The Impossible Challenge of Simulating Africa in a Video Game

By Julian Benson on at

All of Positech's Democracy games start the same way: you’ve been elected as the leader of a nation and your goal is simply to stay in power as long as you can.

The challenges to that goal differ with every nation: some countries have little money, or terrible crime rates, or horrible air quality that’s making your citizens sickly. Each country has a different voter makeup. You have to please conservatives, liberals, capitalists, and socialists. Picking policies that engender support from enough voters to keep you in at the next election.

The first time I played Democracy I tried out all the left-wing, borderline socialist policies I thought would make the UK thrive. Instead, what happened was all the major businesses left because my corporation tax was too high and, with no business, all my highly skilled workers with their state-subsidised education left to find jobs in other countries. My GDP plummeted and the economy collapsed.

The UK is a relatively stable country to play. Until now, the games have only dealt with countries that are relatively stable, autonomous, and with a strong government. For a new challenge for players, Cliff Harris, creator of the Democracy games, enlisted designer Jeff Sheen to try and capture the factors that make African countries uniquely difficult.

Last year, shortly after the game was announced, I was able to talk to the two developers about the development of the Africa spin-off.

We don’t normally post Q&As on Kotaku UK but I’ve tried to cut this interview down into a single conversation topic and I can’t help but feel too much is lost.It turns out you can’t really talk about the Democracy games without the conversation taking sidesteps into geopolitics, game design theory, and, surprisingly, the political simplicity of orcs, elves, and dwarves.  So, instead, here is probably the longest interview I’ll ever write on a game about geopolitics.

I recommend getting a cup of tea.

“I'm not touching the Middle East with a 10ft pole,” Cliff Harris, developer of Democracy 3, jokes over Skype. Harris and designer Jeff Sheen are telling me about how they decided to make a new Democracy game that focuses specifically on Africa — a particularly challenging continent to turn into a game.

Harris is telling me how after Democracy 3 he wanted to make a game set in either Africa or the Middle East but, of the two, the latter would be more challenging from a “PR point of view”.

“As a typical indie game developer I get enough death threats as it is,” Harris continues. “I don't want to have to hire a bodyguard because I'm clearly anti-everything. Also, that situation [in the Middle East] changes quicker, I think. It's ironic saying it now with everything that's going on. I think that would get sunk into argument whereas Africa is more of 'How can we improve that area without getting too partisan about it.'”

Fundamentally, though, because the Democracy games are built on a great deal of research, there just isn’t enough information available on countries in the Middle East.

“The transparency in the Middle East is not good,” explains Democracy 3: Africa’s designer, Jeff Sheen. “Whereas African economies court foreign investment and, so, have much better data to drive the design itself. A lot of the nations, in fact, all of the nations that we're modelling in Democracy 3: Africa are bond-rated by a variety of international bodies. This is quite a good way of filtering out ghost countries that don't have an open enough book for you to have a good idea of the machinations of their economy or their society. So the Middle East is quite tricky to model in itself just from the quality of the data that you can get about fundamentals."

When I ask Sheen how he goes about researching a country I assumed he relied on organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, not even considering the problem with that.

"The problem with relying on The World Bank and the IMF exclusively is because they have their own agenda," Sheen explained. "You want to be able to verify their information with a source that might have a different viewpoint. So, for example, their are domestic indices for governance—the Mo Ibrahim Index is excellent and uses a broad range of indicators to determine how effectively a country is being run. The development of its people, the strength of its economy—all these things, there are dozens and dozens of indicators that they build up to this one index number and they're very open with their methodology as well. You can compare the way that various indices have been built up. If I list off a few you can see how important they would be in a design like this: the Economist Intelligence Unit is a British-based research group and they have the global democracy index, which is a collection of very interesting fundamentals that they score in a way that can be modelled to give you an indication where the implementation of a pure democracy, a free democracy is in a county. That a good data source. But, then, you can correlate that against the information in the Mo Ibrahim Index, which is a broader index, it's not specifically trying to gauge democratic implementation but it does share some of the same indicators. So if you drill down into the methodology of the various indices you'll find they have overlapping fundamental indicators and you can ratify your own data from various sources that way. There are other interesting indices, like the Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, they don't portray the index as being an objective absolute measure of corruptive forces inside a society because it's all subjective questioning when you get down to the methodology but it's a good start to measure something as tricky as corruption because, obviously, it's hidden away by its very nature. So having any kind of insight into that is very helpful.”

“That's actually new,” Harris added. “Corruption was ignored in the original Democracy 3. Which is not that we don't have corruption but I don't think you can really model Africa without at least mentioning it.”

“I think it would be untrue to the reality,” Sheen said. “This design is very much top down, data driven, where there is an enormous amount of information and an incredible number of factors that go into the situation, economical and societal, that you find in a nation but the design aspect of this was to find the key themes to add to the simulation that are required to model that broad range of nations. Whereas in Democracy 3 you could get away with putting corruption to the side as a minor factor, it's not in many African countries. We've included Nigeria and that's one of the major problems [for the country], the endemic corruption in all levels of government and public service. It's something that had to be in there. We did have a discussion about it not being in the original game and including it here, where that would be seen as a slight but it really shouldn't. It's just a very important factor in the model for these countries, whereas it is less important in the ones that were modelled in Democracy 3.”

democracy 3 africa 1

The challenge is finding a way to show corruption to a player. Corruption is something that happens quietly in the shadows and, usually, is hidden from people higher up in the chain—in Democracy you are the top of the chain, so it’s from you corrupt actions are being hidden.

“There's a sort of trade-off here, in that there are all sorts of effects of corruption that are entirely dependent on how that corruption is executed on a per person basis,” Sheen explained. “Where and at what level that's occurring as well. That implies a granularity and a complexity which is, first of all, it's impossible to get the data for because it's too granular, it's not recorded by a reputable data source, but, secondly, that kind of granularity and complexity becomes imperceptible to the player. There's a complexity budget, which I think Richard Garfield, the designer of Magic: The Gathering, popularised when talking about design, which is that you've only got a certain amount of complexity to present to the player with your design. So, if you can consolidate with a composite effect in your game but keep the decision meaningful and entertaining to make then you can reduce the amount of impact on your complexity budget by having a higher level effect. This is my roundabout way of saying that it's a headline number impact as well as a couple of other effects. So it's going to be a drag on GDP, it's going to be an impact on foreign aid and foreign investment. These sorts of high level effects and also it contributes to a level of civil unrest.

“For instance, the Arab Spring was catalysed by a market seller being persecuted by corrupt government officials. That sort of thing pops up as events in the game but in terms of actually looking at the neural network of the simulation, it's high level effects that are parseable and understandable and do justice to the theme of corruption, rather than a massively interconnected web of small effects, so as not to overload the design.”

democracy 3 web

“That's always been one of the nightmare things about the design of this game, in that everything is caused by something else,” Harris said. “As the coder, you can trace back anything and say 'This supposedly random event that has happened, or the unhappiness of this particular voter is because of the compound effect of this and that' but sometimes, to the player, it just seems like something is happening out of the blue but there's actually very little randomness in it. It's just a really complicated system and I can understand why a lot of game designers shy away from that because if you accurately model everything it can come across as just random stuff happening, just because of the complexity of the whole system.”

When I played the previous Democracy, my flatmate, who works in the civil service, was fascinated by this top-down view of government, But, when I was forced to decide whether to deport a criminal to a country that didn’t obey humanitarian laws or to hold them domestically the choice frustrated him: its presentation was too simple for him, he wanted to know every little effect the decision would have.

Turns out, that opaqueness is by design,

“That is a deliberate thing,” Harris said. “If [I told the player the effects] then it doesn't matter what the effects are, in that it's a game. I'm playing the new Anno game at the moment and, because it's sci-fi, everything is kind of gibberish so I don't really think that much. It's more 'I need this many red wibbly-wobbly things to make a blue shiny thing so I can then make a green spinny thing' I don't really care about it. Whereas in Democracy 3, because it doesn't give you all the data, you have to think about the real world and predict the affect of your decision.

"But will those same yes/ no decisions be used when it comes to Africa?’ I asked the designers. “I had no problem doing that with small things like deporting a conman but if you were to use the same system for, say, 'There is a genocide taking place in the country over your border, do you accept refugees or not?' seems to blunt a system for such a large event.”

“But ultimately,” Harris argued, “it is a decision. Someone somewhere has to say 'No, we're not getting involved' or 'Yes, we are'. It's because you're not comfortable making a decision at that level, which is kind of the whole point and what we're trying to allude to in announcing the game. To some extent this is Democracy 3 on hard mode. If you really screw up in the Democracy 3 GDP may dive a bit but hardly anyone is going to starve, probably no one will. Obviously there are countries in Africa where that would happen. So, yes, it's more serious but it's still a decision, it's just one we're not comfortable making in the closeted, rich West.

“I don't think we're trying to make a preachy game. The idea is that the game is entirely disinterested, to some extent. Democracy 3 is supposed to be completely disinterested in politics, in that it just gives you the facts as well as we're able to research them and say 'As far as we can tell this has this effect and this has that effect. What do you want to do?' It's not a heart-string tugging thing where 'Here are the options and this is obviously the good option and that's the bad option' because I actually think that it's never as simple as that, in the example you give there of a genocide in a country next door, on the one hand it's the moral thing to step in but on the other hand, it's a bit like how you question it, it's a bit like Yes, Minister—Do you want to send our soldiers to die in another country. There's another way of looking at it.

“I don't think the aim is to suggest there's a correct way to govern a country in Africa because it's not that simple, sadly.”

Still, even if you are able, in theory, to take a very complex situation, like a genocide in a neighbouring country, and boil it down to a binary choice, I wanted to know how the pair planned to do it practically within in the game. In the example I gave to Harris and Sheen, of the Rwandan Genocide back in 1994, Congo accepted Tutsi refugees who had fled over the border to escape the violence back in Rwanda. Once the camps formed on the Congo side of the border, international aid organisations tried to provide shelter, healthcare, and supplies to the survivors. Soon, though, violence erupted in some of the camps as it was found that Hutu soldiers who had been involved in committing the massacre in Rwanda had travelled over the border, too, hidden amongst the Tutsi refugees.

How could such a complicated situation be reflected within the game.

“It's partly to do with what you select as what will be an event and what will be a dilemma,” Sheen explains. “Deciding where in the simulation, in the model, these sorts of situations fit.”

The dilemmas in Democracy would pop up for you to answer but wouldn’t tend to have long term policy impacts. Whereas events are things that happen outside of your control and impact aspects of your simulation for length of time. It might be that crime would go up with an influx of migrants, or healthcare would go down as resources were stretched thin with the increase in population. It’s more likely, Sheen explains, that something like the Rwandan Genocide would be reflected as an event than a dilemma.

Another difference between events and dilemmas is that, because events have a tangible effect on your simulation–they appear on the game's neural web with lines between it and what parts of your country it is affecting–you can more easily implement policies to counteract them.

democracy 3 event

In the image above you can see how a civil uprising event can have serious knock on effects throughout your country – from increases to military spending, to an increase in the number of trade unionists in your population.

“So, at the moment,” Sheen said, turning to a real world example to explain, “with the migrant crisis we're having throughout the borders of Europe there are specific laws as to how these migrants should be processed. That's laid down in policy.” If in, the case of an event that saw incoming refugees and a boost to your population, “that's something that's going to be encapsulated in a more nuanced slider-based policy that has a lot more granularity than a yes/no answer to a dilemma.” You could implement a policy that closed your borders.

One of the difficulties of representing countries, particularly African countries is off the record trade. It is something the government has little control over but it has such a large impact on a country’s economy that it can’t be ignored.

“The informal sector is huge,” Sheen agreed. “Absolutely huge. It's especially difficult to model, in fact, because the numbers just aren't there, the bookkeeping isn't there. There are good estimates and the estimates range but in Nigeria, for example, the informal sector is considered to be 25% of the country's GDP. It's enormous. It's definitely something that is encapsulated in the game and it's to do with revenue administration and the cost of whether paying for implementation of better revenue administration will yield a net revenue from your informal sector, or you could consider the informal sector a tax-free band, if you will. Where there is a certain amount of activity that will never be taxed and therefore it just builds up a de facto tax policy by not intervening.”

democracy 3 trade

The challenge with this is that in a game about ruling your country, if there is a large portion of it that you can’t see and yet it impacts the nation, is it fun for a player?

Sheen used the example of Nigeria: “In Nigeria, there's a strong presidential role but Nigeria is so, so big and there are so many power bases within the country, whether that be historical, ethnic, or the very wealthy that you can’t make decision and expect it to trickle down in the same way as in other countries. It's been interesting to try and model. You have to have get support from so many strata of your country to be able to have an effective implementation of your policy. If you've got a strong presidential role but counterbalancing and contrary power bases throughout your country, you're not going to have a binary relationship between switching on your policy and it being implemented in the same way that they are able to in other, more traditional countries.”

“It's quite a dangerous design problem because a lot of people would say there's a consensus in games that you avoid frustration,” said Harris. “Especially in casual games, they do anything to avoid frustration, unless they're monetising. Generally you don't do that. Whereas I quite like it as a mechanic and arguably Gratuitous Space Battles is entirely a game about frustration. As long as it’s not too bad and, I think, if you can design the game such that frustration is clearly attributable to some specific choice of yours or a specific circumstance. Nobody likes to be frustrated by a game but you can be frustrated by not having thought through the implications of your own choice. Though it is quite difficult to get right. We don't want people to throw up their hands and go 'I hate Africa. This is impossible'. You want them to enjoy the different challenge that it represents.”

democracy 3 countries

“What we've got here, in the selection of countries, is a massively diverse set of social and economic situations,” Sheen said. “Taking up the governance of Mauritius, for example, is an entirely different beast. It's a small island nation with a strong economy that really, if you look at the analysis by a variety of sources, just needs to make that step of starting to implement socialist systems to provide for its citizens, otherwise the core democratic pillars are there. The foundation is there. It's much easier as a starting point and a much easier geographic and economic situation than, say, Nigeria. The breadth of the situations in the various different countries that we have here in Democracy 3 Africa gives you so many different play experiences. They will be very markedly different, each one. And that's why they were selected. They're all so very different. They all have their own boons their own problems but they all share a core ability to be modeled in the same way.”

This also means that, while they start in different states, you can evoke the same problems in one country as in another. For instance, the extremist group Boko Haram is a problem for Nigeria but it can be a problem for any nation.

“Having an extremist group that has a nationalist agenda and wants to separate part of the country into its own territory, that can happen anywhere,” explained Sheen. “It's triggered by a series of conditions in the simulation and you will have a situation created out of that where you will have a domestic occupying extremist force and that's all fed by the fundamental data that's being modelled within the simulation itself. So, although the real world situation in Nigeria will mean that is a starting situation, it is possible that that situation could occur in any of the countries, if you take them in the direction that precipitates it.”

democracy 3 minority population

“I think it's worth pointing out that the opposite is true as well,” Harris said. “We're not putting any limit on the countries, I don't see any reason why, if you're very good at the game and you manage things well, that you can't have any of these countries become an economic superpower, as it were. There's nothing being coded in to prevent Nigeria having a super high tech, high productivity economy. It might be very, very difficult to get there from where Nigeria starts but I want the simulation to be completely agnostic to what happens because I can't see any reason why that wouldn't be the case if you did everything right. Especially in countries that, in theory, should be wealthy because they're resource rich. Although I know there is the argument that that's a curse as well. I would love players to post screenshots of 'My biggest problem is paying out all the hybrid car subsidies in the wealthy paradise that is Nigeria.' That would be excellent and I'm sure some people will do that.”

“Situations in the game have a trigger start point and a trigger end point as well so you are able to eliminate situations, negative and positive, through your own actions,” Sheen adds. “It's all one simulation, it's the same underlying code, the same underlying model as in Democracy 3, with some added simulation values to model the other pertinent details of the nations in Democracy 3: Africa. There are a few slight code changes but it's not to do with whether you can turn around a situation or improve an economy to the point it would be considered an industrialised country, or go on to be considered a developed country.”

Though, on the subject of trigger conditions and how they link to population groups, while with careful play you can alter the make up of a country, it’s fascinating how the fundamentally countries can differ in the beginning. For instance, the role of the military in Egypt and Nigeria is completely different.

“In Egypt,” Sheen told me, “which is one of the countries in the portfolio, the military has always been very tightly integrated with governance, throughout its long history. So it has more predilection for intervention by the military there.” If you start to displease the military faction in your population then there’s a high chance it will intervene. “This contrasts with, say, Nigeria, where intervention from its armed forces in governance tends to be less of a dissatisfaction with the legislature and more to do with a breaking point where the civil government is simply not working. It gets to the point where the country is in danger and then the Nigerian military steps in. There are slightly different trigger conditions given the historical involvement and place of the military in governing a nation. If there is a coup, that is an end state because it's a regime change and you are no longer in power. However, what triggers an end state like that is being modelled in a more sophisticated manner because it's happened more recently and there is more data to go on and it's quite nuanced as to when a military leader will step in and wrest power away. That's something I've been concentrating on in this implementation.”

democracy 3 groups

Here's just some of the many factions you will need to bring into sway and be wary of angering.

“It will be quite interesting because I bet hardly anyone will complain in Democracy 3: Africa that there was a military coup or that they were assassinated,” Harris added. “I get endless complaints in Democracy 3 how ridiculous it is when they get assassinated, when they've completely brought it on themselves by doing crazy nonsense that no one in the West would ever try. They still think it's unreasonable, whereas obviously people in the West consider it to be perfectly believable and understandable if there is a coup in an African country.”

“Is perception something you’re worried about, both of the game and of you two for making it?” I asked.

“I was quite worried because we keep using this phrase, that we're a couple of white guys doing a game about Africa, which is kind of terrifying to some extent because we don't want to put a foot wrong,” Harris said. “We are going to have people look at the game throughout its development so we're not inadvertently being racist or putting in any kind of prejudice that we've soaked up from our media. I expected a lot of people, good people, to immediately attack us for it. I know we had quite a debate because one of the pieces of character art that was released when we announced the game was the conservative voter because of what she was wearing and people were saying 'Oh, you're being completely prejudiced, that's a burka.' It wasn't a burka, actually, but that sort of thing is pretty scary because it's so easy to put a foot wrong.”

democracy africa

“Throughout the process, from the very beginning, we've been very conscious of our position in the world and how that contrasts with what we're trying to model here,” Sheen adds. “From the beginning we've been respectful and trying to rely on facts and create something that is realistic. It's been a focus for us both. We've engaged with experts from the beginning. I have ongoing dialogues with people in the civil service, academics that have studied at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) and have been part of policy thinktanks. But, also, I've been very fortunate myself to have met an incredibly broad range of people in my life and have very good friends from a lot of the countries I'm modeling. It doesn't give you hard facts but it allows you to have a level of empathy you wouldn't get from raw numbers.”

“It is still quite a scary thing because a game announcement is one thing but when it's actually released... at the moment we can say 'Oh, we've done it perfectly' but we're bound to make some mistakes at some point,” Harris said. “So when it's released I'm sure some people are going to say 'That's not what this country is like' or 'That's just you projecting your opinion onto this country'. I'm sure it will happen but if that then leads to a debate where we say 'Ok, well, show us where we're wrong' because we're very open for that. One of the aims of doing this is to bring up to date people's perceptions of what Africa is actually like. That would be great if there's a lot of debate over how accurately this models the countries we've chosen.”

“Prison Architect fell into this sort of trouble,” I said. The developers over at Introversion, despite not explicitly modelling any particular country's prisons, received criticism for its representation of the American prison system. The game had been inspired by a visit to Alcatraz but the main cause was because the in-game prisoners wear orange jumpsuits. And, because the non-specific-but-apparently-American prisons didn’t embrace all the social issues of the American prison system some critics claimed that it was a prejudiced portrayal.

“It's kind of inevitable,” Harris said. “You can't model the prison systems of every country in the world with one simulation. You can't model the politics and economics of every country in the world using one simulation and get any real degree of accuracy.

“The original Democracy 3 had this big problem that it had the word liberal in. I was taking the word 'liberal' from a British view of liberal but in American terms it's more libertarian and it gets very confusing. A lot of American players can't understand why there were liberals and socialists and they're not the same thing and they're asking where the libertarians are. Because that word is so different. Also their whole attitude to armed police being separate from police is confusion. It's always going to be difficult to model a lot of variety in a simulation. It's why a lot of simulations are really honed in on a specific thing. That's just part of game design and I think people have to realise you're not doing an academic textbook, it is also supposed to be fun and balanced and varied and all the rest of it. We're held to a standard that a lot of games don't have to worry about. If you do a game about orcs and elves nobody complains that it's not accurate. We're bringing that on ourselves I guess.”

Thing is, the elements that make this game controversial are also what make it so interesting. Sheen and Harris tried to model a fantasy take on the Democracy games, one that dealt with orcs and elves, and, well, it was boring.

“I had this vague idea that it would be fun to use Democracy 3 but do a Lord of the Rings kind of version of it,” Harris recalled. “You have your elves and dwarves and everything. I know the internet would love it but it actually doesn't work as a game at all because when you think Dwarves you think 'Oh, they like gold and mining subsidies and they don't like taxes on beards' and then I ran out of ideas. I did start putting a design together and then thought, no, although it's funny it won't be any fun. Whereas this doesn't sound fun, it sounds quite serious but in fact it will be fun.”

“All I can think of are Elven diasporas and things like that,” I said.


“Yeah,” Harris said. “It sounds like it would be great. Events could pop up saying a dragon has attacked–'If only we'd invested in dragon defences!'. But there's not enough. The number of opinions and voter groups required means it doesn't work as a game. I wish it did but it doesn't."

“There’d be much more chance of your own prejudices slipping in,” I said. “With Africa, you’ve stuck to research, with fantasy creatures you’d only have your own perception of fantasy races to work with.”

“If it were me Elves would be great because they do archery,” Harris said. “Screw the dwarves. It would be terrible because the reason Democracy 3 is successful is that even though people say they're bored with politics everyone has opinions. Everyone has an idea of how the world works. The problem with a fantasy or slightly sarcastic setting is that world isn't rich enough, deep enough, or understood enough, believe it or not, for anyone to have that base level of knowledge. So sadly it wouldn't work. I'd love someone to mod it, just so I could play it for half an hour and have a laugh."

“I was going to say that by setting your game in the real world, regardless of what it is, your passported a set of semantics that form part of your game rules for free,” Sheen explained. “It's the biggest level of knowledge that everyone has of the real world. Which means you don't have to demystify all your mechanics in an explicit way. I think that's always been the issue. You talked about it earlier, Cliff, with the new Anno game being set in the future. The semantics of what each component of the system is, is not apparent. Therefore you don't get any free information as to what they would be used for or how valuable they are in the system, whereas we do in any real world setting.”

democracy 3 farming

How many Oxfam adverts over the years have formed your perception of African farming, for instance? At least there's research sources that can set the perception straight.

“Even with real world data to work with, there must have been particular struggles to model,” I said.

“We do have a very interesting effect at the moment which I'm still wrestling with,” Sheen said. “There's competition now from China. In a big way, it’s offering loans to sovereignties where the IMF and the World Bank were traditionally in that role and had the monopoly. The difference being the IMF and World Bank require certain conditions to be agreed to–normally to do with human rights and human development in your country–before the loan will be struck, whereas China, as I understand it from my research, offers similar terms but without the additional kickers of asking to influence your policy in that same way. This is quite a new thing and I am speaking with academics currently about it in particular. There are still elements of the game that haven't been locked down yet but I am cognisant of the effects in the real world and trying to model them in a way that's perceptible that's still by the player but respectful of the real world facts.

“Foreign aid and foreign investment is a massive force in Africa, especially in those countries without resources to lean on for revenues for public spending. Like everything in the game it's about trying to isolate metrics that make sense as being factors that will influence investment aid and sanctions and deciding how best to implement those effects. Sanctions is, again, something that's going to happen and be triggered and will be outside of your policy influence but your policies are going to have a proxy effect of triggering sanctions because the sanctions will be triggered by, say, the implementation of democracy in your country which is something that is measurable via the indicator metrics that you can find in the indices, like the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index. In short, I'm trying to capture that.”

“So one way it might appear is that your policy of capital punishment might have a situation appear that said 'Sanction imposed because of human rights abuses' and you might see that have a knock-on effect of your GDP going down, or your deficit increase because you've stopped receiving aid that you had been,” I said.

“And that would be visualised by the connect line flows of influence throughout the neural network,” said Sheen.

“What people don't realise is that Democracy 3 can model simulation values that it doesn't show to you,” Harris added. “There was an update recently that made it obvious on the security screen what policies influence that level of security that stopped you getting assassinated. That's a model that wasn't shown to the player because it didn't have to be and obviously we don't want crazy complexity but it's easy to model something that's bubbling under the surface, like voter unrest or whatever. You could have hundreds of interim values that weren't shown to the player but still affect the simulation and the system. It's just arguable as to whether it's helpful to show something or not.”

“I guess, too,” I said, “if your poverty is increasing and foreign aid comes in which means people become less dependent on you as a government and you then lose support from voters, patriotism goes down...”

“It's incredibly complex, yeah,” Sheen interjected. “For example, I'm going back to Nigeria again, there are very high levels of poverty in Nigeria but because of the hydrocarbon wealth that's been generated since the '70s there's been a tail-off of foreign aid as per capita GDP rises. It's just that there's a massive inequality coefficient that's generating the poverty. So, if your GDP per capita goes up then you'll see a tail-off in foreign aid, regardless of your levels of poverty.”

“I think it's awesome that we're talking about a computer game in 2015 and someone can casually say 'inequality coefficient',” Harris laughed. “It doesn't seem out of place at all. This is modern gaming. What really amazed me was when I took Democracy 3 to a trade show. I'd always assumed that players of Democracy 3 were my age or older. There were groups of teenagers huddled around it playing and arguing about tax rates and capital flight and stuff. I thought this is amazing, I'd just assumed it was a middle-aged game developer thing but people are surprisingly politically aware and surprisingly informed about economics and issues. Just because those same people will play Call of Duty doesn't mean they're not interested in this kind of stuff. It's quite encouraging.”

“I remember being crestfallen when I played because I immediately implemented all the socialist polices I thought would be great for the country and...,” I said

“You are Jeremy Corbyn,” Harris said.

“...it was exactly as all the Daily Mail has been saying,” I continued. “Despite having a great education system and smarter citizens, all the big business left and then there was a brain drain, and I kept getting further and further into debt. My credit rating dropped from AAA to a C in one election. My second game I did a lot better but by enacting that compromise of catering to the wealthy, which I'm always very against when I talk to people in the pub but then it has to be done.”

“It is a game that makes you realise how important compromise is,” Harris concluded. “It's not designed to do that, it's not designed to do anything, it kind of explains a lot of political choices you see in your life. You think 'This is mad' but then you realise that when you've played Democracy 3 you've done just as nuts things before an election out of desperation because you've loads of stuff in the pipeline that will come true but an election is coming up and you need to fix the economy, or bodge the economy more likely.”

"Cliff, Jeff, thank you so much for your time."


Since this interview was recorded last year, Democracy 3: Africa has released. So, one way of looking at this article is that it's months late, but another is that I've saved you from spending months eagerly anticipating the game's release, meaning now that you're all fired up about that challenge of geopolitics, you can go straight to Positech' site and buy it.