ORSON SCOTT CARD
Do You Want to Change the World? Two Games Let You Try.
History is the toughest game to create on the computer. By comparison, football is pretty easy to get right. Eleven guys per team, four downs to get ten yards.
But history-the rules keep changing. The problem with history is it only happens once. We can never go back and run it over again to see what would happen with a few changes. What if Nixon had won in 1960, or Humphrey in 1968? What if Jerry Brown had been the Democratic nominee in 1976, or Gary Hart in 1984?
Nor can we ever know how close to World War III we really were in 1952 or 1962. Did Truman save us from a hideous war with China, or needlessly surrender half of Korea to a totalitarian state? Did our safety really depend on Kennedy staring down the Russians over Cuban missiles in 1962?
Impossible to know. And yet two recent computer games, President Elect (Strategic Simulations; 1988 edition) and Balance of Power (Mindscape), dare to take on exactly those questions.
President Elect lets you replay every election since 1960. You may choose from all the candidates in each of those elections. Playing against the computer or a human opponent, you can try to outwit history.
See if you can manage Humphrey's campaign in 1968 better than he did. Or try a fantasy election: Robert Kennedy against Richard Nixon in 1968, for instance, or something really strange, like John Glenn against Ronald Reagan in 1972, with Jesse Jackson running a third-party campaign.
The toughest test of all? Out-guess the future. The 1988 edition of President Elect offers all of this year's candidates-along with a few who played coy too long or backed out early. By evaluating candidates' personal strengths and weaknesses, and their positions on various issues, the gamewrights let you hold your own test elections.
How would Gore do against Bush, if the economy is soft and public morale is down? What about Gephardt against Dole? Cuomo against Kirkpatrick? You can play them all.
And, in one sense, the simulation works. I found myself following the game's poll results with the same kind of interest I feel about the real thing. Election day, with the returns trickling in, was almost as tense as the real thing.
But what really impressed me about President Elect was its faithfulness to the way presidential politics really seem to work. The strongest forces are completely out of the players' control.
Is the national morale high or low? Is the economy booming or collapsing? Candidates ultimately can't overcome such powerful forces.
But that's the way it works in the real world. The game is only a contest of skill and judgment when you set it up to be pretty even-a middling economy, no incumbent, two moderates.
I found few false notes in President Elect-and their guesses about 1988 have held up pretty well so far.
I only wish they had spent as much effort on the design of the game. The worst annoyances? The game won't let you change your mind about anything once a choice is made; the map that shows how different states are leaning isn't on the screen when you have to make campaign decisions.
Compare President Elect with a beautifully designed game like Balance of Power, though, and you begin to realize that while bad design can be annoying, bad history makes a game unplayable.
Balance of Power is a Risk-like game about the contest between the U.S. and the Soviet Union for world domination. You give aid here, send a few troops there-always with the possibility of nuclear war looming over you like a shadow.
Unfortunately, you very quickly realize that the shadow is really Chris Crawford, leaning over your shoulder and bullying you into playing the game his way. He has a sweet delusion that as long as the United States is very nice and doesn't do anything to offend them, the Russians will all go home. And if you don't play that way, why, he'll stop the game with a nasty remark about how the world was just destroyed by nuclear war.
The trouble is, since we've never had a nuclear war, there's no way Crawford can possibly know what would cause one. And there are a lot of experts who claim that the Soviets seem to behave a lot nicer when we stand up to them than when we disarm.
Maybe Crawford is right. But then, maybe he isn't. And in the meantime, he's so sure he's right that Balance of Power isn't a game, it's propaganda. Imagine what President Elect would be like if Republicans always won, and you'll know why Balance of Power fails.
Too bad, because Crawford is the best designer of simulation games I've seen. But when it comes to history, you just can't design a good game by grinding an ax.