Taking Indian politics to board games: How 'Shasn' and 'The Poll' place players in the shoes of politicians
Not only do Shasn and The Poll mimic the Indian electoral process, but they also allow players to experience the dirtiness that comes with it — stoking caste tensions, campaigning, even declaring war
Shasn was created to encourage people to learn about the political system and its processes and pitfalls, and to kick-start a more nuanced political discourse.
The Poll was created to give voters a vocabulary of policy promises made by parties; and to give the urban audience an understanding of the way caste works in an election
Both games include factors like conspiracies, media muscle, caste tensions and questions about citizens' rights in a democracy.
On the first day, we surveyed three constituencies, diverse in terms of the problems they faced and people who belonged to them. We swapped around policies to draft our manifestoes. Would these manifestoes solve the problems of the people, or would they merely help win seats? It didn’t matter; we argued, fought and talked, after which we campaigned with earnestness. Alliances were made, and rugs were pulled from under people’s feet.
On the second day, we answered questions about policies – on the consumption of beef, feminine hygiene products, Vedic knowledge vs science – thereby building distinct political personalities for ourselves. We used the clout we gained from supporting certain policies to gain seats in a constituency, gerrymander and steal resources, and even oust other political parties.
The methods were different, but on both days, the goal was the same: To win elections and exercise power over the country.
You may never become a politician and contest elections, but playing a political board game can give you a taste of what it is like. Two games of this kind, Shasn and The Poll, invite players to get their hands dirty in the murky world of the Indian political process.
SETTING THE STAGE
Shasn was created with a two-fold vision: to encourage people to learn about the political system and its processes and pitfalls, and to kick-start a more nuanced political discourse. “When players find themselves making the same tough decisions and experiencing the moral dilemmas that politicians do, they better understand the thought processes and behaviours of real word politicos, and become more vigilant citizens,” says Zain Memon, the creator of the game.
It was conceived in January 2018. “We had the first version ready after six weeks of ideation and tinkering. We playtested it with hundreds of people over the next couple of months and made substantial revisions to the mechanics. The board itself has gone through over 20 versions, and we completely lost count on the number of revisions for some of the other mechanics,” said Zain. Months were spent ensuring that the game was balanced, that no one ideology or strategy was weaker or stronger than the others. “I am sure we will keep tweaking it till the moment we hit print,” Zain added. It has been created in-house entirely.
Shasn has been made by Memesys Culture Lab, the same studio that made An Insignificant Man, a film on the Jan Lokpal movement, Arvind Kejriwal’s entry into politics and the Aam Admi Party. “Through the course of making the film, all of us had intimate access to the inner workings of a political party. We built upon these learnings and used our love for games of all kinds to create an engaging political simulation,” said Zain.
Journalist Abeer Kapoor had three distinct reasons to build The Poll, at the very outset: To simulate the electoral process – its good and bad aspects included; to give voters a vocabulary of policy promises made by parties; and to give the urban audience an understanding of the way caste works in an election, as well as the ways in which parties use people and vote banks.
“To let ordinary, young people handle everything related to political affairs and let them make their own decisions. Moreover, through this simulation, I thought it would be interesting to get people who have lived with keeping politics at a distance to play with the elections, with their hands,” Abeer explains.
He began thinking about the game in late 2017 after the Uttar Pradesh elections and began work on it during the Karnataka elections. After the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung Foundation for Freedom supported the production of the game in September 2018, it was launched on 23 January.
Abeer’s own experience in journalism allowed him to make sense of the best way to approach the task at hand. “What The Poll does is gamify a process, a time-bound sequence, which often goes unnoticed by the average person. It’s the journalist, the political keeda, or those for who caste is an everyday lived reality that look at the list of candidates.”
At the core of Shasn are ethical questions about subjects like caste and rights (Should we introduce Gau-Rakshak day as a national holiday?). Players' answers to these dictate the kind of political persona they adopt in the game – that of an idealist, showman, supremo or capitalist. Conspiracies can be 'purchased' for a price; think hijacking an opponents' campaign or hoodwinking the public reserve. But they must also navigate bad news: Moles in oppositions getting greedy, or people finding out that your campaign is funded by a drug lord.
Conversation is at the heart of The Poll, says Abeer, which is an inevitable part of discussing policies and constituencies. Players must campaign and build effective manifestos. Campaign strategies – such as road shows, mass rallies – are at their disposal, as is media muscle, to amplify their hold on a constituency or reduce an opponent's. Elections can be turned around in entirety, with a natural disaster, terrorist attack or even war. “There is a dirtiness associated with politics, and my fear was that without engaging with that aspect of electoral politics especially with crime, corruption, caste and communalism, I wouldn’t have done justice to the system,” Abeer says.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS — AND SEEING THROUGH THEM
“Shasn is aimed at everyone really, because we do believe that politics is an inescapable part of life,” Zain explains, when asked who the target audience for the game is. He says that fans of resource management, strategy and war games are likely to take an interest in it. “The game forces you to put yourself in a politician’s shoes, so the least that happens is that you start seeing through the smoke and mirrors of modern politics,” he adds.
When Abeer began making The Poll, he thought about how he could get people, to whom the vote matters the most, to play the game. “What I am seeing as I travel with the game to different cities and spaces is how people are taking to the game: There seems to be a thirst in areas where people, young people, don’t have access to such tools and when they encounter them, they love it.”
While the Shasn team hopes that players will engage more with their actual representatives and vote, Abeer says he can’t quite get people to vote or influence their opinion. “Each player has to decide for themselves what they want to do. It’s very hard to get people to come and play this game, because we live in a country where electoral fatigue is a real thing. Every year, there are states going into elections, if there aren’t elections we are inching towards them. Also, voting is done on a host of factors,” he says.
The makers of both games claim that the games are agnostic to political leanings. They also claim that the games closely mimic the Indian electoral process, but this aspect manifests very differently in Shasn and The Poll.
Shasn delivers on its promise of providing an experience of politics – in all of its dirtiness. You may or may not feel guilt about taking unethical decisions to further your campaign, but you do understand what you stand to gain or lose by supporting an ideology. It keeps you on your feet constantly, while also prompting you to plan for the long run, especially when it comes to moves meant to weaken opponents. This can translate into a slightly longer learning curve. The metaphors in the game are rich and its teachings about the real world are more indirect or subconscious in nature.
The Poll is almost educational in nature, since it gives players information about corners of the country that don’t often make headlines. The fun starts when you have to campaign and convince other players about how your policy fits a constituency best. It seems more concerned with wins in each round, rather than the long run. The learning curve seems to be shorter, since the game is simpler. But it is sure to make people think more deeply about politicians’ promises.
GAMES PEOPLE PLAY
Are the creators concerned that people will begin to perceive politics as a game, or is that the intended consequence?
Zain says that in many ways, politics is comparable to a game, since there are defined objectives, rules of engagement, and resources. “However, we believe it only helps out to zoom out and look at politics as a macro-structure on a board game table. In basic game theory terms, politics was intended to be a non-zero sum exercise but almost always ends up being zero-sum.”
Abeer has a different take. He believes that games allow us to break down dense concepts into interactions, which he says are more powerful than panel discussions. “If old people drone on about elections, do we run under the fear that elections are boring? Also, if we see it as a game, the inaccessibility of it will go away.”