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In Zambia, two people were burnt to death in an outbreak of xenophobic violence targeting Rwandans after people were accused of committing a spate of ritualistic killings. Three Danish journalists, covering Ghana’s mining practices for a documentary, had their equipment seized and were physically accosted by the country’s security forces under new media censoring laws that require journalists to get permission before filming and to submit the material for a “Conformity Reality Check” by the Information Services Department. In South Africa, the Constitution is getting its hardest workout in years: our president disrespects it, opposition parties ignore it, and racist social media comments have put its free speech tenets under the microscope.

Democracy 3: Africa (hereafter referred to as D3A) is about these countries. It’s also not. As a “political strategy” game, Positech took on the daunting challenge of modelling ten African democracies and handing you their reins, without proselytising. Whether or not you “fix” these countries is irrelevant: your primary goal is to get re-elected, for as many terms as your Constitution allows. You do this, ideally, through spending political capital – the “currency” generated by your ministers and any authoritarian measures you have in place – to enact and tweak policies that feed into situations and problems that plague your country.

Game info

I’m fascinated with the premise: few games actually attempt to portray Africa at all – save as a locale that provides convenient fodder for military shooters – so the idea of actively tackling the gamut of issues faced by the continent’s democracies via the platform of politics and government is intriguing.

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D3A represents your chosen country, its quandaries and qualities, as a galaxy of neatly partitioned bubbles within the demographics of your voters. Hovering over any particular element shows negative and positive lines of influence flowing between associated bubbles, with the speed of the flow indicating how severe the impact one bubble currently has on the other. Part of the game’s challenge lies in understanding not only the waterfall impact every decision has, but also that your voters identify with multiple categories on the political spectrum.

It’s an interesting balancing act as you try to funnel positive values into the right spheres while simultaneously pleasing your voter base. I was initially struck by analysis paralysis, tracing the various knock-on effects of the bubbles and drilling down to their root causes. D3A features a minimalist, but extraordinarily good user interface: regardless of which screen you’re on, clicking on any cause, effect or voter will open up the relevant element, letting you navigate the political landscape at speed. You need every bit of help you can get, because D3A is tough, in part because it’s initially so difficult to simply survive a single term.

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Failure to address the concerns of certain voters can drive them to join radical groups out for a more, uh, final solution to perceived government complacency. Because the base state of gender equality is so poor for almost all the nations, I often found myself assassinated in the first couple of turns by the Matriarchs of Justice, a radical feminist group, despite enacting several policies to improve the rights of women. While initially surprising, it quickly became an immense frustration; you eventually learn the right mix of actions to take to delay and minimise deaths, but as you can only really influence the statistical chance of an assassination being successful, it’s still possible to put all the correct measures in place and have a game derailed by an unlucky dice roll.

Checking the discussion forums highlights that it’s a common occurrence among most of the player base. Fortunately, you can turn off the event entirely in the options, which I heartily recommend. It’s difficult enough as it is enacting positive change while retaining the support of a voter base diametrically opposed to policies that combat things like female genital mutilation and child labour.

D3A gives you some insight into why government can appear so capricious in spite of all its good intentions – and how an apathetic evil can fester in between the numbers. When playing as South Africa, for example, I got presented with an event that would allow me to institute a comprehensive STD education programme. But I was a couple of turns away from elections, and I knew how my voter base – precariously just below the 50% mark required to survive another term – felt about the “immorality” they imagined such a programme would encourage.

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They’re quite an ungrateful lot, those voters. Were they not pleased that I had decisively ended the violent crime pandemic at the beginning of my first term? Had I not improved the standard level of education for all citizens and provided homes for the destitute? Was nobody happy that I’d effectively dealt with the country’s skills shortage, and reduced unemployment to hitherto unrecorded levels? The STD education programme was a matter that would need to be similarly addressed… in time. That time was not now. So I passed on it. My voter base was pleased. I checked the HIV/AIDS crisis – the deliberate spike in infections, the negative impact it was having on health. I successfully passed the election with, if I recall correctly, a 76% approval.

Ugh. UUUGH. I got through a second term with less struggle, but my guilt over the programme lingered. I never did remove that red ribbon from my screen.

“Well, what about Zambia?” I thought. I selected a higher difficulty, loaded up Zambia and balked. Race riots. Street gangs. Power blackouts. Religious persecution. Child labour is legal. Political interference by my own military. Gender inequality on a massive scale. Poor network infrastructure. South Africa is “easy mode” by comparison. I alt-tabbed to the Zambian Wikipedia page; I try to grasp some of the problems – how, for example, Zambia has strict anti-trafficking laws to combat child labour, but it’s proven ineffectual in dealing with the scourge due to the rural population bartering their children in exchange for for essential goods. Those children – all 600,000 of them, roughly 5% of Zambia’s entire population – are then “employed” in the mining and agriculture sectors.

I alt-tab back to D3A. Child Labour decreases the overall level of Education, but improves your GDP. While I managed to improve several areas in Zambia, I never succeeded in getting the voter base to like me. [Rick’s Note: I originally said that Child Labour increases Agricultural Efficiency and Competitive Economy – upon rereading the review, it felt off, so I double-checked and Child Labour does not affect these two factors, instead adding to the Rural population’s Happiness. The other situation was also not Competitive Economy but Uncompetitive Economy, which has no direct link to Child Labour. I’ve corrected the original text. My apologies.]

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The game’s not perfect. For example, it gives you several repressive policies to deploy and tracks a Dictatorship stat against a Democracy stat… but all this does is give you additional political capital to spend on policies that will please the populace. What I’m getting at is that it’s kind of odd that if you go the dictator route, elections still occur and if voters aren’t happy with you, you’re still out. Also, firing individual cabinet ministers negatively impacts other ministers’ loyalty so badly that it’s better to simply reshuffle your entire cabinet, which I think would probably be more of a concern.

Is it fun? I think anyone with strong ideas about what constitutes effective governance, what causes particular social ills to arise, or who really wants to know what happens when you have, say, 100% of your population employed by the state, will appreciate the toolbox D3A provides. For the rest of us: just launch a policy, adjust a slider, pop a bubble. Take the long view. It’s for their own good.

73More analogy engine than game, Democracy 3: Africa is an armchair ideologist’s paradise.

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