Politics: It's All Just A Game

This just in: Bill Clinton and Al Gore were reelected today. The President and Vice-President captured 43.5% of the popular vote while collecting 367 electoral votes. Challengers Bob Dole and Jack Kemp trailed with 38.7% of the vote and 171 electoral votes. Ross Perot and his running mate General Norman Schwarzkopf tallied 17.8% of the vote and were shut out of the electoral college.

No, you haven't hurled yourself two months into the future. That's simply how the Presidential race played out during a round of The Doonesbury Election Game: Campaign '96, a computer simulation CD-ROM put out by Mindscape.

CARVILLE, MATALIN. With the 1996 campaign in full swing, election junkies who own a computer can quench their thirst for politics without straying from the keyboard. For some time now, the Internet has been a haven for discussion groups across the political spectrum. And the World Wide Web is populated with sites from Doonesbury (http://www.doonesbury.com), the League of Women Voters (http://www.electriciti.com/~lwvus), the candidates themselves, and countless news organizations. For instance, at PoliticsNow (http://politics now.com), you can read stories from the Washington Post, National Journal, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times, plus extra analysis of the races and issues.

A couple of Web sites, plus the Doonesbury CD-ROM, are aimed at diehards who have a trace of James Carville or Mary Matalin in their blood. The Doonesbury disk lets you take the helm of the Clinton, Dole, or Perot organizations, or cook up an election strategy for a past or present politician. Or you can create a faux candidate, chosen according to a variety of issues and personal attributes.

At the start, players-turned-campaign-handlers must select a staff of advisers from a pool of Doonesbury characters. These include a spin doctor, financial adviser, and--if you're bent on dirty tricks--a plumber. Campaign managers choose where their candidates should advertise and arrange the itinerary (fund-raisers, whistle-stops) for the Presidential and Veep contenders. As the game unfolds, newspapers, polls, and press releases pop up on the screen to give you a sense of how your man (or woman) is faring.

On the Web, the President '96 site from Crossover Technologies and the Markle Foundation, and DarkHorse: The Virtual Campaign Game from Byron Preiss Multimedia, Microsoft, and NBC, take different stabs at simulating an election. President '96, which is also available via America Online, depicts fictional candidates who resemble real-life figures, ranging from Senator Bill Dickey, a Dole prototype who heads the GOP ticket, to Democrat Eleanor Connors, a former attorney general from Dade County, Fla. who is known as a law-and-order liberal. The candidates are played by actors and have their own Web sites where you can download biographies, press releases, or stump speeches.

To play, you glom onto the campaign team of a candidate and participate in a National Opinion Survey on the issues that drive voters. There are 16,200 survey takers and 7,500 registered players. The idea is to mold your candidate's position on eight issues--from abortion to taxes--and get him or her to respond in certain ways to news events. However, each candidate has a "bedrock" issue on which he or she will not budge. Players can also try to influence their fellow campaign managers in Web and AOL chat rooms and on bulletin boards. The winners will be announced on Election Day, Nov. 5.

TRIVIA. In DarkHorse, players select a platform and are given 50 campaign moves to win their party's nomination. Each time a candidate travels, a move is used up. Players start out with $5 million and must figure out how best to spend the cash. They are also responsible for choosing which primary states to campaign and advertise in, while responding along the way to political trivia questions and scenarios that may or may not boost their candidate's popularity, visibility--and campaign coffers. One example: "The most prestigious military academy in the state has a century-old tradition of admitting men only. Now a female high school student wants to be admitted. What's your position?"

Get the hang of all these election games, and you just might wind up elbowing the likes of Jim and Mary aside. Politics calls for new blood, after all, and the next White House race is but four years away.

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