Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Democracy 3: Voter type income design…

Sooo.. I found myself almost sleepwalking into adding a new feature to Democracy 3. I honestly can’t remember actually making the decision to include it, it just seemed to ‘happen’. In democracy 2, the model for income of voters is fairly basic. You can implement policies which affect different levels of income (luxury goods tax hits the rich, for example), and that would affect the membership of the poor, middle income and wealthy voter groups. So far so good.

But it turns out that life is more complex than that. My example of choice is ‘agriculture subsidies’. In the current game, Agriculture subsidies make farmers happy, and they also encourage people to become farmers (so farmer voter group membership rises). This is accurate, and logical and works well. But it has no actual effect on anybodies personal income. This is clearly wrong. So in Democracy 3, I’ve changed things so that each voter group has an ‘income’ value, and policies (and events) can feed directly into them. You also get an extra tab on the graph, and list of effects to see these things happening.


So now… Agriculture subsidies have their usual effects, but also they make farmers wealthier. The subtle effect is to push farmers out of poverty, and towards wealth. This may be more logical, and detailed and accurate, but why is it good game design? what does it add?

let’s say you have identified the poor, and farmers as two ‘core’ groups that you will base your support on. They are the bedrock of your voting block, and you will keep them happy. So far so good. One of your policies, as demanded by your poor farming supporters, is higher agriculture subsidies, and so you do their bidding. One of the side effects is now that a chunk of those poor farmers are now not so poor. They start joining the middle income or even wealthy groups, and that brings with it a host of other influences to their thinking (voters are in multiple groups, at varying strengths). Suddenly, there are more farmers thinking ‘hold on, I don’t think I appreciate this luxury goods tax, or inheritance tax. What were you thinking???’. Your policies that subsidized the poor and hit the rich (including those taxes on the rich you levied to pay for the subsidies) are now inadvertently affected the very voters you were trying to help…

it’s a subtle effect, but I think it’s real-world, and also represents an interesting trade off. I see this in British politics a lot. The left were concerned about child poverty and pensioner poverty, so to combat it, we got better provision of child benefit and winter fuel benefits for the elderly. Worthy goals, but they also push up the living standards of parents and the retired. This has side effects. Now, in a time of austerity, the government finds it extremely hard to reduce either benefit. This is the problem of so called ‘middle-class’ benefits. A policy designed to do one thing has had other effects, due to the changes on people’s income.

I think this is an effect worth modeling, and it’s fascinating to see it in game. When trying to make environmentalists happy, all my feed-in-tariffs and grants also make them better off, and suddenly I’m the champion of the wealthy and not the poor. I love trade-offs and compromises like that. They are the key to what makes Democracy interesting to play.

7 thoughts on Democracy 3: Voter type income design…

  1. What’s that old line about you can give someone thing but then never take it away ???

    This sort of plays back on the Thatcher policy of moving costly to support homing stock in to private ownership which also moves the occupants in to the “Home Owners” social economic group. It was great for a couple of years until those new home owners began to resent some of the other bills they had to pay.

    I also think it had a negative effect on the general effect of the population as there was no available housing stock for new occupants that required it which in turn created a new problem as the housing stock had been sold at below value and new stock couldn’t be created without raising taxes to fund it….

    One small stone creates an avalanche…….

    (You must be really clever, Cliff, to manage all the random logic links like this to stop a major cascade failure of one small tweak in a game like this not causing a major meltdown – Just how much of you time is spent on things like that ???)

    (I think you should give up and launch a remake of Starship Tycoon ;) )

  2. Oh it’s definitely a design headache, but it’s one that I enjoy, and as long as you vaguely try to keep to the real world observed effects, everything should theoretically fit together properly :D

  3. To a lesser entent these dilemmas existed I’m the earlier democracy games and its what made them so challenging, for example you could never really have liberals or environmentalists as your core voters because the happier you made them the fewer of them there would be. So these groups you just had to try and pacify so they didn’t hate you.

  4. Can you give subsidies to anything, not just agriculture?

    My understanding of subsidies in the US is that they are concentrated on a few large corporates, not spread evenly amongst all farmers, so not making them rich (just a few).

    Every time you give a subsidy there is a friction and increased cost of Government. Is that modelled?

  5. We’ve some hands one experience about food and farm subsidies in USA and EU. The mechanism of farming is very labor intensive and done by the farmer and his family for the whole year themselves, except for the seasonal cheap labor workers. Farm subsidies are, at least in the EU and USA, managed in a way to keep food prices of basic food products at a certain affordable level for the general public without relying on imports, and in order to make them profitable to export. An increase in farm subsidies would only free the farmer from working himself, and allow him to hire labor workers fulltime, instead of using cheap immigrants, thus decreasing unemployment in rural areas, but also increasing overall costs. The farmer really won’t make any additional buck, which is why, even with heavy European agricultural subsidies to France and Germany, both farmer lobbies still barely make a living, simply because the labor costs grow faster, than the subsidies can neglect. Farm subsidies also have a new negative impact: overproduction, like the recent milk and tomato scandal in EU where subsidies in the end led to overproduction, deflating overall foodprices, and because of the control from big retail lobbies, the retail price was pushed down even further with the argument:
    “You already earned a lot through subsidies, it’s your job to pass the cheap net production cost to the consumer. If you don’t want to, I will just ask Jim, your neighbor, he will accept my cheap offer.”.

    This led to the ridiculous predicament where hundreds of thousand tons of milk where bought by a sugar company, to be processed to sugar, which is a ridiculous unefficient process of production.

    Farmers who produced tomatoes simply threw thousands of tons away with the argument that throwing them away would be better than selling them at this ridiculous low market prices.

    Introducing farm subsidies also have international effects, such as the impoverishment of nearby, developing countries such as what happened to an African nation which exported sugar made from sugarcane, due to the new introduced subsidies for European sugar production, suddenly the African nation saw exports plummeting, forcing hundreds of thousands of workers working at cane plantages into unemployment. This led to a massive migration wave and political turmoil.

    Another example would be how USA exports of cheap chicken into Latin America forced local food production to an almost stop, because suddenly the local farmers (who were literally living from a dime per day) could not compete with the heavily subsidized industrial food production engine from USA.

    So to sum it up, farm subsidies in modernized industrial nation usually are sucked up by raising labor costs and reduce unemployment in rural areas.

    Farm subsidies in poor nations on the other hand, where labor costs already are very low, improve the chance to modernize food production and increase output as well as export and allow plantage owners to become rich.

    Both subsidies act like an import tariff, making foreign exports practically “more expensive” by driving local food production cost lower, thus have a real impact on neighboring countries.

    Recent studies in latin america show that instead of giving out farming subsidies, which usually land in the pocket of the rich plantage owners, a more effective way to combat poverty is to increase real estate tax for big real estate owners, and reforming unused farm land to give it to local farmers. It is shown that when a local farmer gets his own land, he can much better provide for himself and his family as both can now work nearby and live from their own production.

    There is a negative effect on schooling though, because farming is heavily reliant on labor, families in poor countries are forced to include their children from an early age. And since transportation and infrastructure in rural areas are badly developed, kids from farmers often have no way to be properly schooled. This is why the King of Thailand introduced satellite schooling program for elementary and middle school. But an expansion of this to highschool material as well as free internet in rural areas will surely improve literacy. There is also the government project of a 1 child 1 laptop program, that produces subsidized low tech low powered computers to allow children the accomplishment of basic interactive school material.

    All in all it still took a big educational tv campaign to make the parents aware that it is important for their kids to study, than to work at the farm.

    I could write more, but I don’t know if you are interested in it. I’m sure you have your own research material.

  6. Are going to let there be multiple parties as well? Like different parties for different groups? If I for example just try to benefit the wealthy, capitalist and religious for example, that would make a new party take the environmentalists and liberals. This is seen in European countries were environmentalist and nationalistic parties are growing due to the low concern most politicians have for those voter groups.

  7. Interesting trade-off Cliff, and it’s very much the same from the first two games.

    What I found from playing the first 2 Democracy games, was that if you make everything good, you’ll lose power. If you make a utopian society, there are no problems you can fix.

    And if you can fix nothing. People have no reason to vote for you.

    As something gets better, you have to make something else worse. Then at every election you move the goalposts for what you’re targeting.

    Not much different from real politics, don’t you think?

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