Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole on Trump, politics, and treating kids like idiots
Anyone can become a game developer these days. Take former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. As you’ll recall, she made up the notorious 5-4 majority who stopped the Florida recount and so gave the presidency to George W Bush in 2000. So who better to teach the children of America how their electoral system really works? In 2009 O’Connor founded a nonprofit education company called iCivics, which has produced an educational game called Win The White
House, newly updated for the 2016 campaign season. So how accurate a guide is it to the facts of American democracy?
Alas, reality has already overtaken the cartoonishly sober simulation. You may not be surprised to learn that I immediately named my candidate ‘Donald Trump’ and chose as the slogan for my touring bus ‘Victory is certain!’ – the best, I felt, out of the available alternatives, with its faint hint of National Socialism. But the game wouldn’t actually let me be Trump. Things began to go wrong from the very start, when I was designing my policy platform in the primaries. I chose ‘Fiscal Responsibility’ as one of my key issues, and was given three skeleton speeches to support it. One can easily imagine Donald Trump saying “We can grow our military strength by adding way more robots. Robots are the future,” but this is the obvious wrong answer because it is completely irrelevant to the topic. Fair enough. But you also get marked wrong for saying: “Bailing out a sinking business is a lot of work. So many buckets!” This is a perfectly Trumpish thing to say, with its irreverent imagery, and its wondering use of ‘so’ to make everything sound magnificently bad, or (in the case of his own promises) magnificently good. (“You’re going to be so happy,” he constantly tells his supporters.)
When I am trying to explain my support for ‘Secure Borders’, meanwhile, I am not even offered an option as creative as Trump’s celebrated plan to build an enormous wall between the US and Mexico, one with a “big, beautiful door” in it. Likewise, when speaking of the threat of international terrorism, it is considered incorrect by the fine minds of the iCivics game to say “We should blow up as much as possible to send a message that we aren’t playing around.” And yet in November 2015, when asked what he would do about Isis, Donald Trump literally said: “I would bomb the shit out of ’em. I would just bomb those suckers. That’s right. I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch. There would be nothing left.” People loved it.
Tragically, then, Win The White House simply fails as a model of how American politics is actually working this election cycle, and I have enough faith in American children to think they’ll see through it too. But the problem goes deeper. This game is actually anti-democracy. It teaches players to pander to voter prejudices rather than try to explain things. Take, for example, business regulation. A Republican candidate in this game is marked wrong for saying “Companies need lots of rules and regulations if they want to succeed,” even though that is uncontroversially true. ( The most ardent champions of free markets still want trade and contract rules to be strictly enforced.) Instead the poor child is guided towards choosing the correct tawdry metaphor by arguing: “Companies should be allowed to grow and blossom, and the government shouldn’t stop them.” Grow and blossom, like little pixel flowers in a walking simulator.
Now, there is nothing wrong with trying to teach children politics, and games might even be one way to do it. With a brilliant teacher overseeing things and leading discussions, Win The White House might be only slightly worse than having the class read The Onion. But young people are likely to learn harsher and more realistic lessons about the world – and even better skills of “critical thinking,” as Sandra Day O’Connor hopes – from games that aren’t explicitly designed for schoolroom use at all. Like the
MGS fan from South America who posted to a messageboard about how he was electrified by the fact that Peace Walker “was all about helping to liberate banana republics”. Or like anyone who plays Papers, Please. Even The
Division dramatises the fragility of civilisation in some thoughtful ways. It’s not merely a matter of sweetening the bitter pill of philosophy with some faceshooting; it’s a matter of not treating the young like idiots. One day, after all, they will be voters too.
Young people are likely to learn more realistic lessons from games not designed for schoolroom use at all