There are simulation games that try to be neutral. SimCity never lays out its philosophy of urban planning. Democracy lets you rewrite its rules to role-play any democratic system. These are games that aim to reflect reality, and sometimes, developers even recoil at the idea that they have an ideology at all.
Democratic Socialism Simulator is not that kind of allegedly dispassionate system. It’s a new project from Molleindustria, the studio founded by Carnegie Mellon professor and developer Paolo Pedercini, known for games like Phone Story and Every Day the Same Dream. Part wry edutainment and part leftist in-joke, DSS makes you the first Democratic Socialist president of America and then pelts you with scandals, lobbyists, and impending environmental doom, all played out with colorful talking animals.
DSS’s interface lays its (literal) cards on the table, encouraging you to rebuild America based on ecological sustainability, economic equality, worker organization, and citizen engagement — “all the good stuff,” as the game labels its “people’s power” meter. This happens through a Reigns-style binary choice system. Advisors put forward policy questions, which can be as serious as building a border wall or as trivial as picking your outfit for a speech. You drag the card toward one of two options, and the game responds with short- and long-term consequences.
Instead of being a monarch, though, you’re the president. So your choices don’t just make you more or less popular. Some aren’t possible without a congressional majority, which depends on Democrats’ performance in the midterm elections, which depend on how many voters you win or alienate. Choices may disappoint your advisers or even make them quit — and since they’re all cute anthropomorphized animals, like a polar bear conservationist or black panther civil rights leader, this is emotionally devastating.
The game requires more pragmatism than its name suggests. In an introduction to the game, Pedercini says it’s not designed as a “power fantasy” for democratic socialists, but as a way to conceptualize ambitious policies like the Green New Deal while exploring their obstacles — you can even peruse a spreadsheet with every choice and consequence. So its options aren’t all socialist, socialist options don’t always have positive effects, and you can’t steamroll opposition by disregarding traditional politics. (Let the deficit grow too much, and even Jacobin — sorry, “Jackalin” — will scold you!)
The game includes hard fail states like losing your reelection bid, being asked to resign, and failing that, getting forcibly escorted out of office. At best, you’ll pass the country to a new president with a decent Democratic approval rating, solid policy record, and substantially reduced carbon footprint.
My DSS playthroughs were governed by inertia and compromise. I got kicked out of office twice: once as an unwavering socialist, and once as a corporatist xenophobe who blew my budget on deportations. Otherwise, I stayed the course in predictable ways. I’d put my weight behind nationalizing Google or massively taxing pollution, then throw a bone to billionaires with a conciliatory meeting. Regretfully swipe left on some smaller acts of leftism. Then indulge a little righteous satisfaction (end cash bail!), as a treat.
But pragmatic isn’t the same as amoral. DSS is written like a lighthearted but devout DSA Twitter account, poking fun at overblown military budgets (“Budget Item: Space Force ... Still figuring out its purpose. Very promising”), timid centrist Democrats, and a hyperventilating Fox News anchor who is literally a fox. It allows for different political positions, but it doesn’t present them as equally ethical, nor suggest that players are simply expressing themselves in a judgment-free sandbox.
At the same time, Pedercini suggests that DSS doesn’t have a straightforward message about socialism, partly because it’s based so much on randomness and unintended consequences. The text emphasizes that you’re playing out simulations, which — by their nature — are fraught with simplifications, artificial limits, and potentially straight-up mistakes. So instead of being a commentary on whether socialism “works” or how to achieve it, Democratic Socialism Simulator is simply a political game that treats democratic socialist policies like reasonable ideas, then plays out their trade-offs in a surprisingly adorable setting. That’s more than enough reason to give it a try.
Democratic Socialism Simulator is available on Android, macOS, Windows, and Linux, and it’s awaiting App Store approval on iOS.