By Sasha Bentley – As an entrepreneur from 13 years old, I’ve had both hobby businesses and have created opportunities for self-employment with my skills and experience in legal administration. But a part of me was always waiting for that one big (and attainable) idea.
After the 2016 election, and witnessing dismal voter turnout in America once again, my husband and I both had an idea for a game that we hoped would 1) engage voters and 2) teach civics. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual Constitution Day Civics Survey, “only a quarter of Americans (26 percent) can name all three branches of government”, and voter turnout is on average 40% at best in midterm elections, proving there is a need for new and fun ideas like a game that can help solve both problems. We were actually disappointed to see games like this don’t exist.
So during this last year of fear and unrest, we embarked on a meaningful mission: to turn our idea into reality, all while juggling my old consulting business, new nonprofit, and other volunteer responsibilities with the Columbia Gorge Women’s Action Network, as well as risking our savings, my earning potential, and our family life, in the process. With my Epson printer, PowerPoint software, and scissors, we made our first 3 prototypes. In the end, we came up with Checks And Balances, a card game that simulates American Democracy.
We designed the game to demonstrate the powers of each branch of government (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial) and how they balance each other. When the powers of government seem unstable (e.g. one party holds power in all three branches), the game shows how voters, elections, activist organizations, lobbyists, campaign contributions, etc., come into play to restore balance or in some cases drive even more instability.
It’s a two player game (though it can be played in teams) that pits players against each other as America’s two major political parties – Democrats and Republicans. The first player to pass 3 pieces of legislation to support their platform goals wins. While that may sound like an easy goal, in many cases it’s surprisingly difficult… a reflection of the frustration and roadblocks faced in real American politics.
We play tested Checks And Balances all over with many people, especially with our friends and family, which was the best part of finalizing our concept. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing how Democrats playing the Republican deck would embody those beliefs and create a character, and vice versa. One game ended with one player saying “Make America Great Again” and all of us laughing hysterically; not because of the phrase, but because of the juxtaposition of the person and the phrase they repeated, over and over. Another game ended in a “woot” and a raised fist in the air when the player won by successfully passing legislation regarding immigration reform, climate change, and infrastructure.
The most interesting and tense moments of our playtests were between two people of opposing views playing the political party that aligned with their own interests. About halfway through the game, they came across one of a few cards in the deck that allow the players to “argue” whether legislation is constitutional, and therefore can be overturned by the Courts or the ACLU and discarded. Of course, players don’t have to actually argue; they can show the card, choose a piece of legislation, and continue with game play. But we encourage discussion, because bridging the divide between our family and neighbors is important and vital for the future of our country and our world. It was thrilling to see our game providing a space to have these conversations.
Bridging the divide between our family and neighbors is important and vital for the future of our country and our world. It was thrilling to see our game providing a space to have these conversations.
I’m much more in the political arena than the game world but gamers have been our biggest supporters, I think, because they can easily visualize the tabletop card game where each player has five steps to each of their turns, and they can understand how a game like this can play differently every time.
Though the gaming community has been supportive, when it comes to marketing and sales I’ve found it to be difficult for me. Entrepreneurs can have a tendency to get caught up in a project and I was convinced Checks And Balances would take off. Thousands of indivisible groups and millions of women marching, so how hard would it be to pre-sell 2,500 copies of a political card game (that will help Get Out the Vote and teach civics), via Kickstarter? Harder than I thought, that’s for sure.
We needed to pre-sell those 2,500 copies of Checks And Balances to reach our goal and I had mistakenly believed the game would sell itself. I wasn’t just in my entrepreneur bubble, believing this game was what so many have been waiting for in this political climate, but also in my political bubble, surrounded by people (mostly women) who were using every free moment to call their representatives, brainstorm ways to reach nonvoters, volunteering in their communities, and running for office. But our crowdfunding campaign failed.
Nevertheless, we persisted. Using our savings, we decided to produce 100 games from an American manufacturer we found who didn’t have a minimum production run requirement. While the box is bigger than we hoped and the price is higher than we prefer, it’s our first step. And seeing it professionally manufactured and ready to ship is really exciting.
To be an entrepreneur is to use all of your skills and strengthen the ones that you lack. So I’m using skills I’ve gathered over the years to produce short videos (where you can hear me excitedly narrating) and trying my hand at taking professional photos for our Checks And Balances website and social media. To be an entrepreneur is to work overtime, even if you already have another job (or 3) because you’re doing what you believe in. So I’m also working on ways to highlight our mission to gift the game to schools with our profits, but also to provide options for people to donate through us to a school of their choice.
My nation has been deeply divided for at least a decade, and I believe we each have a responsibility to spread the idea that civic engagement is necessary for the health of our country and democracy. So to create a fun card game as a tool to help heal that divide and inspire people to get actively involved in the American political process is incredibly satisfying.
That’s why I persist in getting Checks And Balances out there. That’s why I’m grateful to have found one big, and attainable idea I believe the country is ready for. That’s why I don’t lose sight of the fact that small ideas can and do turn into big, game-changing businesses. I know our announcement to the world is really only the beginning of our journey.
About The Author
Sasha Bentley is a community organizer and activist, nonprofit director, and legal administration consultant living in rural Washington. Passionate about civic engagement she is continually looking for ways to activate more people to vote and elect more diverse candidates to public office.