About the only thing more confusing than a computer manual is an election ballot. There are all sorts of candidates and issues and--once you're in the voting booth--there's nowhere to call for tech support.
Well, your PC can help. I've discovered three election-related CD-ROMs so far this season. One is a serious look at the major candidates and issues, and the other two offer some comic relief.
Let's start with the serious entry. "Vote America" (Mac and Windows CD, $19.95) from Virtual Entertainment ( 301-9545) serves as a primer on how presidential elections work. The program provides a multimedia look at the anatomy of a typical presidential campaign, along with a timeline for this year's primary and general campaigns. Other articles explore campaign issues such as abortion, affirmative action, crime, education, gun control, health care and the tax system.
The video portion of the CD-ROM includes issues statements or vignettes on the major candidates. There are several minutes of video per candidate--enough to give you a general sense of their stands on major issues. The CD, of course, features several Republican candidates who have already dropped out of the race.
The problem of outdated information is somewhat mitigated by an "online update" icon that lets you go to the company's Internet World Wide Web site (http://www.virtent.com/vote) or America Online to download new information. I performed the online update after Super Tuesday, and there is now a "Dropped Out" banner across the pictures of those Republicans whose presidential candidacies are now defunct.
The program has some interactive components such as a campaign quiz and an area where you can answer questions about your perception of each candidate and his campaign.
There is so much information about the candidates available in the media that voters hardly need to buy a CD to decide whom to vote for. But the "Vote America" CD is a great educational primer on the American presidential election and the candidates. It would be an excellent teaching tool for schools as well as an aid for anyone who just wants a better understanding of the presidential electoral process.
If you're ready for some not-too-serious presidential politics, then check out "The Doonesbury Election Game 1996" from MindScape ( 234-3088). This CD-ROM lets you manage a campaign using existing candidates or ones that you create. If you choose to create a candidate, you get to pick his or her leanings (very liberal to very conservative) on the major issues. For all the candidates, you pick staff members and advisors from a list of various "Doonesbury" characters. Don't laugh; you could do worse.
You play the game from the desk of each candidate, where you can search through the candidate's Rolodex, check or change the schedule or even turn on the TV to watch real video clips from campaigns past, including an excerpt from former President Bush's famous "read my lips" speech and Richard Nixon's "Checkers" speech. You can even watch President Harry Truman giving a 1948 campaign speech against Thomas Dewey.
Although this game is funny and irreverent, it actually does test your political prowess, and--because you can pit any real or imagined candidate against any other candidate--you get far more options than the average voter. If you're a "Doonesbury" fan and enjoy computer gaming, then you'll have fun and might even learn a thing or two. There is also plenty of real data, including the biographies of the candidates and information on every previous presidential election.
I don't use this space to endorse political candidates, but Pat Paulsen gets my vote as the funniest guy ever to run for president eight times in a row. Paulsen ran his first campaign in 1968, when he was a regular on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." It was, by his own admission, was based on "outright lies, double talk and unfounded attacks on challengers." He was obviously ahead of his time.
This year he's running as a Democrat, and, as he points out on his World Wide Web site (http://www.amdest.com/Pat/pat.html), he came in second in the New Hampshire Democratic primary--right behind Bill Clinton. Paulsen may not get the nomination, but he does get high marks for having published a very funny CD-ROM, "Pat Paulsen for President" (Mac and Windows, Sanro Entertainment  800-6961). The CD includes a collection of 10 video vignettes from Paulsen's TV comedy shows, plus 13 audio tracks in which Paulsen holds forth on the issues.
Of course, I'm old enough to remember Paulsen's TV career, but his humor seems to transcend generations. My 9-year-old son, William, was practically rolling on the floor as he watched and then watched again some of Paulsen's classic routines.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com