The neoliberal/technocratic vision of politics still dominates the Democratic base, and the idea of a continuous mobilization and pressure campaign after winning the elections is unheard of.
As the perspective of a democratic socialist turn becomes more concrete, we need to create culture that both expands the realm of the possible, and prepares us for the struggles ahead. Change may be scary, but no change at all is much scarier.
DSS has not been designed to mount a precise linear argument. It has different endings and a specific starting point (you have a mandate) but it doesn’t prescribe a “correct” path to socialism. Instead it’s more like a collection of semi-random choices, conditions, and cause-and-effect relations that interact with each other in a messy way, creating a multitude of possible paths. Players can define their own idea of success: they can play as cautious moderates, or even enact some markedly right-wing policies (deportations, privatizations, austerity, militarism).
Games that try to embed their politics deep into their gameplay are still relatively rare. In my experience, many players expect a clearly delivered “message” and try to extract it from a single play-through. DSS has a significant element of randomness and a number of implicit mechanics that the player can only guess, so I wouldn’t be surprised if different people come up with widely divergent interpretations. Without getting too much into semiotics, what the game “says” about socialism is a network of micro arguments explorable in a variety of directions. The *ideological engine* of the game is basically a series of spreadsheets that I share here for the most curious and nerdy users. There is even a column with notes and links related to the specific proposal and event.
Notes: The data should be rather self explanatory. The “equality” variable is the “people’s power” red bar. The command “chain” stacks a card right after the current one. The command “delay” postpones an event after a random number of cards within certain intervals.
Democratic Socialist Simulator is not free. After 17 years of Molleindustria, it is the first proper commercial release. I’m already getting some comments like “iF iTs SoCiaLIsT wHy IsNT iT fREe??”. There are a couple of reasons:
1) Pretty much nobody cares about free games today. Websites don’t review them, stores have no interest in featuring them. There are hundreds of indie games coming out every day. Many of these releases are student projects, prototypes, half finished jam games, joke games, zine games, sketchy asset flips. It’s wonderful to see such a democratization of the form, but I’m afraid not putting a price on a game is increasingly seen as not attributing any value to it.
2) During the Flash era, free online games could reach a potentially huge audience. Some Molleindustria games racked up millions of plays. It meant connecting with people outside my filter bubble and challenging them with naughty anticapitalist games. To some extent, Democratic Socialist Simulator is meant to preach to the choir (although it’s a rapidly growing choir); it’s less “Wake up sheeple!” and more “What is to be done?” so I’m fine if the price tag pre-selects the audience.
3) Free games cannot be used for fundraising purposes. In recent years we’ve seen a multitude of game bundles put together to support good causes. Since all my games were free I had nothing to contribute, and that bothered me a lot.
Of course if you are a broke comrade, feel free to contact me, and I’ll send you a download code.