I’d never heard of the Howard Dean video game before reading this article. I, like the designers of the game, pondered at first how to make a political video game that wouldn’t be seen as trivial but wouldn’t be seen as a tacky, desperate plea to voters, either. Though his campaign was unsuccessful, Dean demonstrated for future political candidates how technology could be used to advantage a campaign. Even technology normally existing outside the political realm, like video games, has a role to play.
The Dean video game points to, what in my estimation, is a broader infiltration of politics into institutions used for entertainment or recreation — institutions that used be free from politics. I tend to view politics — at least the images politicians hope to project — as traditional, professional and stately. It seems a little odd that politicians and their campaigns would venture into the realm of video games, cell phone applications and so on. But it’s happened.
And while I tend to associate video games and cell phone applications as frivolous or entertainment-based, they also have qualities that make them powerful political tools capable of swinging an election one way or another. The more I think of it, that political campaigns employ this new technology isn’t odd at all. There was a time when newspapers were news, and then came a time when they were first used by political campaigns to convey messages. There was a time when TV was new, and then came a time when political campaigns recognized the opening TV presented for advertising and public appearances that could advance the interests of a candidate. It makes sense video games would follow a similar path.
A couple characteristics of the Dean video game stick out in my mind. First, the game focused not on partisan politics but on the strength and influence of grassroots efforts. On the other side of the spectrum, I imagine an action game in which Dean attempts to take over the White House, sparing the country from the policies of the Bush administration. I think the Dean campaign was wise in its design of the game and its premise.
Second, it’s interesting the Dean campaign picked a promise rooted in civic duty and grassroots efforts. The game was able to show the ability of grassroots efforts to multiply; if you reach out to two people, they might reach out to two people and so on. The game also was entrenched in real time, counting down to the Iowa Caucus. This alerted players as to the date of the caucus, an aspect of the game that worked to eliminate the ignorance and indifference that some cite as reasons for low turnout. In this way, the game served a public good.