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

Using Democracy 4 to teach politics and economics

I’ve been selling educational site licenses for the Democracy series of games pretty much since I started making them, after people who taught politics started to contact me. I’ve always been very proud of the fact that a long list of educational establishments around the world have been using the game to teach so many people. It feels like a sort of vindication of the game’s design that teaching professionals think its accurate and reliable enough, that they will use it in education.

I have to admit, that I don’t really put that much effort into promoting the game as an educational tool. I have made a few attempts to do so in the past, but I found it quite frustrating to make any progress. It reminds me a lot of the sort of bureaucracy that I have experienced in trying to build a solar farm. The amount of paperwork, accreditation, form-filling and documentation required to sell educational software is enough to put me off.

Its ironic that teaching establishments, which should ideally be very future-focused (after all, you are teaching people at the start of what could be very long lives), are in fact incredibly slow when it comes to adopting new things. The minute you add a ton of bureaucracy or process to a system, you make adopting new technology or ideas more trouble than it is worth, especially if there is no pressure on the people responsible to update their teaching methods.

When I studied at the London School of Economics, it was a very dry, and very boring process. The cutting edge technology at the time was for students to place their own mini tape recorders or dictaphones at the foot of a stage where an extremely bored tenured professor would drone on about IS/LM curves until we all fell asleep. Lectures were not put online, for the very simple reason that there was no online yet.

I find economics, and Politics to be fascinating topics, but the way they were taught in the early 1990s was far from exciting or interesting. The topics were presented mostly as maths, and mostly as equations drawn literally in chalk on a board. There was no excitement, no attempt to make the subject matter appealling, interesting or memorable.

This is something that modern teachers like Scott Galloway are doing a lot to change. Its perfectly possible to make subjects exciting, interesting, even hilarious. I would LOVE to trade in my education back then, for learning science and business from scott galloway’s youtube videos, or veritasium and similar science channels. Youtube is the new lecture theater, and its way, way better.

Democracy 4 takes all this a stage further, because not only does the game present the topics of politics and economics in a much more accessible way than a textbook, its interactive. Its one thing to read a dry textbook description of hyperinflation, or sovereign debt crisis throughout history, but its another thing (and I suspect far more memorable), to experience them as disastrous events in a computer game you are playing, as they upset and derail all your plans for your country!

In general, its far better to learn things in a multi-sensory and personal way, than to have facts book-splained to you in a dry and academic environment. Interactive learning is orders-of-magnitude better than just expecting people to read dry descriptions and memorize theories and principles purely because they might come up in an exam, and that might have some impact on some future job interview that you might reluctantly apply for…

I didn’t set out to make edutainment, and I would definitely not describe Democracy 4 as an educational game. Its a game about a topic that is often taught in schools, and its as accurate as I can make it, while still being fun. I absolutely believe that this is the best way to about creating software that can be used in schools. Make something interesting and entertaining and fun, and then also make it accurate where it matters, and that way students will WANT to engage with it, and will take a real interest.

One of the most boring topics in economics is interest rates. What makes it worse is that a HUGE swathe of macroeconomic theory is about interest rates. I studied it for year and still found it boring. However, when you wrap the topic up in a video game where government debt interest becomes a variable that the player has to keep an eye on, in order to ‘win’, the topic suddenly becomes much more interesting.

I suspect we are heading towards a future where physics lessons are more like playing kerbal space program, where art classes are like using VR sculpting tools, where astronomy is taught using universe sandbox and where yes, economics is taught with Democracy 4. The only barriers to making education like this, is getting past the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome that has historically kept ‘games’ out of schools. Both teachers and parents still seem resistant to the idea that games can teach, and probably fear looking like they are slacking their ‘serious’ responsibilities by introducing something marketed as a game into a classroom.

I suspect I do not have the time, or the patience to work my way around the school-boards and educational departments all over the world to persuade them to buy Democracy 4 site licenses, although I would love it to be more widespread. If you are a teacher, or work in education in any capacity, I urge you to give it some thought. Ideally I’d do some deal with a country’s department of education to make it usable in every school, but my mind just recoils in horror at the number of meetings that would require :D.

Solar school photos!

My company (positech games) gave £10,000 to a local primary school to spend on solar panels, because the kids were really into environmental issues and had protested in our local town about it…and I thought, yup, go for it kids! They were installed yesterday so I went and took photos today by drone:

There are 32 panels, in 2 strings of 16, roughly 10.2 kwp. My panels at home are only 2.1 kwp :(. Really glad I did this.

Impact report on school #2

I just got a big info dump about the second school I paid for in Cameroon. Also lots more pics. For the first time I got proper pics of the old school (before we had pics of a different school, which eventually we changed from to this site):

which doesnt look too good and had numerous issues:

“Since 4 out of 7 seven available classes had dilapidated and were
abandoned, only the 3 available classes in a manageable state could be
effectively used. Classes 1 and 2 had to share a single classroom, classes 3 and 4 and classes 5 and 6 also shared a room respectively. The classrooms were therefore overcrowded making teaching and learning very difficult.
Whenever lectures of one class were more interesting, pupils from the other class sharing the room were distracted and could not concentrate on their lectures. This impacted negatively on the performance of the pupils.”

With the old school, the stats were as follows:

“The total number of pupils in the school when feasibility studies were carried out stood at 205, of whom 114 were girls and 91 were boys. At the time of the feasibility, the school had a total of 4 teachers including the head teacher who were all employed and paid by the church. Some of the teachers had to teach 2 classes as the teachers were not enough to cover the classrooms.”

The main problems:

  • Insufficient and inadequate classrooms
  • Insufficient benches, tables and chairs for pupils and teachers respectively
  • Inadequate toilet facilities in the school
  • Lack of water in school

The new school looks like this:

The project had the following outcomes:

  • 3 classrooms, an office and store have been constructed and handed over to the school
  • A 3 compartment toilet block with hand washing facility constructed and under use in the school presently
  • 27 Benches, 3 teachers tables and chairs provided and in use

More interestingly:

  • An improvement in pupils’ performance have already started to be noticed since they started using the new infrastructure and equipment in 2019/2020 academic year. The syllabuses can now be covered as no time would be lost to rainfall disturbances or cleaning of dusty floors
  • Enrolment have increased by over 92 pupils at the beginning of the 2019/2020 academic year with the presence of the new infrastructure and would continue to increase
  • A reduction in the prevalence of illness among the children and improved hygiene and sanitation in school. Upper track respiratory track infections have reduced as well as jiggers
  • School attendance have improved to over 100% since the use of new infrastructure especially for classes using them and this would continue.

I’m very pleased to have hard numbers on this stuff. More kids getting an education, and more kids getting a BETTER education, plus a reduction in health problems. Awesome. Total cost is about £24k.

Its worth noting that sometimes the shortage of teachers is related to the condition of the school. Basically a nice, modern, clean school will attract the best teachers, and more of them.

Regrettably, Cameroon is facing serious problems, and they badly need help. I currently have a bad back AND bad toothache (just got back from dentist), but its humbling to realize just how amazeballs lucky and healthy I am, mostly because I happened to be born in the UK. Anyway, thanks again to everyone who buys my games and puts me in a position to do this kind of thing.

My year => 2019 <=

I’ve really taken to trying to avoid social media use lately, which came to angry prominence once during the year and again recently during the UK election, so I’m likely going to blog more, and continue to tweet less. Anyway, here was my 2019!

Personal stuff!

We had a few short mini holidays this year, one of which was to Bruge (Belgium) which is a great place to go to because you can just get a train there (no flying! yay!), another to the southwest of the UK (which I drove to), and one long flight, which was to Canada. I always offset my flights, and try not to do it often, but it was justified as a combined holiday, and 50th birthday and biz trip to a games conference. Somehow, I have flown in 2 different helicopters this year. Thats just ‘indielife’ I guess.

By far the best thing I did was fly in a helicopter over the mountains near Banff. Truly amazing, and impossible to convey in mere pictures. It was an expensive treat but worth every single penny. Cannot recommend it enough.

Also somehow, in a drunken moment of panic, I booked a balloon trip (near where I live). This was a bit scary for me, as I dont like heights, but actually it was fine, a perfect day, and good fun. Something I always wanted to do.

I played the guitar more in the last year than I have in the previous ten years (at least). I got back into it a bit. I used to be pretty good, now I just cant physically keep my hands moving that fast, but its still something I find a nice distraction from constant work, and its a cool thing to be able to do now and then.

Charity Stuff.

Our second school in Cameroon opened, and I also re-did the war child thing at Christmas where we donate about $10k a year to children affected by war. Really proud to have done this for so long.

Eco stuff

I took part in an environmental demonstration locally (very low key), and also joined the extinction rebellion London protests, although did not get arrested, but did have a very heated ‘exchange of views’ with a fairly famous climate change denying media-whore who I will not dignify by printing his name. Really glad I attended. Current news makes it pretty clear that events are happening exactly as scientists told us they would. Future prospects depress me :(

Stock-market stuff

I still trade a lot on the stock market. I made some very optimistic trades as a day trader about a year ago, which forced me more and more and more into the red over the last year, resulting in a shockingly expensive margin call where I lost a bunch of money. I have now made every penny of it back, all on a single stock. This is an epic story worthy of its own HBO mini-series but is summed up in this simple chart :D

I am glad I stuck with it :D


Oh yes…I also run a games company. LoL. 2019 was a fairly stressful but definitely improving year. It was the year in which I made a shocking number of updates to my car-factory game Production Line, and also released not one but two pieces of DLC for it: Doors That Go Like This and the Design Variety Pack. Both have sold well, and broken even, but these things only really pay off over a few years.

As of this moment, the base game has sold a total of 114,000 copies on steam, plus a fair few pre-steam and on some other platforms. Its a $25 game, so thats not bad, plus I have a large back catalog of other games that continue to sell well on steam. We have sold 150,000 games roughly this year, a 24% drop of the previous year, which was boosted by being when Production Line was initially added to steam.

The stress of 2019 company wise has proven to be Democracy 4, which was originally slated to be shown to the public much earlier, but some stuff under-the-hood proved to be harder than expected, so although the current version of the game is now awesome and looks crisp and has some l33t new functionality, we are behind schedule, and probably going to go over-budget. However, I’m now working on it quite a lot, and have currently 1 SFX person and 2 artists working on content, and will very shortly be showing it off to people both on video, and in March at a show in London, which will be interesting.

Its hard to stay objective about Democracy 4. Lost of signs point to this being a successful game, and the ideal game for 2020, but I hate to be too cocky about how a game will do, and the release of any sequel is always plagued by people (normally the loud 0.1%) upset that you have dared make a sequel, or saying its just a re-skin, or whatever. I do dread having to deal with that sort of thing… but its part of selling to the public I guess :(

I expect 2020 will be just purely the year of Democracy 4. its a HUGE game (we rolled 4 expansion packs into the base game), and will likely be our biggest release ‘event’ so far, in terms of people wanting to play it. It will certainly be the most expensive game I’ve ever released. Fingers-crossed it works out, and I don’t look an idiot :D. I am optimistic though. Democracy 3 already looks old, clunky and tired compared to the new game.

Social Media & other Stuff

2019 is the year I clashed badly with social media, and the internet. Not in the usual sense, that if you have known me over the years you will know I have got involved in controversy a lot and drawn the attention of people a lot… This year, I actually managed to avoid that, at least in public.

Certain events during the year (nothing related to me) made me realize just how AWFUL social media is. The angry hate mob was out in full force, directing righteous furious anger at whatever individual or group was determined to be the hate-figure of the day. I’ve seen online hate mobs practically salivating over the potential to drive people to suicide, and its just horrible. Combine this with the mess that is modern politics and ‘fake news’ and people happily sharing stories that are not true, and I think 2019 is the year the internet broke, and became a torrent of abuse, not an amazing place filled with information.

I carried out a few steps to isolate myself from all this crap this year. I quit a newsgroup I’d been in for many years, quit a forum I’ve been on for over a decade, removed all my posts from one I’d been in for fifteen years, deleted 75% of my facebook friends, and left every single facebook group and page that wasn’t for one of my games. I vowed to tweet less, not discuss anything contentious online, and reminded myself I should freely block and mute anybody who is rude or abusive.

I just don’t need, or want any of this. Also its totally optional. A friend of mine has a VERY successful indie games biz and he tweets maybe once a month, and he does write-only, he never even reads twitter. He is a hero.

One of the reasons I intend to blog more and tweet less, is that this blog is mine. Its not even hosted by wordpress, its on a dedicated server. if you are abusive, you get blocked for life, no come-backs, no exceptions. ah… *bliss*.

Things I enjoyed

Succession. TV show loosely based on a fictional Murdoch family. Amazing. Watch it

Silicon Valley. TV show, final series was this year, fantastic, loved it.

The Goldfinch. Great movie. I didn’t expect to like it…not my kinda thing. but it was a very nice surprise.

Samsung stupidly wide monitor. Absolutely amazeballs. Couldn’t imagine gaming without it now.

Company of one. Business book, the joys of staying small.

So yeah…thats my 2019. Hope yours was cool :D