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Democracy has died of dysentery: The Voter Suppression Trail

Democracy has died of dysentery: The Voter Suppression Trail

The New York Times and GOP Arcade create the videogame about voting that the internet needed.

Despite a number of potential digital threats, voter fraud remains a mostly imaginary problem in this country, a specter raised by politicians seeking to justify ever-more stringent rules designed to suppress voter turnout in areas unfavorable to them.

But in a largely post-truth political discourse, simply pointing out that this is a fact doesn’t seem to be enough. What is needed – and what the New York Times Op-Docs project has collaborated with the satirists at GOP Arcade to produce – is a video game.

+ CAN THE ELECTIONS BE HACKED? Find out with Network World's package of stories +

“The Voter Suppression Trail” is a take-off on the Oregon Trail, recreating the look and feel of the original in chronicling the journeys of three different American voters in their quest to cast a ballot on Election Day.

Choosing the white programmer from California is like starting as the banker in the original game – there are few obstacles that can’t be easily overcome. Lines are short, polling places are well-staffed, and you essentially just click through to win.

Selecting the Latina nurse from Texas or the black salesman from Wisconsin, however, is the real point of the game. Trying to progress requires getting through obstacle after obstacle – closed polling places, sudden relocations, huge lines, and job and family responsibilities that won’t wait. Taking the option to pick up a sick kid at school is a game over – you couldn’t get back to the polling place in time.

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The art and design are quite faithful to the original Oregon Trail, and the chirpy MIDI music and pixelated, old-school graphics make the experience subtly upsetting. Should you manage to get through the line, you’re challenged by “poll watchers” who attempt to harass you into leaving the polling place.

I wasn’t sure what I was dodging, exactly, in that unsettling reversal of the hunting sequences in the Oregon Trail. Streams of punctuation, like comic-book swear words. Are these racial epithets, designed to infuriate me into getting thrown out of the polling place? Bogus legal arguments meant to bar my way to the booth? And what are these bushes doing here? Is my polling place outside?

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In the grand scheme of things, the Voter Suppression Trail probably isn’t that big a deal. It’s a quickie browser game with throwback graphics and a lot of millennial nostalgia.

But it’s also a reminder that the right to vote is far from a sure thing for huge swaths of the U.S. population, and that there are people both in and out of government actively working to make it more difficult for Americans to exercise this fundamental right.

If The Voter Suppression Trail can use simple sprite graphics and jaunty bleep-bloop sound effects to make people aware of that, I say it’s a success.

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