Educational Board Gaming and Counter Politics

A Short History of the Election Game

Cover image Election, 1972

Anton is a first year PhD student in the department of Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University.

Introduction

The Eurogame, or the German-style board game, is best understood as a genre that emphasizes the simulation of peaceful trade, barter, and exchange. Unlike American war-game titles like Risk (1957) Eurogames like The Settlers of Catan (1995) focus on indirect rather than direct forms of player-to-player competition. In popular Eurogames like Puerto Rico (2002), players are cast as European traders who, through the careful management of economic resources, compete to export the most goods back to colonial Europe. Over the past half-decade, a slew of scholars have argued that the economic systems found in Eurogames mask problematic histories of resource extraction, orientalism and Indigenous exploitation (Emigh, 2014; Foasberg, 2016; Robinson, 2016; Wehrle, 2016). By emphasizing peaceful economic trade and exchange whilst simultaneously casting players as European colonists, Eurogames have de-emphasized the realities of the colonial European economy. Slaves and Indigenous peoples have been rendered invisible in the context of a genre that emphasizes the fun of economic trade and exchange.

One of the British Empire’s primary justifications for its occupation of Australia was the idea that much of what lay beyond Europe was a no man’s land, a terra nullius that was devoid of any human civilization. A series of scholars have noted that the Eurogame, by deemphasizing the realities of colonial slave labor, asks the player to reenact the colonial logic of terra nullius (Wehrle, 2016). Rather than abstracting away or erasing a history of military violence, scholars have called for a game design that embraces and represents historical colonial traumas (Loring-Albright, 2017). Fundamentally historiographical, this trend is deeply concerned with un-learning the problematic tropes that underlie the games that we choose to play.

The idea that board gaming should embrace the realities of Europe’s colonial economies and strive for a kind of historical realism is a mode of analysis that has yet to be applied to the history of the election simulator. This exclusion is not particularly surprising given the relative obsolescence of the genre prior to the US presidential election of 2016. The election simulator, borrowing nearly all of its mechanical traits from the Eurogame, is primarily about indirect player competition. The primary difference between these two genres is the election simulator’s simulation of voter manipulation. Regardless of why this genre has received so little attention, it is my contention that critical game scholars should include this genre as a part of the discourse on educational and historiographical game designs. What follows is a brief history of the intersection between educational board gaming and the election simulator with a discussion of the game Shasn as a case study. By tracing this history, I hope to reveal how the election simulator has served, and can continue to serve, as a useful platform for games that seek to function as counter-political educational tools.

The Setting

The Landlord’s Game (1906)

The Landlord’s Game (1906)

The history of educational board gaming is inextricably linked to the history of the American political tradition. In particular, the election-based board game is traceable to the work of Lizzie Maggie. Maggie, the famed anti-monopolist and feminist, was responsible for creating and publishing The Landlord’s Game in 1906. Widely recognized as an early precursor to America’s most antagonistic pastime Monopoly, Maggie’s game was explicitly created as a piece of political criticism. Illustrating the single tax theory of Henry George, The Landlord’s Game demonstrated the pitfalls of privately monopolized land ownership. The patents for the game, eventually acquired by the Parker Brothers, would come to change the American board gaming landscape forever. Released in 1935, Monopoly saw immediate commercial success, rapidly accruing a series of imitators (Darwin, 2016). What is particularly interesting about these imitations is that they were concerned not just with imitating Monopoly’s fiscal success, but also with imitating its unique ability to succinctly articulate and propagate a political message.

In the lead up to the US presidential election of 1936, Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal provisions had already begun to take effect. Social security and unemployment benefits proved to be particularly popular among an American populous reeling from the horrors of the Great Depression. In the final months leading up to the presidential election, the Republican opposition leader Alf Landon instead propagated a message of careful and considered moderation. For Landon, the New Deal provisions were becoming far too large and inefficient – seen as wasting time and money. Looking to substantiate this perspective, the Landon campaign kept a keen eye on any reports that suggested that the New Deal was, in fact, overstepping its boundaries. One 1935 New York Times article “reported that more than $3 million dollars had been spent on recreational activities for the jobless as part of the New Deal,” including crafts classes teaching the production of what the article termed “boon-doggles” (as cited in Darwin, 2016). The article described these boon-doggles as “various utilitarian ‘gadgets’ made with cloth or leather” and implied that teaching people to make them was a waste of time and government funding (as cited in Darwin, 2016).

The term “boondoggling,” quickly catching on in the popular imagination to mean wasting time or money on unnecessary projects, was often used by the Landon campaign in an effort to undermine the likelihood of a Roosevelt presidency. The Landon campaign made it a point to broadcast this kind of inefficient spending, and is widely considered to be one of the primary forces that popularized the term boondoggling. Interestingly, the term boondoggling was also picked up by two anti-New Deal college professors, and, because of its popular connotations, inspired them to design a game about the New Deal’s wasteful spending (Darwin, 2016). The object of this satirical game was to be the first player to spend all of their money on a series of overblown and inefficient government programs. Simple in its fundamental mechanics, the game Boondoggling (1936) saw great success, and was even partially distributed by the popular Republican news publication The Washington Star (as cited in Darwin, 2016). Around the same time, Rudy Copeland distributed his own game entitled Inflation (1935), which, much like the game Boondoggling, demonstrated how excessive government programs like an old age pension plan could actually land the American nation into further economic catastrophe. Though obviously not particularly effective at swaying public opinion (FDR’s 1936 presidential victory remains one the largest landslide victories in American history) this early history represents one of the first moments that board gaming entered into popular political discourse. It would be another decade and a half before this particular kind of politically motivated board gaming would re-emerge.

The Election Game

Landslide (1971)

Landslide (1971)

One of the first games that came to explicitly resemble what we now recognize as an election simulator was actually published as a remake of the 1936 game Boondoggling. Released in 1951, the game Boondoggle: The Game of Comic Elections was one of the first examples of a game that came to make use of both political parties and vote cards. Though relatively rudimentary, these vote cards were one of the first examples of a game representing political influence over a state or district. The game board, still adhering to a basic Monopoly-like structure, replaced Monopoly’s property spaces with American states and cities. By landing on one of these cities or states, a given player, representing a particular political party, could spend vote cards to negatively influence another political party’s hold on an area or district. The winner in this game, much like in a game of Snakes and Ladders, was determined by whichever party outlasted the other party in an effort to round the game board. Though a relatively obscure game that did not represent a full simulation of political participation, Boondoggle: The Game of Comic Elections was innovative in that it introduced some of the fundamental mechanics that would come to dominate the genre of election-based board gaming for years to come.

The 1970s would mark the election simulator genre’s heyday, seeing it become a mainstay in the board gaming industry. Games like Mr. President (1967), Landslide (1971), or Campaign For Election (1979) were all relatively influential throughout this period, but Election (1972) stands out as a unique evolution in the history of election-based board gaming. Election, which was built on many of the mechanics found in the 1951 remake of Boondoggling, saw the genre move away from linear player movement and placement. No longer solely about circling a board in an effort to buy property, the player, assuming the role of one of six political parties, competes to win districts and form a majority government by placing and moving their party’s political candidate around a non-linear map of Great Britain. While still a race to amass voters, win districts, and negatively influence opponents, Election’s mechanics were dramatically different from any prior entry in the election game genre.

Though not overtly political, both Election and Boondoggle: The Game of Comic Elections were unique in that they introduced the notion of players (who are usually citizens), raising their political and social status. For the first time, a player could represent an entire political party. All the scheming, sabotage, and strategizing that had come to be expected of political life was now easily accessible to the average citizen/player. While this ability to play politics was undeniably a remarkable mechanical evolution in the history of election-based board gaming, this evolution was, for the most part, devoid of any kind of a counter-political heading.

While somewhat inclusive, these games were not particularly concerned with how to, say for example, integrate marginalized socio-political groups into the political process. What characterized this period in election-based board gaming could then be understood as a kind of dissonance between overt political commentary and fun political play. Rather than a simulation of political realism, these games were a simulation of political enjoyment. This hard line distinction between fun and realism is particularly interesting given this genre’s early history.

Although games like the 1936’s Boondoggling, or 1935’s Inflation, were popular as a consequence of their overt political content, they never really had a chance to take a hold of the board gaming market. The Parker Brothers, in a flurry of copyright lawsuits, were quick to strike down any games that resembled their cash cow, Monopoly. Though speculative, I suggest that the early political board game’s growth was stunted due to the Parker Brothers tight grasp on the board gaming market. Because most overtly political games were based on Monopoly they never had a chance to prove that they were financially viable products. It’s hard to gauge exactly what effect this history has had on the political or election based board game. What’s clear is that the first examples of overtly political election games wouldn’t emerge until well into the twenty first century.

The Election Game Today

The Poll: The Great Indian Election Game (2019)

The Poll: The Great Indian Election Game (2019)

By the mid 2010s, both EU and Non-EU members began to express their concerns about rising populist factions within their own governmental constituencies. What was clear to a variety of anti-racism and anti-corruption government think tanks was that the “regular people” versus the “corrupt elites” was becoming an ever more effective PR strategy for rallying public support in favor of a given political party (as cited in Moffitt, 2016). Though many reasons were cited for this particular shift in the international political landscape, two stood out among a variety of international and national governing bodies. The rise of social media platforms like Facebook, in combination with a growing wealth inequality, was fueling a grouping of increasingly disillusioned factions within a variety of Western democracies (as cited in Moffitt, 2016). Political actors, taking notice of this disillusionment, weaponized their party’s communications apparatus in an effort to secure long-term political influence. This chink in the armor of most NATO and EU member states was, and to a large extent still is, calling into question the degree to which individuals are free to make political and social choices.

In response to this recent transformation in the international political landscape, a growing number of election-based board gaming developers have taken it upon themselves to rethink what it means for a player to participate in a given democracy. Can a given player act freely to effectuate public policy changes? What does it mean when a player’s choice is dictated for them? How can a player purchase political influence? These questions, in large part prompted by our increasingly hostile media landscape, have forced game developers to rethink the role that they play when constructing an election simulation. Though examples of this kind of political rethink can be found as early as 2016, it is only recently that the genre has fully recognized its ability to reshape public opinion. The recognition of this ability to shape public opinion is nowhere more evident than in the context of the 2019 Indian general election.

The Politics of Shasn

Shasn (2019)

Shasn (2019)

Combating growing corruption within India’s two largest parties, a recent swatch of Indian election games have carefully reconsidered their mechanics in an effort to educate the average citizen about what it means to think critically about political life. Though there are several examples to speak of, one of the most notable among these is the recently released Shasn (2019).

Produced by the Mumbai based Memesys Culture Lab, Shasn was largely a byproduct of the studio’s massively successful 2017 documentary, An Insignificant Man. Notable not just for its role in lifting the veil of mystery surrounding Arvind Kejriwal and The Aam Aadmi Party, An Insignificant Man remains an important milestone in the history of Indian crowdfunding. Documenting the large-scale Indian anti-corruption protests of 2011, the film primarily follows the rise and eventual success of The Aam Aadmi Party. Telling the story of volunteers and average citizens, the film carefully promotes a particular kind of active political participation. If citizens can learn to think independently of mass persuasion campaigns, the film suggests, then they will have a greater chance of effectuating policy changes that positively impact both their immediate surroundings and their communities.

This particular brand of political participation was then the primary inspiration for the game Shasn. Competing as one of four political factions, Shasn’s basic mechanics mirror many previous entries in the election game genre. Where the game differs, is in its handling of both player influence and player choice. Here, Shasn is careful to integrate the realities of contemporary voter manipulation. The ability to gerrymander election districts, purchase voters, and break coalition governments are all factors the player has to consider when trying to form their own majority government.

Faced with an almost overwhelming amount of choice, the player is asked to actively participate in the making of a political identity. Rather than simply having the players align themselves with one particular ideology (a common theme in previous entries in the genre), the players are asked to pick and choose the pieces and abilities that best suit their political play styles. Having a player, a citizen, work to compete for political power and influence allows them to play out the kind of dog whistles that are often employed to sway political opinion in favor of one particular party.

The relevance of Shasn is in its rethinking of player choice. By having players generate political identities for themselves, players are, at least in principle, protected from other player’s political identities. If you can see that another party is trying to manipulate your voters (your own opinions) then perhaps you can more easily see how real life political parties are trying to generate opinions for both their own political base and that of their opposition. Though it remains unclear where the genre will go from here, it is clear that the history of the election-based board game is of relevance to game scholars, critics and developers. The genre, based on a history of counter-political commentary, offers valuable lessons for game designers who aspire to challenge dominant socio-political narratives.

Bibliography

An Insignificant Man. Directed by Anand Gandhi, Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla. 2017. Film. Friendly People and Memesys Culture Lab. Running time: 135 min.

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