Democratic Socialism Simulator – opening political discussion through a video game

Preset #5

The story behind

Imagine a socialist running for the United States president, who praised Fidel Castro’s literacy program and spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union. You don’t have to get yourself a solid drink, just read some February 2020 newspapers.

So, here we are! 

The coming U.S. presidential elections excite the commentators both in the country and abroad. The Democratic Party still hasn’t decided who will be their candidate to challenge Donald Trump. The polls are indecisive with a previously unlikely person coming on top.

SurveyUSA, one of the United States’ top polling companies, predicts that Joe Biden is only the third among the democratic candidates most likely to defeat the incumbent president. The first is the media magnate, Michael Bloomberg – a democratic response to many of the characteristics Trump supporters look for in a leader. But following him very closely is someone from the complete opposite of the political spectrum. 

Bernie Sanders, a long-time left-wing politician within the democrats, a person sometimes called “communist” by his opponents. A term coming especially easily as he calls himself “a socialist” while his policies in spe “democratic socialism”. That unusual race sparked many discussions in which the term itself was at least equally controversial as was the candidate. “Democratic socialism” was not something well-received as a political catchword. 

In February 2020 the Nobel award laureate in Economy Sciences, Paul Krugman, titled his op-ed in The New York Times strongly: “Bernie Sanders Isn’t a Socialist”. Krugman claimed that Sander’s T.V. persona and the use of the term “socialism” was doing him more evil than good.

But then, about the same time Krugman’s op-ed was out, out was another example of an approach to the discussion.

The Democratic Socialism Simulator.

The game about “socialism” – what, how and why?

What: make a political leaflet in the form of a video game.

Democratic Socialism Simulator (D.D.S.) is a simple video game from “Molleindustria” – a video game activists’ cooperative started by Paolo Pedercini, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Even though Bernie Sanders was never endorsed as a democratic nominee, this case study finds how D.D.S. tackles politics and opens up political discussion in a very innovative way. Pedercini called the game “an interactive flyer of some sort”, a term that is especially interesting as this interactive medium opens up possibilities that regular political advertisements or calls never would. 

The game puts the player in the shoes of the newly elected president of the United States having to decide about new politics to introduce. 

The rules are pretty simple: you swipe right or left to accept or reject the proposition. Each proposition affects some of the three crucial factors in the game: budget (the more, the better), power of people (the more, the better), and CO2 emissions (the less, the better. Apart from that, the player’s actions influence some of the voters’ sympathy – that one is needed every election as the stronger is the president’s support in Congress, the more policies considered controversial by the political establishment he can introduce.

In the words of the creator himself:

D.S.S. 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 many topics with very little audiovisual content. Aside from being particularly satisfying on touch screens, the swiping mechanic is a clever way to present many variables and effects to the player. Dragging a proposal left and right visualizes its most immediate effects without cluttering the interface.” (from the blog of www.molleindustria.org)

In terms of the idea behind and its mechanics, Democratic Socialism Simulator grows on another statement from its designer: 
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.” (from the blog of www.molleindustria.org)

It tosses away the popular but problematic narrative that elections are decided only within the narrow group of the moderate centre voters, who are changing their opinions every few years (or not) giving victory to particular candidates. The narrative is particularly popular in the two-party states like the U.S. Some surveys and research shows that this simplification is untrue and Democratic Socialist Simulator proposes a different perception. 

For example, the voters are divided into groups but aren’t characterized just by one preference. Rural Christians will not like loosening anti-migrant or anti-Muslim regulations and will like actions that help rural communities. But each “rural-Christian” voter also has another characteristic: it could be the will of unionization or belief in the power of the free market. The player definitely will antagonize some voters’ groups during the game. Still, most of the time, it is possible to avoid that by appealing to those different positions at different times. 

The whole “How” the game is made multiplies the power of that kind of narrative.

How: by creating a fun and non-antagonizing, and non-preaching game environment that has a scent of realism

It’s hard to argue what the game does. As called by one of the reviewers on Steam (an online platform where games are sold): “Propaganda I happen to agree with but propaganda.” But, hey, there may be some foreshadowing here, as the game is called Democratic Socialism Simulator after all.

Fortunately, it’s much more. 

D.D.S. is genuinely funny, with a soft kind of humour that constantly winks to the player – even when talking about homelessness or the global financial crisis. All the characters are animals: a cow is an advisor for agriculture, a beaver for working unions, the treasurer is a squirrel, education belongs to an owl, and the financial elite lobbyist is a shark, to mention a few. All of them are portrayed in a cute, droll fashion. 

The popular argument against the game activism is that the medium itself is not serious enough to discuss serious issues. Here we land in the game where 2008 is described as “A great year for indie music… and global financial crisis”. But, arguably, in a society more often than not described with the adjective “divided” it may be the best approach. D.D.S. is funny, no matter where on the political spectrum you put yourself – it laughs both from leftists as it does from rightists (although, more from the latter ones, of course,) and provides an experience that doesn’t feel tense. Maybe we need more of talking about politics as it isn’t a matter of life and death (even if we know it is). Plus: who could refuse to fund environmental-friendly initiatives when it is a sweet polar bear asking?

The game doesn’t over-preach. It does lead the way towards the goal of democratic socialism, and it’s hard to win at it, without introducing massive changes like public healthcare, free education, and Green-New-Deal-like policies. But if the player’s goal is not the revolution but getting re-elected… Then it turns out that D.D.S. does a pretty good job of showing that an administration based on militarization, fear, and anti-migrant policies that refuse to tackle society’s problems and follows the route of shady political practices (like gerrymandering) has it pretty easy in keeping the voters happy and the budget on a surplus.


It also makes more pro-socialist players act towards the policies they wouldn’t necessarily support if the situation wouldn’t make them so.

For this case study, I observed and talked to several people, from regular players to almost non-players, entering the world of Democratic Socialism Simulator. If players went just to “beat the game”, they did so, eventually – as by the third or fourth attempt they have memorized which controversial actions bring profit in the long run and where lies the limit (i.e. in terms of budget deficit) of how far they can risk. It was mostly non-players and those who soaked into the imaginative world of animal-populated America (or just played it for the first time) who had the most exciting and challenging experience.

D.D.S. puts plenty of obstacles in front of the players who want to change the United States of America into a country of democratic socialism. The right-wing media (but the liberal ones too!) narrative will distort some social policies, affecting voters. The lobbyists will fight against anyone who will target their privileges, including mass layoffs. Some traditionally pro-socialist groups may become angry at the player if he favours another one too much. Not to mention that irresponsible governing – like the one causing the high budget deficit – may even provoke the U.S. Army to topple its government.

Whatever paradise D.D.S. is trying to sell, it doesn’t pretend it is easy to build. And this realism, even if limited and arguable at times, is one of the brightest “how” points in D.D.S. A player who has to decide to prolong the Muslim-ban, because he may not win the upcoming elections otherwise, gets the weight behind decisions. Those kinds of dilemmas make the game more of an experience and less of a leaflet for less pro-socialist players.

It also makes more pro-socialist players act towards the policies they wouldn’t necessarily support if the situation wouldn’t make them so.

For this case study, I observed and talked to several people, from regular players to almost non-players, entering the world of Democratic Socialism Simulator. If players went just to “beat the game”, they did so, eventually – as by the third or fourth attempt they have memorized which controversial actions bring profit in the long run and where lies the limit (i.e. in terms of budget deficit) of how far they can risk. It was mostly non-players and those who soaked into the imaginative world of animal-populated America (or just played it for the first time) who had the most exciting and challenging experience.

D.D.S. puts plenty of obstacles in front of the players who want to change the United States of America into a country of democratic socialism. The right-wing media (but the liberal ones too!) narrative will distort some social policies, affecting voters. The lobbyists will fight against anyone who will target their privileges, including mass layoffs. Some traditionally pro-socialist groups may become angry at the player if he favours another one too much. Not to mention that irresponsible governing – like the one causing the high budget deficit – may even provoke the U.S. Army to topple its government.

Whatever paradise D.D.S. is trying to sell, it doesn’t pretend it is easy to build. And this realism, even if limited and arguable at times, is one of the brightest “how” points in D.D.S. A player who has to decide to prolong the Muslim-ban, because he may not win the upcoming elections otherwise, gets the weight behind decisions. Those kinds of dilemmas make the game more of an experience and less of a leaflet for less pro-socialist players.

And it makes them want to try again. Hard as it may be, it is possible. And that seems to be the big goal of the Democratic Socialism Simulator.


Why: to “normalize” political beliefs otherwise perceived as radical and irrational and open the audience for the political discussion of “how” so-called socialism can be achieved.

Despite it being a game with a clear political agenda, the Democratic Socialism Simulator does an outstanding job of normalizing political propositions otherwise often rejected because it is too radical or impossible. It’s a fantastic and very comprehensive tool of informing what Bernie Sander’s (or American socialists’) proposed policies are – in a way unattainable by any other medium within roughly half an hour. It does approach how those propositions could become real, predicts challenges, and offers it in the form of light-hearted, sometimes even funny entertainment.

That seems to be working as some of its positive reviews start with: “I’m not a socialist but…”.

Why taking care of a political flyer – lessons for the future

Democratic Socialism Simulator may be a flyer for Bernie Sanders and as such even considered a failed one. Above all, though, it’s a successful use of an interactive medium to bring the audience to a new kind of discussion. The lack of the traditional narrative doesn’t make it a single bit less storytelling than a press article would. 

Whatever the issue would be – and democratic socialism is not always what we may be rooting for – the lessons taken from Democratic Socialism Simulator are ones to be learned. 

  • The real power of “experience” within the interactive medium often lies not in a chance to participate but to shape the reality (even if just a virtual one). 
  • Trust the audience. There is value in informing about the goals but leaving the ways of its achieving to the audience. They may learn more from the “failed” adventure than they would from the successful one.
  • “Fun” and “relax” aren’t words to be afraid of when tackling serious issues. If used intelligently, they may open up for discussions with those who avoid confrontational topics. Never underestimate the power of pop-culture.
  • Whatever is that you preach (or what you think is right), you can literally make an engaging experience out of a political program.