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In These Games, the Points are All Political, New York Times, July 1, 2004

BY day, Jeremy Kenney, 33, fixes Web sites and databases for the Republican National Committee. By night, on weekends and in his spare time he dabbles in an emerging form of political marketing: the online game.

Part advertisement, part journalism, part cartoon, such games put fun in the service of ideology — with varying sophistication.

One of Mr. Kenney’s efforts, Democratic Debate Bingo, is little more than an interactive cartoon. A more engaging game is John Kerry: Tax Invaders: the player controls President Bush’s head, which fires laser bolts at descending phalanxes of numbers. After fending off three waves of numbers, meant to represent prospective tax increases, the player is rewarded with the message, ”You’ve saved the country from John Kerry’s tax plans!”

A supporter of Mr. Bush but not much of a gamer himself, Mr. Kenney says his game development process is not elaborate. He vets an idea with colleagues, and if it is easy to program, he does it. Tax Invaders ”was a fluke,” he said. ”It was done within 24 hours. It was real, real fast. It was a fun thing to do for tax day.”

When it comes to creating political games, of course, more than one can play, and the Democrats are having their go at it as well. The recipe is simple: mix one part political message, one part 1990’s new-media optimism and one part computer animation, then bake until the money runs out.

Some skeptics say the partisan games are mere election-year novelties. ”The games are anecdotes,” said Andrew Rasiej, an Internet impresario who organized a recent conference on digital democracy at the New School for Social Research in New York. ”They’re cute and nice, and people will send them to each other, but they’re not going to capture their imagination because that populace will recognize that the culture that’s creating these games isn’t a natural Net culture. It’s a typical political machine using it to showcase itself.”

But advocates say the game format offers a powerful new political vehicle. Traditional forms of political communication like advertising treat voters as passive recipients of rhetoric, they say, while games entice the potential voter to interact with the message.

That is the perspective of Ian Bogost, who was hired two months ago by the Democratic National Convention Committee to produce a game, Opinions, that will be released on the Web this month.

In contrast to Mr. Kenney’s homegrown style, Mr. Bogost has a background as a professional game developer and game researcher and recently completed a doctorate in game design at the University of California, Los Angeles. This fall he will begin teaching as part of the new doctoral program in digital media at Georgia Tech. He is also nonpartisan. ”It’s just that the Republicans haven’t called me yet,” he said.

Dr. Bogost says he wanted to do more than attract voters, old or young, to a Web site. ”I didn’t get into games because I wanted to reach a demographic,” he said. ”I did it because I think games can communicate political concepts and processes better than other forms.”

Dr. Bogost gained notice as a co-developer of the Howard Dean for Iowa game, which was introduced late last year, before the Iowa caucuses. Billed as the first computer game endorsed by a presidential candidate, it drew more than 100,000 players in the month before the Jan. 19 caucuses, and it was widely discussed on political and gaming Weblogs. Dr. Dean’s campaign is history, but the game remains online (www.deanforamericagame.com).

The game was created after Joichi Ito, a Tokyo-based high-tech venture capitalist, introduced Dr. Bogost and his creative partner, Gonzalo Frasca, to Britt Blaser, a technology adviser to the Dean campaign. A three-week effort costing $20,000, it simulated the trenches of grass-roots politics to show Dr. Dean’s supporters what they could do in Iowa to help get out the vote. Players could generate virtual Dean supporters by passing out leaflets, waving signs and canvassing door to door.

Mr. Blaser considers the game to have been a success. ”The bang for the buck was worth it,” he says, pointing out that $20,000 buys little television time, which is fleeting anyway.

But Dr. Bogost saw a shortcoming in his Dean game that was often attributed to the campaign itself: that it focused more on organizing than on discussing issues.

”The Dean game didn’t speak politically about anything,” Dr. Bogost said. Its depiction of leaflet-passing and sign-waving could easily work for Bush supporters, too. He says he learned from that process that ”if you call something political, it has to be political.”

When Dr. Bogost began work on Opinions, the game for the Democratic convention committee, he tried to make it not only entertaining, but a dynamic argument about how the world works. In Opinions, the player performs an action in each of six minigames simultaneously, seeking to achieve a balance among them. Actions in the minigames, each corresponding to a domestic or international policy topic, affect the ease of playing in the other minigames.

The Democrats will say little about the game, beyond promising ”a new and innovative way to engage Americans,” in the words of Lina Garcia, the press secretary for the convention committee. ”This also allows us to creatively communicate with young voters and supporters,” she said.

Will it be amusing to play?

”God, I hope so,” Mr. Bogost said. ”Some people will find it really, really fun.” But, he admits, others may find it ”really hard.”

”The game is actually somewhat hard to win,” he said. ”I’ve done it, and I was exhausted. The point is, policy is hard and we shouldn’t take it lightly.”

Opinions pushes players toward a Democratic viewpoint by narrowing their choices according to a Democratic platform. For instance, the tax-reform minigame is about redistributing tax benefits from the wealthy to the less well-off; eliminating taxes is not an option.

Mr. Bogost also designed Opinions to function as a polling device. Because players will be able to select one of six issues as their focus, he sees it as yielding a real-time, detailed portrait of political concerns.

Mr. Kenney’s Republican games (at www.gop.com) resemble more traditional political ads, in which ideas are less discovered than delivered. The primary goal is to reinforce a view of Mr. Kerry as a flipflopper who will raise other people’s taxes while maintaining a lavish personal lifestyle.

”The goal of Jeremy’s games is to (a) drive people to our Internet site, (b) engage younger voters and (c) deliver a serious political message and do it in a fun but interactive way,” said Christine Iverson, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman. She said the party’s newest game, Kerryopoly, had been played more than two million times since its release in early June — although the number of players may be considerably fewer, since the Republican site gets about 24,000 visitors a day.

It is not clear whether such games will persuade or even reach undecided voters. What is clear is that experienced game developers have not been impressed with efforts like Mr. Kenney’s.

”These games are pretty poor technically,” said Mr. Frasca, a developer known for so-called ”newsgames,” including September 12 and Madrid, based on recent events. ”The exact ludological term is ‘lame.’ They must not care or understand about games and just want to try to be hip.”

Outside the auspices of parties and campaigns, though, a different sort of political game has emerged. In late May, Jason Oda, a 25-year-old game developer, independently unveiled Bushgame, an extended commentary with a sensibility attuned to the 18-to-24-year-old ”South Park” demographic.

In 2002 and 2003, Mr. Oda gained an avid online following with Emogame, which is set within the music industry. (In one game, the player’s goal is to take over the MTV Music Awards.)

In Bushgame (emogame.com/bushgame.html), the story line involves Hulk Hogan’s recruiting Mr. T and He-Man to battle the Bush administration, which has been taken over by the robotic Voltron. ”I want people who severely like Bush to know better the arguments against him,” Mr. Oda said. His game mixes gruesome humor and a grab bag of pop-culture references with a detailed (if pedantic) presentation on tax issues and budget policy.

In its rawness, Mr. Oda’s game is unlikely to become a model for mainstream political gaming — an earlier version included vulgarity to satisfy his fans — but the passion and effort that went into it may be instructive.

Mr. Blaser, the Dean adviser, contends that games terrify traditional political operatives. Unfamiliar with the format, he said, they do not have time to take part in the repetitive process of designing a game. He foresees a day when game development will be assigned to agencies, not done in house.

”If games are going to be done in a substantive way, there will have to be a review process, as there is for television spots,” he said.

Whether quick or involved, whether commentary or persuasion, the political games are much like games used in advertising to build brands and sell products, said Barbara Shimaitis, senior vice president for interactive services at the Advertising Council. ”Whether you’re building a brand for Pepsi or for John Kerry, you’re going about it in the same way,” she said. ”The more you can make the game engaging with the user, the longer you can get them to sit there, the more likely they’re going to pass it on to someone.”

But in the end, what matters most is the consumer’s behavior. ”It’s fine to have the person come to the game and play it, but what do you want them to do?” Ms. Shimaitis said. ”Isn’t the bottom line to the experience to get the user to go and vote?”