News & Politics

A Videogame About Politics Is in the Works—and It Doesn’t Look Terrible?

Former HuffPost reporter Eliot Nelson hopes his game could actually make US politics better.

If the problem with US politics is that people treat it like a game, could the answer be…turning US politics into an actual game? That’s the theory behind Political Arena, a strategy video game under development by former HuffPost reporter Eliot Nelson, which he hopes will “take that impulse to treat it like a game to try and beat the other side, and actually turn into something constructive.” He pauses. “We hope.”

Political Arena will onboard players by allowing them to choose a character—you could be a conservative from San Francisco or a liberal from Mississippi, Nelson says, but the laws of politics will still govern your gameplay, even as they change with circumstances. Your careful plans can be scrambled by economic turmoil or scandals. You can even leak to the press.

Production has already started, and the plan now is to launch the game on Steam with early access by next fall, and the full release by the following autumn. (It will be single player at first, but he hopes to introduce multiplayer capability eventually.) Nelson announced the game with a Kickstarter with a $100,000 goal on Wednesday and has already raised almost $23,000.

Nelson’s Kickstarter video includes attack ads against the game, which tells you a lot about him and his sense of humor. His bona fides include seven years as the writer of HuffPost Hill, a newsletter that was actually funny about politics as it let you know what happened each day, and he also wrote the 2016 book The Beltway Bible. Video games, he says, are the “last great medium that hasn’t seriously tackled politics”—most strategy games bestow godlike powers on their players, while Political Arena players quickly learn they’re cogs in a much larger machine. 

So, no offense, but how does a journalist pull off something this complex? “There are probably more bits of data that go into a expertly crafted 3D shooter game than into a 2D senator,” he says. Besides, he has plenty of help from a team that includes veterans of Lucasfilm, the Walking Dead game series, and actual political campaigns.

His hope is that, by playing the game, people can become better citizens. He likens it to sports games: Despite never watching soccer, Nelson says, he learned a lot about the sport in college by playing EA Sports’s FIFA series, which includes clinics on free kicks and other technical points of the game. “I just remembered actually getting it in a way I’d never gotten before,” he says. 

Unlike sports games, though, Political Arena won’t present you with a ready-made Don Beyer or Elise Stefanik. The game will auto-generate politicians that reflect the political system we have, Nelson says, and you can customize them however you like (and upload them to Steam so others can use them). Besides, trying to re-create a current politico “almost turns it into a weird kind of propaganda,” he says. “Not only would Ted Cruz 2K20 test horribly as a name, it just wouldn’t really work with what we’re trying to do.” 

Which is to say, Nelson genuinely hopes his game will help people become better citizens by placing them in the complex ecosystem of US politics. But even if Political Arena somehow creates a society of thoughtful experts in policy, he says, “politics is always going to attract its share of sociopath and awful people. So we have a subject that will never not provide material.” 

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.