By Chris Swain, Chair of the Game Design School at the New York Film Academy

Americans are beyond fed up with gridlock in Congress. Did you ever wonder how we got this way? Can we make the system better? A team of top political scientists and game designers came together to create a playable online game that makes clear a root cause of partisan gridlock: congressional redistricting. That’s right: redistricting.

The game is The ReDistricting Game. It isa project I led at the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at USC. We created it so anybody can play with the dynamics of this complex social issue and come to their own hands-on understanding of how it works and how it affects our democracy. We got help from, the League of Women Voters, the Campaign Legal Center, and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. . I was able to draw such qualified people in this effort because The ReDistricting Game hits at perhaps the most fundamental and yet broadly overlooked component of the federal legislative branch. This is how congressional seats are allocated and how power is achieved state by state in the Congress.

The finite number of 435 congressional seats basically follows population distribution, which is ever-changing with population growth and migration between states. As populations shift from the Northern and Eastern states to the South and West – by and large the trends over several past decades – some states lose and others gain congressional seats. Many states experience some in-state migrations as well, essentially requiring all states to establish new district lines.

In real life redistricting, the majority party of the state legislature determines where the new congressional lines are drawn. As The ReDistricting Game illustrates, those lines are actually the product of a mapmaker consultant hired by the legislature to meticulously draw the lines on the map for each district.

The game rules are the same as the real U.S. laws. You play as the mapmaker consultant. And you must draw the lines so that the state legislature will approve them. You learn quickly that you can zig and zag the lines in order to group Democratic voters and Republican voters into the districts to make districts “safe” for the party you are working for. Safe means you have grouped >52% of either Democratic or Republican voters in a district.

We created five game “missions:” Fundamentals, Partisan Gerrymander, Bipartisan Gerrymander, Voting Rights Act and Reform. Each mission illustrates one fundamental aspect of the complex issue so you can see for yourself how it works.

Each mission follows the same steps that are in real redistricting:

  1. Draw and redraw a map – Move map lines and see how the cartoon Congress people react. Pack too many of the wrong voters in a rep’s district and he howls at you. Remove a rep’s home from her district and steam comes out her ears.
  2. Get feedback – See how the state legislature, governor, and the courts – e.g. the people who will vote your map into law – will react. Go rogue and defy the party in control of the state legislature and you are going nowhere.
  3. Submit for approval – Put it up for vote and see if you can actually get past the Courts.

All of this is to show how the system really works. The game is bi-partisan in that every mission can be played as either Democrat or Republican and the player can see that both sides use the same tactics. Ultimately this illustrates how the issue of redistricting reform is not a left versus right issue, but rather an issue of people versus entrenched government.  The people who are empowered to change redistricting are the U.S. Congress – and they have the least incentive to do so.

Playing the game and reading the related quotes from leading politicians and thinkers provides insight on how this one seemingly arcane part of our system fuels gridlock and partisanship. The reason is that the system forces mapmakers to create districts that are “safe” for either Democrats or Republicans. This in turn causes the candidates in those primary elections to appeal – not to their whole constituency – but rather just the Democrats or Republicans within their constituency. This means every two years – when congressional elections are held – we get representatives who are even more rigidly Democrat or Republican. The system itself perpetuates the problem.

Before retiring from Congress in 2011, Representative John Tanner (D-TN) was interviewed by Andrea Seabrook of National Public Radio about his efforts at redistricting reform in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition. “You’re asking people [the Congress] to give up an awful lot of power,” Tanner said. Seabrook reported that if voters have fun playing the game, they’ll start to understand how the system is gaming them. “And then maybe they’ll demand change,” she said, concluding her report.

Universities and high schools around the country including USC, Yale, the University of Colorado, Michigan State, and many others use The ReDistricting Game in the classroom. Perhaps students in the best game design schools who are interested in serious games hope their work will ultimately change the world – or at least what people understand about it.

About Chris Swain

Chris Swain is a leader in the game industry having co-founded the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at USC and leading over 50 products in industry including games for Disney, Microsoft, Sony, The Los Angeles Times, Rockefeller Foundation, U.S. Department of Defense, Discovery Channel, Intel, among others. Serious games that Chris has created include Ecotopia, Play the Game Save the Planet, a cinematic, story-driven game focused on environmental protection, and The Redistricting Game, which was funded by the Annenberg Center for Communication to educate citizens on the U.S. congressional redistricting process. He is the creative director in the Game Design program at the New York Film Academy.

US Capitol BuildingPlay the Game:  The basic and advanced versions of the game are laid out in five missions: Fundamentals, Partisan Gerrymander, Bipartisan Gerrymander, Voting Rights Act and Reform.

The foundation of democracy is representation, which is generally assumed to be in proportion to the ideals of the citizenry. But congressional district gerrymandering effectively skews elections to the extremes of both parties, which The ReDistricting Game helps illustrate.

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