Video Games, Internet Sites Going Political

Online games aren't just for entertainment anymore.

"Fantasy Congress" is just one of a host of new online ventures designed to politically engage a digital generation.

"Fantasy Congress" is the brainchild of Andrew Lee, a senior at Claremont McKenna College.

He says the game is not unlike other fantasy sport games. It is designed for users to earn points as their team -- in this case, four senators and 12 House members -- push legislation toward a successful conclusion.

"It's just like fantasy football," Lee said to ABC News, "but instead of drafting football players, you draft members of Congress."

Based on actual legislation making its way through the hallowed halls of Congress, "Fantasy Congress" gives power to the people and allows its users to draft a team of 16 real-life legislators ranging across the congressional spectrum -- i.e., you can't just pick the All-Stars -- to earn points as bills move through Congress and to the president's desk.

"You're gonna have to do some research and try to figure out: Who are the House 'Rookies?' Who are the well-performing people in the bottom-third of the U.S. House of Representatives?" Lee said.

In keeping with the rules of other fantasy sports, members of Congress can be traded on weekends on and off a team's active lineup to most efficiently strategize for the next week.

Where it might differ, say, from "Fantasy Football" is in the length of time it takes for a bill to become a law versus the length of time it takes for a football to travel down the field.

To Lee, the game's goal is to teach.

"If people cared about Congress as much as they cared about football," Lee said, "we'd have a much better-educated populace."

With the presidential election two years away, this election season, catering to a world where the politically minded and Internet-inclined seek online shelter, "Fantasy Congress" is not the first and won't be the last.

For a video-game creator like Randy Chase, engaging interest in politics across new media territories is a been-there, done-that scenario.

For 14 years, he's been doing it -- operating on a personal philosophy to stimulate intellect along with audiovisual reflexes.

In 1992, he debuted a game called "Power Politics."

In 1995, he followed with "Power Politics II," better known as the "Doonesbury Election Game." In 2005, "Power Politics III" was released.

"The biggest danger to our form of governing isn't terrorism. It isn't China," Chase said. "It's apathetic ignorant voters. And I hope that my games might spark interest, maybe educate them, and make them think about what they see on the evening news."

In Chase's video reality, it is the presidential election season, and the user is cast in the role of a campaign manager trying to help his or her candidate win the presidency.

The game incorporates the candidates' statistics and a cast of hundreds of real-world potential running mates to recreate the voting landscape.

Hooked on the sport of presidential campaigning since the Nixon-Kennedy race of 1960, Chase became fascinated with the science and strategy of candidate marketing.

"There is no perfect candidate. They all have strengths and weaknesses," he said. "One of the goals of my game is to show how to tailor a campaign based on those strengths and weaknesses."

Playing to those strengths and weaknesses is the name of the game as candidates are rated on charisma, debating and marketing, among other things.

Chase says that as a campaign manager with a candidate like George H.W. Bush, you might not schedule a lot of news conferences, but with a candidate like Bill Clinton, you'd plan on a lot of effective campaign events.

Chase insists he's not trying to make it something it's not.

"I have no pretense of being able to educate people," he said. "I'm a game designer, and I just try to make people think. And make them think about the political process."

It's not just games, either.

Social-networking sites have also played politics this election season, hoping to carve out sections of the market as their own.

Last month, Facebook.com -- a 2½-year-old online social-networking enterprise initially popularized by the college crowd and now 10 million strong -- announced an "Election Pulse" page designed to provide a detailed rundown of the gubernatorial and congressional races as well as state-by-state analysis of how each candidate polled among Facebook users.

Registered users can search for candidates, follow highlighted races, join campaign issue groups, link to photos of candidates from their own pages, and even post comments on the Facebook profiles of candidates they support.

"You have my vote and best of luck, sir," says one Facebook commenter on Michigan GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos' page. "Michigan needs change and you're the man for the job."

Another commenter, on Pennsylvania Democratic senatorial candidate Bob Casey's Facebook page, simply says: "Please win!"

The "Election Pulse" ran as part of Facebook.com's Election 2006 Network.

In an effort to include every congressional and gubernatorial race in the country, Facebook populated the Election 2006 Network with 1,400 profiles ultimately distributed to the various campaigns.

At last count, about 300 of the campaigns had taken over managing their own profiles, updating them with information that the Facebook crowd might want to know about their favorite candidates.

For this election cycle, MTV's Rock the Vote has partnered with Facebook's Election 2006 Network, having had a successful run with MySpace.com in a similar venture in 2004.

Hans Riemer, Rock the Vote's Washington-based political director, says that the sheer volume of voter-registration forms that were downloaded from its Web site during the last cycle proved that ventures like these in new media is not to be ignored.

"Someone isn't going to win the 2008 presidential election by having a page on Facebook," Riemer said. "But they might have thousands of volunteers. And there are uses for it like that, that are very effective."

"The overall trend that civic participation is rising and that new technologies have something to do with it," Riemer continues, "Breaking down the barriers to get people involved is working."

In Facebook's most recent measure, more than 1 million registered users have so far engaged in the Election 2006 Network -- either supporting a candidate or a campaign issue group.

Two years away from the next presidential election, the voice, direction and creativity of this emerging demographic could go any number of directions as it embraces its right to assemble online in a digital world that mixes and remixes humor, current events and political action.

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