An Appreciation of The ReDistricting Game (based on a premature misapprehension)

A tribute to a delightfully thoughtful and educational redistricting game. Maybe folks should play it over the holiday break!

An Appreciation of The ReDistricting Game (based on a premature misapprehension)

Important note/update! [12/24/20] I posted this yesterday operating under a belief (shared by others on Twitter) that the plug would be pulled on this game. After posting, I learned, to my relief, that it looks like the game will be getting a new lease on life.

I'll leave the text below as it was for now, but I hope to edit the post to leave the positive review of the game and the recommendation that people play it, but taking out the references to its imminent demise. =)

Maybe you're thinking: "Really? Yet another post about the timing of redistricting next year?" Or even "Another essay recommending a swift goodbye to public officials treating redistricting as a game to be won?"

No, this post is to express my appreciation about an actual entertaining and educational redistricting game and to urge folks to experience it—before it's gone.

My intent had been simply to tweet that the game is not long for this world, but on a trail run, I mulled it over some more and came to think that a larger sort of requiem was in order.

In the book Tuesdays with Morrie, the titular character suggests a "living funeral" so that he can hear the eulogies from his loved ones before he dies. In a similar vein, I'm going to offer a tribute while the game is still with us in its familiar earthly plane. But its days are numbered, and few in number at that.

According to Games for Change, The ReDistricting Game first appeared in 2007. And like many web-based interactives from that era, it was built using Flash technology. And, as you're probably aware if you've seen a message like the one below, Flash is on its way out.

Reminder that Flash is on its way out.

So from the time I write this, depending on how committed you are, there are either 9 or 21 days left to experience the game in a browser. Later in the post, I'll explain the steps you may need to follow, but first I should explain why it's worth the effort.

The game includes layers and considerations that other interactives don't.

As I've written elsewhere, we're fortunate to now have a healthy supply of redistricting tools and games to play with, including ones that let us do redistricting of actual US geographies using real demographic and election data. The ReDistricting Game puts you in the role of a redistricting consultant in fictional places like the State of Hamilton, but it arguably gives us a more "real" experience. It's not just a matter of completing the spatial and numeric puzzle of creating districts that satisfy criteria—you also have to satisfy powerful people, most of whom have personal agendas. To complete a level, you must get the approval of a majority of representatives, the governor, and the courts. You even get to see the reaction of good government activists and the media (example below).

Would an updated version of the game still use the print newspaper motif to show the response in the media? I wonder. Still, it adds a nice instructive dimension.

The game also walks you through progressively harder challenges, each with a basic and advanced level (see image below). It goes from simple population balancing, to partisan and bi-partisan gerrymandering, to a scenario where districts have to meet both demographic and partisan targets, and finally reform. [Full disclosure: In my haste to share this post, I have yet to complete all five missions (the last time I did was in 2016), so I don't recall what the reform one entails. =) ]

The interface also lets you tab from a view showing the partisan (or racial/ethnic) makeup of the electorate to a view showing "terrain" which allows you to consider keeping communities of interest intact. The screenshot below shows an example with urban/suburban/exurban/rural areas, and it also shows that at this point in the game play I wasn't at all effective at maintaining their integrity!

Another sign of the game's age is the VCR-based joke. Remember VCRs?

It's also just fun—and funny.

I realize that taking my opinion about whether a redistricting game is fun is kinda like consulting Neil deGrasse Tyson to determine if astronomy is cool. But I've heard from plenty of people in recent years who are less nerdly about redistricting than I am who say that they fully enjoyed playing.

Here you can see not only the mode showing partisan voter distribution, but also an example of the entertaining feedback you get from incumbents.

If you haven't already noticed in the screenshots, the game designers did not hold back on injecting humor into the scenarios. Stereotypes on both sides of the aisle get equally skewered. Just a small sampling of clever names:

  • Party heads Libby Rahl and Conner Servative
  • Representatives Manny Pulative and Celia Cohn-Valley
  • Governors Stu Born and Sam Bishin
  • Places like the Research Hexagon
Here you can see a representative's (amusing) profile, as well as one challenge, which includes agricultural and mountain terrain.

There are many more that I'll leave it up to you to discover and enjoy!

Incidentally, years ago the game inspired me to try my hand at inventing some equally satirical names for incumbents in safe and/or uncontested districts. I came up with ... Noah Ponent, Faye Taccompli, and Dawn Deal (or Don Deal). If any reader can find a way to put those to good use, please be my guest!

How to play ... and requisite disclaimers.

If your system is configured like all of mine are, you will be discouraged from using Flash. Here's how I was able to do it on a Windows device:

  • I used the Microsoft Edge browser (which I don't usually, but it makes the process pretty easy)
  • I went to the game's home page and chose PLAY the GAME
  • The page displayed the message "Adobe Flash Player is blocked"
  • I clicked on the puzzle-piece icon at the right end of the address bar, then  chose "manage"
  • I changed the settings to enable the "Ask before running Flash" toggle
  • When I went back to the game tab, the message had changed to "Click to enable Adobe Flash Player" (I may have had to refresh the page)
  • I then clicked the message and the game loaded without a hitch.

The game play itself is pretty self-explanatory ... but then again, I'm probably not the best judge of that. =) There seem to be prominent help options, but I didn't consult them. If you're new to this kind of thing, keep in mind that there's a basic track, and also keep in mind that completing all the levels could take several hours—while the interface is self-evident, completing the missions can take some trial and error. As in real life, it's not always clear in advance what the politicians or courts will accept!

If you are struggling to figure it out: based on the search terms that Google suggests when I type "redistricting game" it seems that a lot of people have searched for clues or solutions on how to complete missions (see image below). But I don't know whether answers are out there on the web. I do know that teachers have used the game as an assignment for their students, and it may just be that a lot of students have been looking for the easy way out.

It seems some redistricting gamers sought help ... or a shortcut. =]

I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Flash is partly being retired because it has security vulnerabilities. Proceed at your own risk, though I reckon the risk is small if you reset your settings to the recommended Flash-proof ones when you're done with the game.

And the rumors of the game's death may be exaggerated: there are also some options out there that promise to let Flash games be playable even after Adobe pulls the plug, but:

  1. Based on what I've skimmed, my sense is that using them will be beyond the tech wherewhithal of the average reader.
  2. It's not clear to me that The Redistricting Game's content will be preserved and made available on the new subsitute platforms. If someone has more information or wants to take this preservation project on, more power to ya, and please let me know!

There may even be an effort underway to refresh the game for post-Flash world and the 2021 cycle. I've reached out to two of the people involved, but have yet to hear back. If I do (and hear something other than a confirmation of the game's demise), I'll certainly post an update.

Parting thoughts.

In no particular order:

  • What better time than the holidays (during a pandemic when social travel is discouraged, to boot) to treat yourself to a truly one-of-a-kind game—or revisit it for a fun final run if you've played it before?
  • What's that? You live in a state with a commission? I would argue that many of the lessons are still relevant, especially for new or aspiring commissioners.
  • The game also presents reform proposals, some of which I want to make it clear that I do not espouse. An algorithmic approach like the splitline one maybe be better than the status quo in some states with glaringly skewed maps, but in my opinion (and those of others smarter than I) it's far, far from an ideal.
  • Keeping in mind that of course this is just a game, I do feel I need to point out that its recommended approach for the voting rights mission (relying on a fixed numeric target) has been cast into question by opinions from various courts in the years since the game came out.
  • This may be one of my last posts ... on I won't stop sharing content, but probably will be doing so from one or more different places. Loyal readers, stay tuned for a post with more of an explanation.
  • Above all, thank you to the creators of the game for harnessing your attention, expertise, and comedic spark in order to make learning about a serious subject fun. The game has led a good and noble life, and—whether or not it is on its last legs—you should take pride in both the illumination and amusement it provided.