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

Communicating complexity

I have a dilemma regarding a feature in Democracy 3. I LOVE the way part of it is simulated, but like most simulations of true complexity, the results often seem like you just rolled a dice.There are basically 3 stages to a voters support in D3. They can like you enough to vote for you. they can like you enough to join your party, and they can become activists. If they like you enough to vote for you, this isn’t a done deal. They may be happy…but not ecstatic. In short, they are apathetic. They might vote, but then again…it might rain. Turnout for them is variable.

Party members will always vote, and always vote for you (obviously). But that is where their influences begins and ends.

Activists are the engines of turnout. they will persuade other people to vote, by campaigning and canvassing. They don’t change minds, but they do encourage higher turnout. As we all know, in a close election, turnout can make all the difference. This is a good gameplay mechanic, in my opinion because it acts as a drag and fight against another mechanic in the game…

Every voter in D3 is in multiple groups. You cannot therefore win by saying “I’ll be the party of the poor, screw the rest!’, because the poor are also retired, also ethnic minorities, also young, also motorists… and all those opinions come together to form their voting decision. In other words, every voter is a complex decision-machine. As a result, you have to ensure you have broad appeal. Having a niche party with extreme views is not going to win an election, you simply won’t get the votes. So the lesson is… have broad centrist appeal…


The activist mechanic drags you slightly the other way. having broad appeal is great, but nobody knocks on doors and puts up posters for a middle-of-the-road all-things-to-all-men candidate. You need a vision, a tribe, a group of people who are inspired for you, support you fanatically and will campaign for you.

This all works great…but explaining it is hell. My last playthrough had me lose the election. I had a lot more party activists than the other guy. They gave me an election day turnout boost of 18%! whereas the other party had a boost of just 5%. But… My turnout was actually lower than their turnout. Why? Because a lot of my potential voters just were not excitable enough to go vote for me. I’d REALLY upset the oppositions supporters, so they were motivated (despite their weak activist base) to go vote, and my bunch were not. As a result, an election that looked 50/50 in the polls went to the opposition.

Activists take time to be recruited, and the groundswell of anger at me had created a big voting block on their side, but not many activists (yet).  The result was a slight surprise, although i found it cool, because I understood the mechanics. However, I need to do a lot of work to make sure the player understands WHY they won or lost. Complex systems need very careful GUI’s and tutorials and help.


4 thoughts on Communicating complexity

  1. My gut tells me that the easiest way to convey all those subsystems would be to make them as discrete as possible – binary when you can (“it rains”), and a 0-5 number when you can not (“your motivation: 2. His motivation: 5”).

    Once you have your subsystems discretized that way you can convey their meaning and consequences via an icon: a cloud with raining, a guy at home watching TV, and so on.

    With a (relatively) small set of visual items you can tell the story quite quickly. Of course, leave the user hover/click on the icons to get explanations on each one.

  2. I was going to suggest a graph, or a text summary of the variables that would explain as you just did, why the election went the other way. Interesting stuff to know when you play the game and it ends one way or another. :)


  3. It would certainly be a good idea to have some more detail and an analysis of why your party either wins or loses an election and maybe bringing in some tools and mechanisms to campaign or co-ordinate election strategies would be one way to influence turnout and to pit yourself against your opposition.

    Strange and possibly unworkable idea- but I like the idea of seeing how the country would pan out after you get kicked out of office. So maybe like a computer takes over and you can sit back and watch as the computer shows what the opposition party would do when in government and after they replace you.

    Then possibly another option where you can pick some manifesto policies and programmes for govt, co-ordinate a strategy for government and see if you can re-enter power?

  4. Might be a bit of work, but after every turn/election, you could show a recap of the papers, where different political op-eds would spell it out to the player. It could also be a good chance to do some Civ-style let-the-player’s-imagination-do-the-work sort of gameplay

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