BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's say that you are, like many in our audience, a political junkie. You're watching the debate, and you hear the president say for the 11th time that running the White House is hard work, and you think -- he shouldn't do that. Then you hear John Kerry invoke the phrase global test, and you say -- that was a gift to the GOP. Come on, you think, with a degree of self-confidence entirely unjustified by your level of experience, I could do better than that. Well, with the development of new Sims-like run-your-own-campaign video games, you get the chance to try. Clive Thompson has played them and lived to tell the tale in Slate. Clive, welcome back to OTM.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Thanks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, I played the easiest of the games. This is the one you can play for free on line. It's called Elections, and you select five topics to campaign on, and then you spin for your turn, [WHEEL SPINS] and you hop down a game board [HOPPING DOWN GAME BOARD SOUNDS] You describe it in your article as a goofy kind of Candyland. Now, I won by a landslide. [HAIL TO THE CHIEF PLAYS] It was just too easy.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, I found that game really easy. One of the ones that I've found almost too hard was the one called President Forever, because in that case, you've got this map. It takes 22 different issues from taxes to Social Security to the war, and it shows you exactly how you're rated in all those 22 issues in every single state, which is great. But what you discover is that it's really hard to manage that much information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you totally blew it, right? [LAUGHS]
CLIVE THOMPSON: Oh, I completely blew it. Yeah. Yeah, I played as Kerry, and I lost every single state except for Maine and Washington. [LAUGHTER] It really made me re-appreciate how hard it is to be a campaign manager -- someone who really just has this memory for what every county is trending.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, one of the games that you mentioned allows you to actually play earlier campaigns -- Kennedy versus Nixon, or Bush I versus Clinton -- and it also allows you some fantasy tickets.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, sure. If you wanted to, you could actually create your own candidate, you could pair people up in really weird ways. You could take like Schwarzenegger and have him campaign with Hillary Clinton, [LAUGHTER] just to see what, what would happen in that case. There are people who will throw themselves really, really extreme challenges, like set themselves up with a sitting president, and they'll make the economy in fantastic shape, and there'll be almost no, you know, international unrest, and trying to unseat a president in that situation is really, really hard, as you find out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now would you consider yourself more of a gamer or more of a political wonk or the perfect combination of the two for which these games were designed.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Oh, I think I'm probably more of a gamer. I got a little swept up in sort of being fascinated by -- Ooo - I could - you know, I changed all these different things, and you know, look at the little graphics of planes going across.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On the other hand, though, it was the political wonk inside of you, Clive, that seemed to feel that there was a missing piece in the game, and that was the power of language.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, that's right. I mean the one thing about these games that seems a little unrealistic is that you can sort of get into these fake mock TV debates and interviews with people like Bill O'Reilly -- he'll ask you a question, and you have a couple of, you know, answers you can choose from, like a choose your own adventure. That isn't very realistic because this campaign is turning on tiny phrasings on TV --a single word -- so I think that that was kind of unrealistic, although, as a friend of mine pointed out when I complained about this, he said what is unrealistic about someone on the campaign stump only having four different phrases [LAUGHTER] they can say?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the media do seem to play an enormous part in many of these games. Newspaper endorsements, polls, advertising, smear tactics.
CLIVE THOMPSON: On the game President Forever, a headline would flash up -- I was playing as Kerry -- it said Bush smears you on your Vietnam record --and you would have this little button next to it called Spin -- you had a certain amount of political energy you use every round -- you can use that flying somewhere or campaigning, but you can use it spinning -- so if a really bad headline came out, I would just be frantically clicking the Spin button trying to, like you know, blunt the damage. And another, I think, sort of funny thing was the use of smear merchants and, and political machine. I got completely greased the first few times I tried it. I realized that what you need to do is hire a bunch of smear merchants and send them into certain battleground states, [LAUGHTER] and I did a lot better after that. There's some kind of fun political satire too, because there's this Michael Moore-like propagandist director, who if he shows up in the state, can really help you, and there's a media darling who I guess is someone like, you know, Ben Affleck, [LAUGHTER] and then there's a kook -- someone who, like, is really into your cause, but because he's so insane, you're not sure whether he's going to help or hurt you. So-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh, so he's a Larouche-ite.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, basically. [LAUGHTER] When he shows up in Ohio, you know, you just -it's a flip of the coin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, Clive, the first time we talked was a couple of years ago, and you had written a story about the evolution of video games that actually functioned as sort of political messages -- an interactive commercial, so to speak. Are any of these like that? Are they trying to send a political message? Or is the message simply one of cynicism about the political process?
CLIVE THOMPSON: I don't think these games were made to tell a particular political agenda. They seem pretty neutral that way. But they do have a political message. You really get a visceral, almost sensual appreciation of why these battleground states are, you know, so captivating the imaginations of the candidates; why the rest of the country is getting ignored. It actually made someone like me come out thinking, wow, you know, we -- maybe we should reform the Electoral College, you know, which people are talking about, because it, it so changes the way you play the game. So, in that sense, I think there may be a message that comes out of it of understanding how the political system works better and better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, but you're a Canadian.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, I'm a Canadian. [LAUGHTER] I think we should have a prime minister. You know, what, what can I say?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clive, thank you very much.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Take care.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clive Thompson wrote Sims Shrum for Slate. [THEME MUSIC UP & UNDER] If you go to onthemedia.org, we'll link you to a story, and from there, you'll be linked to the games. His blog is called CollisionDetection.net.
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field and Jamie York and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kosseff. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.