Tired of government inertia? Sick of the role of big money in politics? Think politics is a big game?
So does Shel Mann, and that's why he wants to make you the 436th member of Congress, at least virtually.
Mann, CEO of Rocket Surgeon Entertainment Inc. in Plymouth, is betting considerable investment capital that people's passion, even obsession with political gamesmanship will translate into a free Internet game that could create a growing local business.
Mann has invented "For the People: Fantasy Politics," a political simulation game that uses real political voting records, current issues and up-to-the-minute legislative battles. He's launching the game in Washington, D.C., Thursday for members of Congress and Capitol Hill media. He'll unveil a public beta version on Facebook Sept. 10 (www.facebook.com/forthepeoplegame). Mann will also release a "November Madness" game that will allow players to handicap national races, similar to picking college basketball brackets during March Madness. A mobile game application will be rolled out shortly afterward.
In trying to make the game as realistic as possible, Mann consulted with former Minnesota senators Rudy Boschwitz and Norm Coleman, as well as former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and others. Mann is also familiar with politics from the other side; he's been a "volunteer lobbyist" for AIPAC, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobby for Israel.
Want to try to balance the national budget or save the United States from the "financial cliff"? "For the People" will let you create bills, work on them in committees and get them passed on the floor of Congress. The game will be constantly updated to reflect current events, and gamers will be playing and debating with virtual members of Congress (a replica of the current body) and using their past voting records. You can also play against your friends on Facebook and debate the issues in live forums.
Mann said the game will offer instant polling on the issues of the day. He's so enthusiastic about the game's potential to reach millions of people, he even thinks the polls could become newsworthy.
I suggested that in seeking out people who are both gamers and political junkies, Mann's niche is perhaps the biggest group of nerds on Earth. He laughed.
"I'm one of those nerds," he said.
Mann, who grew up in Golden Valley, is a "serial entrepreneur" who has been in the gaming industry since 1994. He got together a small group of investors to put up $2.5 million to launch "For the People." The company will start up with a small group of workers, but if it takes off like Facebook games such as "Farmville," Mann said it eventually could be a job creator.
While the game itself is free, there will be three revenue streams, Mann said. Gamers will be able to purchase virtual items, such as a power tie or flag lapel pin, that will give them more power in the game. There will also be advertising and sponsorships, and players will pay to participate in polling.
When gamers first log in to "For the People," they will be congratulated for their election victory. Then they will build a 3-D avatar member of Congress and begin decorating their office. They will write bills, deal with constituents, glad-hand with lobbyists and, of course, run for re-election. Mann hopes the forums will be "a safe place to exercise your voice."
I have to say, Mann seems to understand the times. When people feel they have little or no power to change Washington, I'm betting they'll be willing to settle for a virtual voice.
So far, it sounds realistic, so I had to ask Mann: Will virtual members be able to engage in the storied behaviors of real legislators, such as foot-tapping in airport bathrooms?
"Funny you asked," said Mann. "We have not gone there. Right now we are building a great, fun game that's social and educational. Players will learn a lot in this game."
Mann said he has tried to make the gaming "robust," but wants to keep it tasteful. Like a good politician, however, Mann cautioned that the game will evolve as players interact and tell the game what they want from it.
Leaving the tenor of the political game up to the American public: That can't possibly take an ugly turn, can it?
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