Critical Intel

Critical Intel
This Republican Video Game is the Elephant in the Room

Robert Rath | 4 Sep 2014 12:00
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In some ways, you have to feel bad for the Republican Party.

Demographics have put them between a rock and a hard place - their social conservatism attracts older voters but turns off younger ones, and catering specifically to the youth vote risks alienating their base. Worse still, efforts to redefine and evolve conservatism for the next generation have mostly fallen flat or met a lukewarm response, with incumbents too nervous to make the overhauls they need for big boosts. Short-term concerns keep making them kick the can on long-term problems.

So instead of a policy shift, we get 2014 Mission Majority, a video game the National Republican Senatorial Committee ("NRSC") hopes will encourage young voters to donate to Republican efforts in the midterm elections and join up as campaign volunteers.

There's a problem, though: Mission Majority is awful. It's slapdash beyond belief, and it's hard to pinpoint the game's intended audience. And ironically, for a game that preaches fiscal conservatism, it comes off as an eyebrow-raising waste of money.

Before we get to why, I'd like to say that I think the NRSC's idea was basically a sound one. Advertising politics through games is nothing new. The Obama campaign bought in-game ad space in several games, including Need for Speed: Carbon and Madden NFL 13. Further, creating games as political ads makes sense. Even simple games can make sophisticated arguments, and because games allow us to play out different scenarios, they're ideal for communicating the consequences of choice. Games also have an inherent "cool" factor with young people, especially if it's either well-produced (like 7 Up's Cool Spot) or has a winking in-joke feel (Burger King's Sneak King). That's largely how ads work - they either have to be slick or funny, and everything in the middle dies.

2014 Mission Majority is neither slick nor funny.

The problems start with the title. Shouldn't it be Mission: Majority, in the same way the TV show was Mission: Impossible? Without that colon in the center the phrase is meaningless, even more so when you add the 2014 in front of it. Normally I wouldn't criticize a game over an ungrammatical title, but it's indicative of the game's lazy design philosophy that they couldn't even get the title right.

Then there's the paywall. When you visit the site, you're confronted with a mandatory login screen forcing you to link the site with your Facebook, Google+ or email account. It's a backward design decision. The point of the game - presumably - is to recruit new donors and volunteers, but by asking them to make that commitment before allowing them to play the game, you're going to lose people right from the start. Advertising is supposed to entice and convince someone into buying a product - but Mission Majority holds back its content until you pay them with your contact details. I'm willing to bet that if you looked at the metrics for Mission Majority you'd find that most visitors never make it past the sign-in screen.

Once you sign in, (with 10 Minute Mail, in my case) it quickly becomes apparent that Mission Majority is not a subtle experience. A brief introduction screen introduces you to your player character Giopi - "GOP," get it? - a pixelated elephant in a red white and blue muscle shirt and sweatband. Giopi's mission is to collect golden keys that will "unlock the Senate" for the Republican Party.

The game tells me that these keys represent campaign volunteers, but I don't see the connection unless the NRSC locks volunteers in the phone bank until they've called enough numbers.

In any case, to advance to the next level, Giopi has to collect three golden keys while avoiding the Goomba-like Taxers - "job-destroying" tax bills that Harry Reid and Obama sent to stop him.

"Jumping on top of them suppresses their high taxes," Mission Majority adds, in a line no comedy show could top.

Two things become clear as soon as you drop into the game: first, that Mission Majority was finished on a quick turnaround, and second, that this game is changing no one's mind about the Republican party.

I'm tempted to call Mission Majority a Super Mario Bros. clone, but that might give the impression that it retains design elements that make the Mario series fun. It's more like one of those edutainment knockoffs that's supposed to teach you Bible trivia. Like Mario, Giopi runs, jumps and kills enemies by stomping on them, but all the little touches are removed. Giopi's run speed doesn't vary, he has no scoot motion when changing direction, and his jumps are leaden with a high arc. The last example creates the worst problem in the game, since the Taxers are significantly taller than Goombas, leaving little room for error when you splat them. This jump distance goes from annoying to maddening once you realize that the game doesn't progress left to right, but instead climbs upwards. Giopi's hops are barely adequate to clear the gaps between platforms, and the game likes to put enemies on small platforms to restrict landing space. If you fall you'll rarely stop partway, but plummet straight to the ground where you'll begin the climb anew. The difficulty curve is so punishing that I never fully got the hang of it until my second playthrough. There's huge potential for players to rage quit before they get to the donation and volunteer sign-up page.

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