Help, I’ve Been Making Hyper-Real Political Campaign Simulators for 15 Years

“Politics is basically a civil war, right?”

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Oct 16 2015, 6:28pm

Photo: Anthony Burgoyne

Prime Minister Infinity should not be a fun game. As a super-realistic political simulator that lets you take control of one of Canada's main political parties—and then take them, step by arduously researched step, to victory in the 2015 federal election—it sounds like the kind of game you played in elementary school between sessions of Math Circus.

You can create ads, target specific ridings, change your policy positions, and more, all up until election day—and somehow, unbelievably, Prime Minister Infinity is actually fun.

Harper gets a 15 percent ad strength bonus. Hell yes. That slays.

The game is just the latest installment in a series of global campaign simulators that go back 15 years to the 2000 US presidential election. Every single one was helmed by Anthony Burgoyne, a 38-year-old philosophy PhD and political wonk living in Vancouver, British Columbia, who just can't stop making hyper-real campaign sims—nor does he want to, even though it's occupied close to half of his life.

"Politics is basically a civil war, right?" Burgoyne said, when I spoke to him on the phone. "The game dynamics for the current games is, to a significant extent, based on a turn-based, territorial conquest game. But you don't actually fight in politics. You have ads instead of tanks."

Harper has strong command game, but his corruption stats aren't great. Screengrab: Prime Minister Infinity

The game plays somewhat similarly to a match of Civilization, or any other turn-based strategy game. The player chooses their party based on their leaders' stats, and then takes turns executing a strategy against his or her political opponents, which are played by the computer.

I'm not even totally sure myself why I think this game is fun—maybe I just have a thing for crafting hilariously aggressive attack ads to sink my computer opponents? When playing as Stephen Harper, I couldn't find the "niqab" or "nice hair" buttons in the ad menu, but I did target Justin Trudeau's Liberals for wanting to legalize weed. It only had a 10 percent chance of succeeding, but thankfully Harper gets a 15 percent ad strength bonus. Hell yes. That slays.

When I asked Burgoyne how it felt to make what is essentially the same game over and over for more than a decade, he said, "I didn't even realize that it's been going on for that long." Of course, he admits, there are some days when he really doesn't want to think about politics, but it keeps drawing him back in.

The amount of work that clearly went into Prime Minister Infinity is a bit surprising. To target a riding, you select a part of the country, and a menu opens up listing every riding in the area—there are 338 in all of Canada—and lists stats like how well you're polling, whether it's been targeted by others, what your momentum is like, and of course, your ad power in the region.

But, since it is a game after all, you can also make your politician of choice do some "hilarious" things. "Hilarious" is in quotes there, because although there is some novelty in making greenhouse gas reduction a platform point for Harper, it's pretty sad that that is funny at all.

Only in dreams. Screengrab: Prime Minister Infinity

Burgoyne told me that he works with a team of researchers to make the games, headed up by a lead wonk. For Prime Minister Infinity, the chief researcher for the historical campaign portion of the game actually lives in Mississippi. He's just really, really into Canadian politics, Burgoyne said.

"If you were to do what the parties did on a day-by-day basis, as far as the game allows you to, my guess is that it would probably be pretty realistic," Burgoyne said of the game's intended realism. "I know we had someone do that for a previous election, and they came out with a result that was pretty close to an actual result."

I couldn't verify this claim myself, but having played the game, it really does seem plausible, given how in-depth the whole thing is.

Prime Minister Infinity retails for $19.95 CND, and Burgoyne says he's sold tens of thousands of copies of his simulators over the years at a rate of $10-20 each. For such a wonky game, that's not a bad haul, even over 15 years.

Will he stop anytime soon? "I really enjoy game design and I hope to keep doing it," Burgoyne said. "At least for the next few years, I don't see anything outside of the political realm."