The hard-right Swiss People's Party -- the SVP -- is not known for its subtlety. I took the picture to the right, a campaign billboard for the SVP, when in Zurich last month; to be fair, while I ran across several of the billboards during my stay, this was the only one that wasn't hit with anti-racist graffiti. Nonetheless, cartoon ovine discrimination isn't the only way that this political movement gets its message out: it now uses video games.
Ian Bogost, over at Water Cooler Games, notes the SVP's "Zottel-Game" website. Zottel the goat is the SVP's symbol, and at this website, the player can use Zottel to carry out a variety of political goals, from blocking immigration to shooting EU tax collectors (symbolized by EU hats) to attacking Green party activists. All of this happens in a cartoonish style, of course, and the immigrants are once again symbolized by black sheep. There are four separate games, all done in Flash.
Bogost provides this context:
To understand the games, though, you have to first know something about the party itself. It was once a centrist agricultural party, but took on right-wing populist interests in the last twenty years. Since 2003, the party has been very strong in the Swiss National Council. Their right-wing policies have included attempts to ban the construction of minarets, drawing accusations that it wanted to rid the country of Muslims, and the deportation of criminal foreigners, which some compared to Nazi deportation policies.
(For more context on the SVP, see this long (English-language) piece at the German newsmagazine Spiegel)
The SVP is not a marginal, fringe party; it's actually the largest single party in the Swiss parliament, holding about a quarter of the overall seats. Its use of online videogames as a way of spreading its message underscores how games have become an increasingly mainstream medium for political communication, linking blunt symbolism and simplistic rhetoric. While I wouldn't expect an identical set of games to do as well in the U.S. (mostly because the racial aspects would be hard to dismiss), I wouldn't be at all surprised to see some kind of online games offered up by candidate or party websites in the 2008 elections.
Sadly, it's likely that such political games would be as mindless as the SVP games (regardless of partisan angles). Despite the significance of the very real challenges facing the U.S. and the planet, modern political discourse doesn't seem to lend itself to deep discussions and multivariate analysis, and Flash-based applications are rarely well-suited for complex gameplay. I would love to see candidates and parties offering up versions of SimCity or Civilization embedded with their perspectives on how the world works, giving players a chance to "live" in those worlds as they consider their votes -- or, perhaps, to offer up games of how the world would be if their opponents won.
Imagine such a world. Rather than candidates and parties describing the worlds that they'll make in broad, unprovable language, they'll have to show how such a world would work. They'll need to hire teams of programmers, of course; I'd imagine that coders able to design both good simulation systems and enjoyable interfaces would come at quite the premium. Transparency would be critical, since it would be too easy to cheat and bias the model to only produce beneficial outcomes. With that transparency, however, comes another channel of argument. Debates would take place in the form of alternative source code, with savvy partisans pointing out errors and omissions in opposing models. "Many eyes make all partisan distortions of the simulation shallow" would be the rallying cry.
Instead, we get goats kicking out black sheep and hippies.
Is too much to ask for a little nuance and intelligence in our politics?