Digital Life

Computer Game Shows Voters How to Win at Redistricting

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Maybe you want to throw your incumbent representative out of office in the next election. Well it may not be easy, especially if you live in a state where redistricting has lead to ultra-safe seats for incumbents. A group of computer programmers at the University of Southern California developed a videogame to explain the process and show constituents how to win.


Maybe you're fed up with Congress. Maybe you want to vote your representative out of office.

Okay, but not so easy, especially if you live in a state where redistricting has led to ultra-safe seats for incumbents. To explain how that works, some computer programmers at the University of Southern California came up with a video game. It was unveiled at the Capitol yesterday, and NPR's Andrea Seabrook went to play.

ANDREA SEABROOK: "World of Warcraft," "The Sims," even "Tetris." These are great, riveting video games. But congressional redistricting?

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man: As a mapmaker, I can have more of an impact on election than a campaign.

SEABROOK: In the opening scene, you look down at a map. Congressional districts are slowly, carefully sliced out of the map to perfectly apportion each one. Animated lawmakers are popping up and down, seeming to demand that their own interests be served.

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man: The system is out of whack.

SEABROOK: Jeremy Bernstein is a designer at USC's Game Innovation Lab. He shows me how to play.

Mr. JEREMY BERNSTEIN (Designer, University of Southern California Game Innovation Lab): There are blue dots that represent where the people who tend to vote Democrat live, red dots that represent where people who tend to vote Republican live. And so you can use that to gauge how any given area is likely to vote. In the middle here, we have this very overwhelmingly blue area -there's a lot of Democrats living there.

So if I take that area and I drag the lines across and move that big chunk of blue into one of the red districts, well, now, all of a sudden I've just changed the population breakdown in that district from a two-point lead for the Republicans to a - that looks like an eight-point lead for the Democrats.

SEABROOK: Fake lawmakers with silly names like Otto Worker(ph) and Mark Ats(ph) looked satisfied or jumped out of their chairs when you, say, draw their home outside of their new district.

And you, the player, can decide whether or not you care - depending, of course, on which party you sympathize with. In this case, Bernstein chose to be a Democrat.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: So Otto's happy with the district he's got now. Mark Ats over here is very unhappy because he's going to lose his seat to the Democrats. And now, all I need to do is establish population equality and I've just stolen myself a district.

SEABROOK: Congratulations.

Mr. BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Both parties do it - sometimes together. Instead of stealing seats from each other, they just tweak the lines so incumbent members of Congress and their party are pretty safe from any election challenge.

Representative JOHN TANNER (Democrat, Tennessee): There's no competition and what happens to people is they are disenfranchised and don't even know it.

SEABROOK: That's Tennessee Democrat John Tanner. He's one of a few in Congress that are working to change the system, and he brought the game designers to the Capitol. His bill would take redistricting out of the hands of elected officials and put it to bipartisan committees. He knows this is a hard sell.

Rep. TANNER: You're asking people, and I realize this, to give up an awful lot of power.

SEABROOK: But he says maybe if voters play the redistricting game have fun gaming the system themselves, they'll start to understand how the system is gaming them. And then maybe they'll demand change.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, The Capitol.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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