May 2, 2024 - Politics

Real data backs Plymouth-made presidential campaign game

A screenshot of the game with states illuminated and bobbleheads of Biden and Trump smiling.

A screenshot from The Political Machine. Photo: Courtesy of Stardock Entertainment

A video game created in Wayne County has had some success predicting outcomes of U.S. presidential elections, including seeing former President Trump as the winner in 2016, its makers say.

The big picture: On Thursday, Stardock Entertainment, a 30-year-old game developer based in Plymouth, launches the 2024 election edition of The Political Machine.

  • The company is known for strategy games, including Sins of a Solar Empire.

How it works: Players choose a candidate like President Biden, Trump, a third-party candidate or create their own, and vie for the presidency while building a campaign, fundraising, visiting swing states and smearing their opponent, whose actions are controlled by a highly informed AI.

  • The $19.99 game, with both solo and multiplayer play, is available for Windows. MacOS is in development.
  • It's been re-released every four years since the first version in 2004.

The intrigue: The game is meant to be fun for casual gamers and political strategists alike, but it's also built on a "pretty serious simulation," Brad Wardell, Stardock's CEO, tells Axios.

  • The Political Machine team claims it often predicts the electoral outcome of all but a couple states.
  • For example, it predicted that whoever won Ohio would win the 2004 election and predicted Biden would win Georgia in 2020, he says.

The simulation expected Trump to win the 2016 election, despite polls across the nation predicting Hillary Clinton's victory.

  • Stardock initially thought the Trump prediction was a "bug," Wardell says. "We went, well, this isn't right" and fixed it — but it turned out the "bug" was correct.
  • The game pointed to Wisconsin as a problem for Clinton because she didn't generate enough enthusiasm there, he says. Trump's Wisconsin win was unexpected.

Between the lines: The Stardock team conducts nuanced, state-by-state research on political issues, utilizing Census Bureau demographic data and assessing which issues are important each election cycle, and feeds it into its simulation.

  • "We have to determine how important a given issue is for this election, and you take that, and you effectively multiply, through a bunch of math, and it'll then say, 'This candidate is stronger or weaker in these states,'" Wardell says. That's multiplied by the enthusiasm a candidate generates.
  • The game gets updated regularly with important events.

What's next: The Political Machine was less accurate in 2020 because the high level of mail-in voting skewed the threshold for measuring enthusiasm needed to go out and vote. The team hopes it's been able to adjust for that issue for 2024.

The bottom line: Asked why politics makes for exciting gaming, William Erdman, Stardock senior game designer, tells Axios: "I think a lot of the reason people are drawn to political games … is the agency.

  • "People like to engage, test what they think will work … They want to see if their savvy lines up against other people's."
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