1984: Sinclair Spectrum

1984: Sinclair Spectrum
1984: Sinclair Spectrum

Insert Disk collects 1984 for the Sinclair Spectrum.

Today’s retro game review is 1984 for the Sinclair Spectrum. This retro gaming classic is a rather obscure government economics simulator. It’s 1984 and you now control the government. Your task is to survive three general elections and win the approval of the people. What type of leader will you be? Sometimes known as “1984 A game of Government Management”.

Greetings collectors and welcome to today’s retro game review.In 1949 George Orwell published a book now known the world over. That book was of course 1984. The book is unsurprisingly set in 1984 where Great Britain is now known as Airstrip One. A new totalitarian super state of Oceania. Its strong themes of a dystopian future in which the party controls all and independent thoughts are quashed the themes of 1984 have become synonymous with political oppression. It spawned the terms, Orwellian, thought police and of course, Big Brother. It’s a bleak outlook on world politics are made even darker by its uncanny sense of truth woven in to the narrative. The book is an all-time classic and the film is perhaps some of John Hurt’s best work.

But, what about a computer game? Well, to my knowledge there was never an official 1984 game associated with either the book or film. However, the year 1984 has become such as by-word for political dystopian nightmare in the British language its fair game to use in everyday language. And that’s what we get here in the Spectrum game 1984 A Game Of Government Management from Incentive Software Limited. The game is based neither directly on the book or the film adaptation, yet is what I can best describe as an Economics simulator wrapped up in a political theme. Think Theme Park but with more stats and focus on government spending. It’s certainly one of the more interesting titles in my collection. It neither goes out of its way to promote totalitarianism, dystopian futures or indeed any sort of bleak future. It does however, highlight the stresses and strains of running a balanced economy that is seen as fair to everyone.

In my opinion, although there are thousands of sim-like games out there, there’s nothing else quite like 1984. I wanted to cover the game briefly today as it’s a game that most gamers perhaps won’t have heard of, or at least played. Now, I have to say that this is a retro game collecting channel and as such I very rarely express any political views. People tend to get very angry in the comments section if you express an unpopular opinion these days. In the current climate though I thought that we might be ready to highlight a political game.

On the surface it’s a just number punching game but beneath its surface lays a fiendishly complex economics simulator. The premise of the game is simple. It’s 1984 and you now control the government, effectively every position from chancellor to Prime Minister. The aim is to survive multiple general elections and balance the books. Sounds simple. To add a bit of context to the game. The 1980’s were a relatively unstable time for the UK government. There were several race riots, rising unemployment and generally, well, we had a few issues with the neighbours. Which is why this 1983 release made for a rather topical is somewhat niche game whilst family friendly platformers were the order of the day.

So, let’s have a look at what makes this game tick. First of all it’s important to state that the stating balance sheet used is that of the real 1982/83 UK government economic figures. There’s no mouse, no joystick, simply numbers. Up first we see our balance sheet breaking out our government’s sources of revenue and spending. You can see this as your main stat board at the end of each round. Next up we take a look at the major indicators. Briefly put these explain how well different aspects of the economy are doing. For example unemployment and inflation rates will be key to keep your eye on. To get even more detail you can select a number from the menu to see the on-going trend.

You’ll then be asked whether you would like to adjust the bank of England base rate. This has the impact of either making it more beneficial to borrow money if the rate is lowered or reward savers by increasing it. We’re then treated to a quick health check of the economy in general. Broken down in to government, industry, population, banking and world sectors it will become part of your strategy to ensure these are all well managed. At starting point these will all be indexed at 100 but as you progress your style of government will inevitably favour one sector more than another. I’m a child of the 80’s myself and grew up in the Thatcher years so I’m going to tend towards a strong industrial sector. The reason being, if you have strong industry you have high employment, high employment means more tax being paid that I can then spend on other sectors. Well that’s the idea many governments have had although in practice it’s a little more complicated than that.

Then our first piece of real excitement, the cabinet meeting. Yes, the board at British Railways have asked for investment. It does mean that I’m going to have to increase the spending budget but I feel I owe it to the train passengers. I’ll find the money from somewhere to subsidise this.
Next up, wages. Civil servants, the public sector and private sectors all want wage increases. I won’t cave in totally but I think we all deserve a pay rise. I’ll find the money from somewhere to subsidise this. Next up, government investments. I’m a strong believer that we need to keep a strong financial sector for the good of the people so I’ll pump in a moderate amount of investment. I need to keep those banks happy. I’ll find the money from somewhere to subsidise this.

Next up the departmental expenditure, this is where the game really starts testing your economics skills. Inflation has risen, as have wages and I’ve also spent quite a bit propping up the finance sector. So, here’s where you can fine tune your spending. From police on the streets to new housing to education. You really can invest where you see fit. I’m going to be kind any give almost all departments some extra cash. I’ll find the money from somewhere to subsidise this.

So, already my strategy has been issued with a warning. With my relatively high inflation the benefits system is falling behind. Basically, people relying on government benefits are going to find my regime difficult.
Come on though, I’ve invested in industry and transport people. Get of your sofas and get a job like the rest of us. Nope, no more free money for you.
What about foreign aid, oh go on have another billion. I don’t want people to starve. I’ll find the money from somewhere to subsidise this. Ah, industrial grants. Good idea, let’s get the people of the UK working again. Long live Britain. I’ll find the money from somewhere to subsidise this.

And so we’ve survived our first year in office and have a reasonable rating. On to 1985. So, the balance sheet is looking fairly healthy, a deficit of £366 million might sound a lot but it was worth the investment to allow the country to grow. Of for goodness sake people. Seems that the people have taken to the streets in marches against authority. Passive resistance and urban terrorism. I’ll have to give the Home Secretary more money to crack down on these left wing nuts. I’ll find the money from somewhere to subsidise this.

Hmm.. Seems that housing funding is falling behind. They’re all out on the streets anyway so I’m not going to invest more in housing. I need to save a bit of cash now. What, the overseas lot want more foreign aid? How about no. Ok, so a few people die. Oh, ok then perhaps not. Have another billion. But remember which sugar daddy it was who bailed you out. Honestly, things were so much easier in the days of the British Empire. So, the game progresses and the decisions you make will end out coming back to haunt you. In the end I ran quite a strong economy. We were industrious, the population was contributing well and the banking system also held up. I ended up sacrificing some government funding and world peace to keep the people happy but they’re worth it.

By 1988 the power had gone to my head a little by going full on capitalist. It’s all about the people and industry. The rest of the world, yeah, that’s in trouble. So, this gave me a good laugh. My government actually received a £7 billion rebate from the EEC. The European Economic Community. On Jan 31st 2020 the UK left the successor to the EEC the EU (European Union). Basically a club where European countries pool resources, work on joint ventures and arrange favourable trading agreements and other benefits such as right to travel. By a narrow margin the UK government ended up taking the UK out of the EU. Without getting in to the politics of it all, it’s fair to say it’s been a mixed bag when it comes to public opinion. So, a £7 billion rebate very much seems like an alternate universe considering the divorce bill of the UK leaving the EU is just around the corner.

Anyway, the game continues until the either the economy becomes unviable or social unrest overthrows the government. In my case I was actually too kind in the end by rising public spending. I should have been harder on my people and taxed the living daylights out of them whilst spending no money on them. You know, like the real 1980’s. The game does a really decent job of giving you the stats you need to see where you’re going wrong. My inflation rates were clearly an issue although I did maintain decent employment levels. The UK’s GDP (basically how productive we were) was excellent and the average wage had never looked better. Of course all of this investment had to be paid for and ultimately meant government reserves were depleted. What looks like a relatively simple equation is actually a complex economic ecosystem.

The game comes with a pocket guide to running Britain and a good place to start if you want to understand basic economic principles. You’re even treated to an economic model of the interactions. As mentioned earlier, I’ve never played a game quite like 1984. It’s very much a niche game for economists and analysts and the underlying level of detail is exceptional. Granted it’s a condensed economic model but the overall implementation really gives you a sense of financial management.

You find yourself wanting to help the people but ultimately you can’t help everyone all the time. At times I found myself saying no to pay rises for the police who protect us, the medical staff that heal us and taking money out of the hands of those on the breadline just to make the economy as a whole work. And that’s the truly frightening legacy of 1984. Not the dystopian future of the book but the knowledge that even good people trying to do the right thing will have to make choices that negatively impact others. The only other game that springs to mind with this type of mechanism is Papers Please. A game in which you must check passports of people arriving in to the country. The jeopardy here is whether you let some people in that you shouldn’t to meet your quotas.

If you happen to be in a position to play 1984 A game of government management I would highly recommend it. If nothing else just as a retro gaming curio. Ignore that there’s no fancy graphics, it’s all about the game play and decision making. It doesn’t matter which country you’re from or which person you voted for, or even if you bothered to vote at all. There’s a lot you can learn from a simple game like this.

If you play the game of government management be aware that your actions have consequences. Cut industry, see the rifts in society open up.
Mismanage government resources and see society divide.
Turn a blind eye to powerful and corrupt and expect social injustice
Unbalance the welfare state and experience the unrest.
If you play the game of government management lead from the front, set an example. Be the leader that you would want and the rest of society will follow.
After all some games are more real than others…

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