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Games As Political Lessons

Sept12sm.jpgPolitical games have a long history in the computer game world, but rarely a good one. Politics are hard to model well, and it's all too easy for a game designer to let biases overtake simulation. When this happens, it's nearly always to the game's detriment as both lesson and enjoyment. But even those failures can show us how a more compelling version might look; when the good ones do show up, they can be amazingly powerful tools for provocation.

You can't talk about political computer games without giving a tip of the hat to Balance of Power, by Chris Crawford. Probably one of the best political simulations around, it allowed the player to assume the role of leader of either the US or the USSR, and to navigate crises without unleashing nuclear war. Over 250,000 copies sold, a remarkable number considering the era. The original, from 1985, focuses entirely on the bipolar conflict; the "1990" update, from 1988, adds multipolar complexity and more nuance. Crawford, who continues to write and speak about computers and interactivity, has since put the Macintosh version of Balance of Power II on his website, along with a few of his less-successful games (the ecological sim Balance of the Planet and the economics sim Guns and Butter).

Few explicitly political games have come close to equaling Balance of Power in either quality or sophistication, although it was by no means perfect. Arguably, Balance of Power made it too easy to end up at war, but in that it was in good company; the RAND Strategy Assessment System, the heavy-duty political sim run by the RAND think-tank in the mid-1980s through early-1990s, was also constructed such that the Cuban Missile Crisis, by far the closest the superpowers got to outright war, would be the lowest possible conflict level.

Nearly all of the commercial post-Balance of Power political games added tank battles and animated explosions to the mix -- something Crawford intentionally avoided -- and reduced the complexity of diplomacy. Civilization and its various counterparts and sequels brought back some of the political wrangling, but disconnected it from reality -- it's hard to draw a useful lesson from Napoleon and Montezuma fighting over the lone oil resource on their shared continent. SimCity was arguably more successful as political simulation, at least in terms of trying to figure out a balance of resources and community needs; even there, the lack of strongly identifiable positions by the various civic voices undercut its power as a learning tool.

More recent political games are often much more limited in scope. We talked about A Force More Powerful in March and Food Force back in April. Both take on difficult topics (the first, toppling a tyrant with non-violent strategies; the second, the logistics and politics of delivering food aid) with relative sophistication, and are correspondingly fairly successful.

Some of the more recent political games are even more limited. Newsgaming.com has two games on its site, both intended to be triggers for conversation than actual games. September 12 has a small number of terrorists running through crowds of civilians; the player can shoot the at terrorists with missiles, inevitably knocking down buildings and killing civilians along with the intended target. Madrid is even simpler, a tribute to the victims of the Madrid train bombings, the goal is to brighten the on-screen candles; as the candles fade over time, the game is a "whack-a-mole" clickfest. It's more an interactive image than a game, really.

Another example of political argument made through simulation emerged this week. "Wild West Bank" is a computer game created by the Israeli peace group Back to Israel. Like Madrid, it's a simple "whack-a-mole" style game, written in Shockwave and playable online. Players are given the task of dismantling illegal settlements in the West Bank and moving soldier back to the border; as the player does so, more settlements pop up, and more soldiers are moved in to protect them. According to a BBC report, more than 45,000 people have played the game in the first four days it was available. As the game is entirely in Hebrew, a guide is helpful -- this review at Academic Gamers gives sufficient detail to allow readers to give the game a try, and the discussion at Water Cooler Games gives more context.

For me, the significantly more sophisticated A Force More Powerful and Food Force are far more successful than September 12 or Wild West Bank as political education, not just as games. In many respects, the overly-simple political Shockwave games are the digital equivalent of giant puppets carried by protesters -- you can admire the effort, even appreciate the message, but they're not going to change anybody's mind.

The lack of explosions and other kinds of flashy graphics militates against the possibility of another Balance of Power update. That's too bad, as the game was one of the better ways of illustrating the complexity of geopolitical relations. Ideally, such a modern version would be used in the kind of multi-stakeholder engagement employed with the urban sim MetroQuest. Getting people who have strong disagreements with each other to sit down and truly understand the complexity of the situation is hard, but not impossible. Even for solitary play, political simulations can be a tool for facilitating a better understanding of the world, if they're done right.

Sadly, too few are. We need to keep our eyes open for the ones that work.


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A good summary of some recent 'political games' or simulations on WorldChanging. WorldChanging "works from a simple premise: that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie [Read More]

Comments (7)

You might also want to look at the politics within the game Second Life. There are two major factions at play: The Utopians (Open Source, Community Based Sims and Interactions) and the Capitalists (Real Estate Barons, Club Owners, and Strip Mall Survivalists). Recently there has been tumultuous activity among this little community of 32,000 active participants. The politics in game have bled outside as strongly as they bled inside from outside during the US presidential election, and the British PM contest most recently.

*If political simulation games were REALLY
useful, maybe you wouldn't hear much about them.

To wit:

"Lincoln also appears to have its fingers in several projects that have a strong intelligence community coloration to them. These include techniques for allowing analysts to process distributed bits of classified data without ever seeing the whole picture, as well as (shades of Admiral Poindexter) something called: Role Based Online Gaming for Unconventional Environments (ROGUE)

"In essence, ROGUE is a massive multiplayer game that allows private individuals to compete against government and military forces in unconventional scenarios. ROGUE incorporates a motivation and e-commerce system that rewards successful gamers with money and fame.

"(If Lincoln really is part of some Pentagon-funded political black op, at least someone has a sense of humor about it.)

"So to sum up: We have a tiny start-up venture, controlled by persons unknown, that suddenly materializes in late 2003 doing "private equity" deals in the middle of a war zone, and then obtains a huge PR contract from the Pentagon, and then hires a bunch of unemployed GOP campaign operatives to execute that contract, and then is absorbed by a shadowy DC company that specializes in corporate and political detective work and that may have close ties to both the Republican Party and the intelligence community, which then is awarded an even bigger contract to produce even more Pentagon propaganda."

(((I'd be guessing that "Lincoln" is maybe 3 or 4 former
campus Republicans with laptops all living out of a carpetbag;
but who knows, maybe that's all it takes nowadays
to be a major USA foreign-policy player.)))

Political simulation games have the potentiality to unleash a worldchanging evolution. If properly done, it will show the pitfalls of current political systems (liberalism, marxism and facism). And it might as well pave the way for a new sustainable political system. The one that will insure food, peace and entertainment for all? The one that sustains humanism, misanthropy, pataphysics and applied sciences at the same time?

But be sure that the one from current Pentagon administration described by Bruce will be the less sustainable ever. Bush and Bailey are dummies, because they have no vision, no creativity in their actions. Look at Iraq now... The democratic simulacra is on his way, serving Bush's & friends' own interests at home. Here is the perfect example where economics and politics contribute making the world a festering heap of shit.

Political games will help us understand why is it so and what alternatives are available to us!

Back when I was at clark For President, I had a great exchange of emails with the Ludicorp folks about modifying their still-in-hibernation Flash game called Game Neverending so that it would serve as a teaching tool about the 2004 elections.

The goal was not to create a politically-biased game, but rather one that could be used to educate the masses about how the American electoral process work. Make it simple enough that people new to gaming could participate in an online social network within the game, but also add some higher levels of difficulty for more experienced gamers who wanted a stronger sense of accomplishment for time invested. A few weeks after these emails, Clark dropped out of the race so nothing ever came of the idea, but it was an intriguing discussion nonetheless.

I think you are mixing here two types of games: ones with a political message and ones trying to simulate (political) reality. Games like September 12th aren't trying to simulate all aspects of reality, but just to deliver a simple message in a simple and enjoyable format - and doing it pretty well, if you ask me. The goal of thease two genres if very different.

Not sure JussiR is right when saying that politcal simulation's goal is not to convey any political message. How could that be? Of course, the interaction types could be different from one gameplay to another. The game objectives too (light candles or run a complex 3D simulation). But when you look at reality, politics and law are everywhere, and I'm not sure that real politics really care if they appear biased or not. To me, politics seems intricately biased, mainly because it's mainly about personal wealth/career/power vs. collective wealth/economics/power. So when you do some kind of political-oriented games, you'll always have to position yourself (as the game designer and writer) and the gamer (as the user), forcing everyone to adopt and understand one specific and "biased" approach of politics. The ideal would be to present them all through simulation and let gamers choose which one best suit them and the greater humanity... the political message would then discreetly lie within the political system that gain significant gamer's choice majority! Eventhough Madrid-like Flash games are simple and powerful, the message is clear, as well as the gameplay. It gets to the point!

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