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On December 16, 2003, popular web magazine Slate published an article by journalist and author Steven Johnson (Johnson 2003). Reviewing simulation games that engage problems of social organization, Johnson posed a question: “The [2004] U.S. presidential campaign may be the first true election of the digital age, but it’s still missing one key ingredient. Where is the video-game version of Campaign 2004?” Upon reading this article, we smiled at its perfect timing: at that very moment we were developing the Howard Dean for Iowa Game (Persuasive Games / Bogost & Frasca 2003), the first official videogame ever commissioned in the history of US Presidential elections.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean failed miserably in his bid to become the 2004 Democratic US Presidential candidate. Still, he was incredibly successful in changing the way political campaigns of all types are carried out. Dean supporters made extensive use of new media tools such as email, websites, and blogs to foster support from the grassroots. Howard Dean was also the first candidate to use a videogame as endorsed political speech.

The Dean game was launched during Christmas week 2003. Players were able to play it for free on the candidate’s webpage. It was very successful in terms of audience: it reached 100,000 plays in the month before the Iowa caucus, a very respectable number considering its novelty and the fact that it was launched during the holidays.

Designing the game was quite a challenge. Even though we both were experienced game developers, nobody had tried something like this before. The web was plagued with satirical amateur Flash games, but we faced many difficult questions: how do we tailor a videogame to convey an endorsed political message? How do we craft it so the public does not dismiss it as trivial? How does it integrate with the rest of the campaign? This article reviews the design and production process behind the Howard Dean for Iowa game. It also locates itself within the context of the games that followed it on both sides of the political fence.


Read the rest of this article in print in Second Person, or online at the Electronic Book Review

published February 28, 2007