A thin, red laser shoots from the user’s hand as they drag and move jagged lines across a map of North Carolina.
The shifting boundaries outline a myriad of red and blue hexagonal discs that span across the state; with each small alteration, two red and blue bars in the lower left corner of the screen grow longer or shorter. The name of the game? “Gerrymandering Madness,” and it’s free to play now at the Greensboro History Museum.
The interactive attraction on the second floor of the downtown museum opened as part of the institution’s new traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian titled American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith. The installation, which opened in December, runs until March 27 and aims to educate the public about the history of democracy in the United States and its shifting definition since the founding of the nation.
The gerrymandering simulator, which was created by Durham company CrossComm, is played on an Oculus Rift and is installed in an area of the museum titled “Connection Point,” a kind of game center that accompanies the more straightforward walk-through exhibit.
Users put on a pair of virtual reality goggles and find themselves in a paneled room with a North Carolina flag in one corner and the American flag in the other. On the center wall is a screen which shows the map of North Carolina’s blue and red areas that indicate Republican and Democratic voters. Players use a remote control to shape the map to try and disenfranchise one party over another. On the desk in front of the screen is another state map that shows population densities for different areas which helps guide players on which lines to manipulate.
Here’s a look at Gerrymander Madness: The Anti-Democracy #VirtualReality game. We built this in partnership with @GsoHistryMuseum for their #ProjectDemocracy2020 initiative opening tomorrow! #gerrymanderingpic.twitter.com/xm99IqRIOW
— CrossComm (@CrossComm) December 6, 2019
Glenn Perkins, the curator of community history at the museum, explains how players can drag and drop lines around urban or rural areas to change how votes weigh in elections.
“The idea is that it’s a game,” Perkins says. “It’s to try and engage younger people. They’re gonna start to vote and think about how things like this affect their vote.”
And even though the simulator is meant to just be a fun addition, its presence speaks to the broader mission of the exhibit, which is to educate viewers on the complicated ways that democracy has been both upheld and degraded throughout the course of the country’s history.
“It just seemed like this year was such an important one in terms of anniversaries,” Perkins explains, “like the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote and the 150th anniversary of 15th Amendment which gave black men the right to vote, and the 60th anniversary of Greensboro sit-ins, and it being a census year, on top of it being an election year.”
The main exhibit can be viewed on the third floor of the museum and starts with the founding of the United States. It chronicles how rowdy colonists sought to separate from their British royal leaders and establish a country for the common people. And yet, as viewers advance through the installation, a recurring theme of disenfranchisement and the question of who democracy serves comes up again and again. The exhibit outlines in exhaustive detail, the number of groups of people who were excluded from voting throughout the years starting with white men who didn’t own property, women, black freed and enslaved people, all the way through to the passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
The exhibit also includes other manifestations of democracy such as the right to petition and right to assemble.
A display of posters from both national and local protests with slogans like “Immigrants built this country” and “Stop abortion now” demonstrates a wide range of political ideologies. Nearby, multiple screens play a rotating playlist of past campaign ads by presidential hopefuls like Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.
“One of the most important takeaways is the recognition that democracy has always been about conflicting opinions and dialogue and debate and disagreement,” Perkins says.
“It’s important to put some of our political disagreements of our current time in historical context to see that they are not entirely unique. They may be special for our age, but we’ve been arguing about these questions for nearly 250 years now.”
Perkins also hopes the exhibit will remind visitors of the importance of voting and engaging in the political process.
“We hope the exhibit encourages people to see how they can play a role in our democracy,” he says. “That when you put your voice out there, it can resonate over a long period of time.”