Shadow Government tries to combine real-world policy with casual gameplay

Mike Schramm
M. Schramm|03.14.12

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Shadow Government tries to combine real-world policy with casual gameplay

Shadow Government was probably the most fascinating game I saw at GDC. I should probably clarify that: I didn't see much of the game in action, but what I did see showed off an excellently designed UI and some good looking (if a little complicated) Farmville-style game mechanics. The most fascinating thing about Shadow Government isn't what it does, but what its developers hope to do.

Nicholas Fortugno is the game's main designer, and though he's still fairly young, he has a number of solid iOS and award-winning game credits to his name. He's also a teacher of game design, and with Shadow Government, he says he's aiming to not only bring up the level of these Farmville-like social freemium games, but also help players to take a long, hard look at the effects of real-life issues.

That may sound a little nuts -- it certainly does to me. But Shadow Government isn't just driven by Fortugno's freemium engine. It's also driven by a number of simulations from a real-life group called The Millennium Institute, a think tank that does hardcore policy analysis for a number of corporations and countries around the world, setting up models as accurately as possible that will predict the given effects for any number of real life decisions. What if the price of oil goes up, or agriculture is de-funded, or minimum wages in a certain company go down? The Millennium Institute models situations exactly like that, and Fortugno has been given access to all of those simulations in order to model this game.

On the surface of Shadow Government, you're placed in control of the future of the real-life United States and given a set of freemium tools to make decisions for the country. Do you build up industry by building a factory, or grow education by building a school? Underneath that relatively simple interface, the Millennium Institute's simulations are running. If you want to, you'll be able to dive into the background of the app and really see the effects all of your decisions have. Fortugno hopes that the game will actually teach people how certain policies work by dealing with real-world issues in this very social, casual way.

The policies and analyses that Fortugno talks about and that the Millennium Institute researches are extremely complicated affairs, some that I'm sure would require multiple degrees of study to really research and understand fully. But Fortugno is convinced that even given the relatively simple interface of a freemium game, he can at least get people interested in making these decisions. Seeing the effects of those decisions might push people to educate themselves further.

Shadow Government's not necessarily an educational game. As Fortugno told me, it wouldn't help to market the game that way, and it's not necessarily meant to be an experience built around numbers and simulations. But Fortugno says it is meant to be a title "for people who don't play games in contexts that they don't play games about." In other words, Fortugno's trying to take Farmville and actually use it to make people think about and even understand the real world around them a little further.

Shadow Government is currently being worked out in a closed beta, and it's set to come out later this year. Fortugno certainly has the chops for a project like this, and as I watched him animatedly talk at GDC, it became apparent very quickly that he wants to make it work. The game's idea and ideals are both quite fascinating, so I hope Shadow Government pulls it off.

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