Do you like Tinder? Do you like video games? Do you like politics? If you answered yes to at least two of these questions you should know that there’s a whole emerging game genre that mixes the playful swiping frenzy of Tinder with political simulation. Everything started with Nerial’s Reigns (2016), and its youngest heir, Molleindustria’s Democratic Socialism Simulator (2020), shows how far these games can (and can’t) go.
Swipe to Success
In the Reigns series you play as the ruler of a kingdom trying to satisfy your counselors’ and subjects’ demands. Different characters, represented by cards, randomly appear before you and you are invited to reply in one of two ways, swiping their card either left or right (the games are designed with smartphones in mind, even though they can be played on a computer). Decisions can open storylines with long-term consequences and influence four different stats (religious, military and people power and economy) that you must manage carefully — let any one hit its maximum or minimum, and the game is over. For example, increasing military power too much will bring a coupe d’état, while driving the kingdom into financial ruin forces the ruler into exile.
Democratic Socialism Simulator by Molleindustria (Paolo Pedercini) works in a similar way: players represent the first US socialist presidency and answer various characters (depicted as anthropomorphic animals) by swiping left or right. Here players must manage the federal budget, increase a stat called “People’s Power” (“a combination of economic equality, workers’ organization and citizens’ engagement”), reduce US greenhouse gas emissions and maintain voters’ approval and control on the Congress, necessary to approve the most radical proposals.
Even without the need to maintain the equilibrium between different powers/stats, Democratic Socialism Simulator, like Reigns before it, depicts the complex compromises of politics: players are constantly bothered by lobbyist pressures, by the internal dynamics of the conservative Democratic Party and by the media trying to represent their presidency as the devil’s work. “Is the Wealth Tax constitutional? Some billionaires don’t think so,” leads The New Pork Times, animal version of The New York Times. “Socialized healthcare is actually slavery,” says Fox News, the animal version of… well… Fox News.
Tinder as a Toy
Reigns was heavily influenced by the dating app Tinder, where you swipe left and right to match with other users. “It evolved in the course of the development to become more narrative focused, with particular work on the humor and the character,” Nerial’s François Alliot tells me. “We discovered that making very important decisions by swiping left or right was in itself funny. It creates a gap between the casual way you handle the game and the impact of your decisions as the King of the Kingdom, sending men to their deaths with the flick of a thumb.” Reigns can even shine a new light on Tinder. “Tinder is a toy“ Alliot told Gamasutra. “It has a very good flow in it, and that’s what I built the game upon. […] You’re trapped in this loop, this infinite way of swiping.”
But in Reigns the swiping mechanics of Tinder becomes a parody of our real world politics, too. “I considered the ‘regal binary choice’ effectively as a very messed up way to make decisions” Alliot explains. “I’m a French gamedev based in London, and in 2016, when we were making Reigns, we were in the middle of the Brexit vote, a bit the culmination of a simplistic (and let’s say it, very dumb) binary choice. Leave the EU or stay in it, a question that hides behind its simplicity a vast and almost impossibly intricate chain of consequences that goes way beyond the scope of the question. In Reigns we turned that into humor, with consequences that are always slightly unexpected. Things are never as simple as yes/no or black and white answer.“
That’s something commonly lost in translation: other games take the Tinder-like mechanics of Reigns but do not embrace the absurdity of trying to rule a whole country through binary choices, so this mechanic becomes just a possible ludic and effective synthesis of our political decision-making processes. Conversely, Democratic Socialism Simulator uses binary choices, but they’re often part of larger sequences. “For example, a series of choices makes it possible to approve a Medicare-for-all plan (nationalizing health insurance à la Sanders), a public option (offering a public insurance that competes with the private options), or to strengthen the so-called Obamacare (subsidies aiming to lower costs),” Pedercini tells me. “Once a plan is approved it is possible to add more components to it, like dental or psychiatric insurance. Some events parody binary choices, like deciding whether to adopt a dog or a cat, and have political effects that are quite arbitrary.”
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Who’s Swipin’ Who
Reigns received a sequel, Reigns: Her Majesty, written by Leigh Alexander, and an official crossover with the Game of Thrones TV Series, and a board game called Reigns: The Council is on the way. It spawned a bunch of clones too, like Thrones: Reigns of Humans, Final Frontier, Artificial Superintelligence, Nirvana, and the blatant rip-off Lapse series (and of course there are other games that use similar swiping mechanics, like the rogue-like and card-based Meteorfall).
But Molleindustria’s Democratic Socialism Simulator may be the first game that significantly expands Reigns’ mechanics while keeping at least in part their political significance. It’s not a “Democratic Socialist Reigns” but a totally new experience with its own priorities. For example, the game simulates elections and electors by summarizing voters into fifteen different groups: each voters’ group has two different interests, like “security, military strength, fighting crime and terrorism” and “tradition, christianity, rural life,” and each group either increases or decreases its approval toward the government according to these two interests and players’ decisions. Reducing CO2 emissions will please voters’ groups who are interested in “environmentalism, conservation, sustainability” but they could antagonize voters’ groups interested in “economic growth, free market, entrepreneurship“ if polluting industries are negatively affected. And when election time comes, voters will determine whether or not the players’ president will be re-elected and how many seats at the Congress they will win or lose.
“[Voters’] priorities are chosen on the basis of several surveys but they are distributed according to the level of difficulty I wanted to reach,” says Pedercini. “In particular I wanted to give a different perspective of the polarization Republicans-Democrats that dominates American politics. Voters are not only right-wing, moderate, or left-wing; they can hold values that contrast with this mono-dimensional vision. A voter can be an environmentalist but also against immigration.”
Swipe Left to Cure Cancer, Right to End Hunger
Reigns’ format doesn’t always suit Democratic Socialism Simulator, though. In Nerial’s game, the player character wants to maintain their powers and their privilege, but random events demand their attention and they have to survive the political consequences of their actions. Reigns is a story of human beings trying to retain control of their lives in the endless loop of Tinder, and aristocracy is naturally conservative. On the contrary, democratic socialist presidents are not there to keep things as they are, so you’d expect them to be less passive than Reigns’s rulers.
During its tutorial, Democratic Socialism Simulator explicitly tells you that it’s not a “status quo simulator.” It often works, because Democratic Socialism Simulator encourages you to push for change rather than just manage a political balance. “I do like the tone and the structure with elections as a short term objective,” Alliot tells me. “There’s a virtue in Paolo’s take on the binary choice simulator. In a way, he wants to demonstrate there’s a possible path to a brighter future. Action is always preferable to inaction and passivity in the name of ‘things are more complicated than they seem’.”
But Reigns’s mechanics are intrinsically reactive, and Democratic Socialism Simulator sometimes runs up against them: you are broke, you need to enact important reforms that would allow you to raise your budget but they just don’t show up, so you have to delay the expensive measures that characters randomly suggest instead. Why can’t you just propose to legalize cannabis? Why can’t you just cut the military budget?
Despite its limitations, Democratic Socialism Simulator proves the strengths of resource management games controlled with simple gestures and focused on choices and on their narrative consequences rather than on resource management per se. “It’s still about managing resources in the end, but the gameplay is more flexible than a [traditional] management sim,” claims Pedercini. “For example, if I want to talk about a justice reform, I don’t have to create a whole subsystem representing the jail system that is connected to crime and socio-demographic issues; all I need is a series of choices influencing the same handful of variables.” In other words, just swipe right.