originally published February 14, 2012
What makes a video game fun? I’m currently in a video game narrative class, and this question has come up a lot. Surprisingly, the answer is not always “boobies”. But the theoretical hinge seems to creak between blowing stuff up in a fantastical setting or absolute immersion into real life.
If you’ve played The Sims, you know about this second option. The moment you realize that you have paid money to participate in a video game in which directing someone to pee is a crucial aspect of the gameplay, it’s a zen experience. All of those hours spent eating dots and running away from ghosts, or jumping on giant mushrooms to save some princess who isn’t even from Alderaan seem suddenly purposeful. Your little dude isn’t saving the world, he’s sitting on a toilet underneath some blurry pixels while his best friend is in the next room, exchanging clever witticisms such as “Glook hara, morayle gleemon!” with your in-game wife. Talk about absolute immersion.
But what if you aspire to greater things? Politics, even? A number of games have been designed to fill that urge to lead with gooey policy and sticky diplomacy. These are not war simulators, or civilization-building simulators. These games simulate only one thing: politics.
The first political simulator that I ever played – and indeed the only one I ever played – was actually the first one ever made for commercial consumption. It was a game called President Elect, and I played it on an Apple IIe. It was riveting stuff. You run a presidential campaign, sometime between 1960 and 1984, starting on Labor Day and continuing to Election Day. You can choose to simulate actual candidates from that election, or make up your own, hoping Squeeb Fikkelpitz might accomplish what Wallace couldn’t, and usurp Nixon in the 1972 campaign.
The game taught me a lot about how presidential politics work. In the game you don’t ever state your platform or any policies; they aren’t important. Instead, you distribute PAPs (Political Action Points) around various states, and try to visit as many states as you can. You get a boost in the state you were born in, and your Vice-President (who is never named, and really, why bother?) also gives you a boost from his state. The PAPs work like campaign funds, so in essence you are trying to win electoral votes by throwing money into your campaign where it’s strategically significant. Just like real politics.
There were real-life candidates you could choose from as well, like Jack Kemp, Gary Hart, Richard Gephardt and Bill Clinton. Wow, a Clinton-Hart ticket. That would have done really well with the Single Horny Women demographic.
The game was published by SSI, or Strategic Simulations Inc, a now-defunct game-maker that was known for its military simulations that were so realistic, they bordered on the tedious. People who liked it when a game of Risk extended beyond eight hours, these were the same people who ate up every SSI simulation in the 1990s.
SSI’s first game was 1980’s Computer Quarterback, in which you apparently control a mammoth QB whose receivers leap off your giant shoulders while the offensive and defensive lines fight their midget battles at your feet. I have no doubt it was a lot of fun.
From there they ventured into WWII simulations, which was really the guts of their production over the next seven years, until they got the license to create Dungeons and Dragons games. I’m more interested in SSI’s non-war simulations.
Cartel$ and Cutthroat$, for example. Great title. This one came in a huge box, and featured a notebook full of Business Planning Sheets, so you could sketch out in excruciating detail your production costs and forecasted earnings over the next four quarters, before you even played the actual computer game! If the pre-game preparation was this fun, I’d bet the actual gameplay was a riot. I hope there are spreadsheets!
Computer Baseball was SSI’s next foray into sports. Of course, the running and hitting and crowd-cheering parts of baseball are not part of this game. Instead you set up lineups, change pitchers, and decide when a guy should bunt. It’s all the fun of actual baseball without any of the fun of actual baseball!
Epidemic!, which cashed in on the notion that games are immediately more exciting with dynamic punctuation, put you in charge of a planet on the brink of extinction because of some kind of Space Herpes. You could be a wuss and use quarantine or interferon methods, or just throw your balls to the wind, Steven Segal-style and drop some tactical nukes.
Those who shunned video gamery in the 1980s often turned to pinball for some visceral, mechanical interaction, ideally with an overdose of ringing bells and slamming flippers. The Slamming Flippers, by the way, would be a great name for an alt-surf-rock band. Anyway, most gamers (or arcade-dwellers as we were known then) enjoyed pinball too, which is why SSI released Queen of Hearts, a pinball simulator, in 1983. It’s almost impossible to find any actual information about this game (at least not by using my inscrutable research method of using Google and looking only at the first page of results), but here’s a screenshot:
Roadwar 2000 had absolutely nothing to do with the Mad Max / Road Warrior movies, except that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic United States in which people stand on cars and shoot each other.
By 1987 SSI had the Dungeons & Dragons contract inked, so they devoted most of their resources toward cashing in on that market. In 1991 they put together something called Medieval Lords, which was a SimCity-type middle-ages simulator. In this game, you provide food, entertainment and amenities to your townfolk so that you tax them profusely and probably claim ownership to their women.
I found a site that offers President Elect for download on today’s computers. While I’m tempted to check out whether my 37 years of wisdom and CNN could help Geraldine Ferraro leap ahead of Mondale to beat out Reagan in 1984, I simply don’t have the time to sit at my desk and yell at Iowa for going red.
I wish I was young again.