Saturday, June 30, 2007

Geography is Destiny

Although it has been out for a while, I've finally had a few hours to devote to playing The ReDistricting Game from USC's Annenberg Center. The main creator of this political game, Chris Swain, also produced the game "Immune Attack!," which was panned in this year's Foleys. Like Operation: Pedopriest, which was reviewed here a few days ago, it is a serious game in which the player must take what seems to be an opportunistic and morally reprehensible position that is assumed to be contrary to the primary message of the game-makers.

In this game the player assumes a party loyalty and plays a series of games in which he or she moves the borders of legislative districts in order to balance populations, gerrymander districts for obvious party advantage, more subtly gerrymander districts to protect incumbents of both parties and hence the status quo, and create a district to ensure minority representation of a large ethnic population of African-Americans.

Set in the fictitious state of Jefferson, ReDistricting is unfortunately also stocked with cartoonish fictitious political stereotypes and thus the game looses something of its verisimilitude from its basic design. From an ergonomic user perspective, I also found myself with mouse button fatigue, because the borders were difficult to drag and drop with the interface. Although the game was certainly thought-provoking and full of informative links, it was fatiguing to play physically, and the navigation often led me back to large amounts of didactic text rather than allowed me to intuit these principles of Realpolitik by being more immersed in game play.

Although it was a smart game, I also thought it was a lost opportunity to illustrate the importance of "big data" in political elections. When I saw the opening sequence about the godlike perspective of a mapmaker, I was hoping that the game might have some of the pleasure in information aesthetics that something like Google Earth gives to users who can zoom in and see the data visualized in several ways. Alas, we only have a few tabs to flip through for different indexes and can't focus in on individual blocks and houses, as Republican strategists do, for example, to see if children attend public, private, or home schools or to scrutinize the products that families buy, based on either the inventories of what is stocked on the shelves in the local market or more easily from private consumer data aggregated by corporate marketers.

Furthermore, usually there weren't enough independents represented in the game to model the current climate of complex political soothsaying. Finally, as this month's race in Long Beach shows, questions about ethnic representation can be a lot more complicated, when, as a recent editorial in The Los Angeles Times says, "Black isn't enough."

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