The list covers games released in 1999–2008, with a bit of ad-hoc summarization, analysis, and categorization, and link to more in-depth commentary elsewhere, where available. It's almost certainly missing other games of the same era that I didn't happen to run across. I've replaced dead links with updated ones or Wayback Machine links, where possible, but I've otherwise left the entries unedited as I originally wrote them. Even in cases where the Wayback Machine has a copy of the game, unfortunately, many of them run on the Flash platform, which is tricky to get working in modern browsers. (Note that since my commentary is unedited, when an entry says that a link is to the Internet Archive's copy or a game is unavailable, it means this was already the case as of the late 2000s.)
Released a few months after the Columbine school shootings, Pico's School drops you, as Pico, into a school that's just been shot up and taken over by angsty goth kids who like KMFDM. You play a graphical-adventure game to defeat them, interspersed with arcade-style boss fights. There are aliens also. Somewhat ambiguous what the commentary is; it was controversial at the time for supposedly making light of the tragedy through farcical elements or even appealing to disaffected teens. On a less newsgamey note, it was also the game that launched the reputation of Newgrounds, as well as an impressive technical achievement given the limitations of 1999-era Flash 3 that had made previous Flash games not nearly as interactive.
An arcade-style game where you're an Afghani civilian who has to catch U.S. aid packages (hamburgers) while dodging U.S. bombs. Released during the U.S. war against the Taliban, in which it was also dropping humanitarian aid to Afghani civilians. A bit more discussion from designer Gonzalo Frasca can be found here.
A criticism of liberal-minded criticisms of U.S. treatment of its war-on-terror prisoners. There's a prisoner, and you can choose to either punch him, or feed him donuts, brush his hair, or attend to his wounds, each of which impacts a meter that shows how well he's being treated. The meter steadily decreases if you do nothing, and even with non-stop coddling it's hard to get up to Geneva Convention standards, which are in any case portrayed as being better than the lives of most Americans. Part of the War on Terror collection at newgrounds, although one of the few games in the collection with editorial content.
A simulation of the war on terror that critiques war through the simulation rules. For example, business and military spending is basically the same; not using your troops enough reduces their effectiveness; not spending enough on domestic affairs makes you unpopular; not spending enough on the military can get you assassinated; and so on. The commentary isn't particularly subtle, but the way it's built into the simulation rules is a nice use of games' procedurality.
See this blog post by Michael Mateas for a more detailed rundown of the rules and commentary they produce, and, for those not afraid of books, pgs. 82-84 of Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games (MIT Press, 2007) for more discussion.
A critique of the "war on terror"'s use of missile strikes that cause civilian casualties. You can fire a missile periodically at terrorists, or not. If you do, you'll almost certainly cause the landscape to get increasingly battle-scarred, while causing an increase in the number of terrorists through civilian casualties. If you don't, terrorists will stay present at some default background level. The first game to call itself a "newsgame".
Somewhat of a milestone in political games, since it was commissioned officially by the Howard Dean campaign for his run in the 2004 Democratic primary. Has a map-level strategic view in which you place supporters, and once you place a supporter, goes into a short real-time segment where you try to wave your campaign sign at people. There were initially some social effects, with the map changing colors based on the level of Dean support in various regions created by other players of the game, plus even some instant-messaging integration, though the IM integration has since been disabled, and the social effects are hard to see since few people still play the game. The main aim of the game seems to have been to raise some vague awareness about how the caucus system works, plus just create some buzz.
The creators give a detailed retrospective account in this essay.
You play North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in a farcical game of brinksmanship, threatening South Korea with your missiles, staging parades, gaining concessions, and so on. Gameplay is a mixture of strategy and stuff like missile-command style arcade action. Released during one of many periods where North Korea was making belligerent noises and negotiating concessions from the West. Available for the Mac.
One of several games bundled with the chatbot "AI Bush", a Bush-specific version of a chatbot from a group that seems to have state-of-the-art technology as far as chatbots go. This one mocks George W. Bush's reputed lack of knowledge on various subjects by having you play an advisor who whispers answers to him, though he stops listening to you if you feed him too much bad advice. Was available for Windows for purchase, but no longer seems to be, so summary based on the official blurb rather than playing it myself.
Released two days after the March 2004 Madrid subway bombings, this is a simple game where you click on candles' flames to make them burn brighter, raising an overall light meter. They diminish some time after you click them, so gameplay is to keep clicking to keep them as bright as possible.
A parody of both polarized politics and the voter questionnaires that ask you a series of questions and give you a political position or candidate based on your replies. In this one, you're presented with a series of people representing opposite stereotypes, and shoot the one you hate most: Would you rather put a bullet in the flag-waving guy, or the America-hating one? Based on your choices, you get a political position, invariably described in insulting terms. The original site seems to have disappeared, so the link is to the Internet Archive's copy.
A skin of Space Invaders with you playing George W. Bush shooting down John Kerry tax proposals. Not very much game rhetoric here beyond a skin, but it gets included in the list since it was an earlyish official political game. The original site is no longer up, so the link is to the Internet Archive's copy.
A first-person shooter featuring personalities from Taiwan's 2004 election. It's tempting to consider this just an opportunistic skin of an FPS, but the manufacturer claims it's a parody of violence and acrimony between supporters of the two main political camps. Summary based on an article in the Taipei Times.
A stripped down representation of Monopoly, where you start out with $40,000, labeled as the average household income, and roll the dice to move around a board filled with properties owned by Kerry, which inevitably bankrupt you. The gameplay is a bit weak, but I suppose the point that Kerry is rich comes across. The original site is no longer up, so the link is to the Internet Archive's copy, which is somewhat broken unfortunately.
A Half-Life mod that puts you inside Australia's controversial Woomera Detention Centre for asylum applicants. You can try to get yourself asylum; navigate the daily routines of what's essentially prison life; or try to escape from the razor-wire compound. Of course, you can't get asylum, and you can't escape either. The inevitable gameplay failure highlights the no-win situation asylum applicants are put in, and the portrayal of prison-like conditions aims to highlight to the game-playing public why they should oppose the detention center (the game is unapologetically part of an anti-Woomera campaign). Got a good bit of media coverage during development.
A political game commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) for the 2004 elections. You allocate your 10,000 activists between six public-policy areas, and that allocation combined with some whack-a-mole gameplay on your part affects the three factors of money, peace, and quality of life. Mainly a simulation and encouragement of activism itself and promoting the view that there are lots of ways to balance priorities rather than direct commentary on any of the six policy areas (though some references to Democratic policy proposals are thrown in). It also allows players to share their "activism plans", which are indexed by demographic information.
A political game commissioned by the Illinois state Republican Party for the 2004 election. Actually a sequence of four games, released one per week, about medical malpractice reform, education, participation, and economic development. All except for the participation game have resource-management gameplay, where the game's rhetoric is built into the simulation rules, giving a particular view of the effects of various policy choices. The participation game is a bit different, and has you going around in a simulated world to involve people in politics.
A game created for the October 2004 Uruguayan presidential elections, commissioned by the left-wing coalition Frente Amplio - Encuentro Progresista. You put together tiles to complete a puzzle that shows positive, uplifting images of Uruguay's future. Some commentary from BBC News is available here. The game itself doesn't seem to be online anymore; let me know if you know of or have a copy.
A monopoly-inspired board game (though on the computer) with inverted goals: you compete to destroy the economy and tear down the properties, satirizing the ongoing conflict and mismanagement of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Available for the Mac.
A parodic simulation of airport security practices. Models 138 airports, with varying degrees of inconvenience that nonetheless fail to provide very good security. Mocks your annoying fellow travelers for good measure. Sells for $3.99 for certain Nokia mobile phones, so you can play it while in a security line.
A game designed to raise awareness about the humanitarian situation in Darfur. There are two gameplay modes: In one, you try to manage a camp, which is short on resources and under constant threat of attack. In the other, you send children to go fetch water, admist threat of attack and abduction. The main point is that the situation is hopeless and intolerable without outside assistance. Winner of a digital-activism competition that led to it being distributed by mtvU.
Another parodic simulation of airport security practices, from the makers of Airport Insecurity, but this time from the perspective of the security personnel who have to enforce absurd changing regulations. Released shortly after a rule change banned liquids in carry-on luggage at U.S. airports.
You play Mel Gibson trying to drive his car while getting increasingly drunker, without running over state troopers or getting hit by the stars of david that Hasidic Jews on the side of the road throw at you. Mocks an incident in which Gibson was pulled over for drunk driving and went on a tirade about Jews. The editorial content isn't particularly strong, though Zach Whalen over at Gameology thinks it does have a reasonable amount.
This game was released shortly after a bagged-spinach recall in the U.S. due to E. coli contamination, which affected a surprisingly large number of retail brands due to common sourcing. The game has you manage a farm operation, and trades off running separate small farms (less profitable, but less spread of contamination) versus consolidating them into a gigantic farm (very profitable, but contamination spreads more easily). The actual active gameplay is whack-a-mole style cleaning up of contamination and issuing recalls before anyone gets sick.
Released shortly after a contaminated food import scandal in the U.S., this game puts you in an impossible role inspecting food imports with few resources. The gameplay is whack-a-mole style, where you click on imports as they come in to inspect them before a contaminated one can get through, but you have only one guy, who takes some time to inspect a shipment and can't do anything else in the meantime. So the game mainly consists of sitting there losing regardless of what you do—a good example of what designer Ian Bogost calls a "rhetoric of failure". Also notable for being the first "playable editorial cartoon" published by a major newspaper (The New York Times).
Based on a late-2006 BBC documentary alleging the Vatican had a secret process to deal with priest sex-abuse allegations quietly, this game puts you in the role of trying to protect children from pedophilic priests while also warding off police, parents, and so on. It turns out not to be possible to succeed at protecting the children, though just protecting the priests is possible.
A commentary on a proposed system that would give prospective U.S. immigrants points based on various criteria such as job status, age, English skills, and so on. You play an immigration clerk who has to adjust the stats of a prospective immigrant so that they're better than those of the clerk next to you, but by as small a margin as possible. It's also timed. The scenario seems a bit silly, but it succeeds in making you learn what the proposed point allocations are, in addition to portraying the process as arbitrary and bureaucratic.
A fairly simple game, but the first newsgame published by CNN, in which presidential debates are played out as a game of pong. Could be interpreted as a fairly boring shallow skin on pong, or as satirizing the quality and level of earnestness of presidential debates.
An almost comically racist game by the Swiss People's Party (SVP). Has good production values and made some news, so probably one of the more successful political games. It features the party's mascot, Zottel, a very Swiss goat, facing off in four games against abuse of naturalization, illegal immigration, EU tax collectors, and federal government waste. The party had previously courted controversy with a poster that showed Zottel kicking out a black sheep, and the theme reappears here, where in one game you need to keep the black sheep off Switzerland's green pastures without harrassing the friendly white sheep. Oh, and watch out for the dastardly Green Party, trying to smuggle illegal immigrants in their party buses! The game seems to have disappeared from the internet, but there are pretty good writeups here and here. Let me know if you have or know of an archived copy.
A whack-a-mole game where you try to stop Missouri governor Matt Blunt from deleting emails, apparently as a response to some sort of email-deleting scandal. The editorial content is rather weak.
A shmup billed as a "Japanese Cetacean Research Simulator". The political commentary is of course in the discontinuity between the billing (cetacean research) and the actual gameplay (a whale-harpooning shmup), paralleling the disconnect between the official and actual purposes of Japan's whaling program. Available for Windows.
A game released amidst ongoing debate over immigration reform in the United States that aims to highlight the brokenness of the immigration and enforcement systems, and raise some sympathy for immigrants' situation. Gameplay is an open-world game where immigrants need to carry on life while avoiding police and making various choices, some of which are presented explicitly in pop-up quiz type boxes, which then give vaguely didactic correct answers to try to educate the player on the complexities of immigration law. Some gameplay rules make rhetorical points as well, such as the results of immigration trials being basically random.
There's an interesting exchange about the game at Water Cooler Games: Ian Bogost posts an extended critique that gives it a mostly lukewarm review, and lead designer Heidi Boisvert responds, also at some length (fifth comment down).
Available for the Mac and Windows.
A response to the "Don't tase me, bro!" incident in which a student protestor at a John Kerry event was tasered. You organize students by knocking them out of their torpor and blocking the police. Sort of the opposite of the more common "rhetoric of failure", in which an impossible-to-win game points out the impossibility of a situation—here a possible-to-win game aims to emphasize the possibility of successfully organizing and resisting the police in such a situation.
Available for Windows.