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The Politics of Strategy Games

April 16th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

Having just finished my review of Act of War: Direct Action, it strikes me that this is as good a time as any to throw out some thoughts on the place of politics in strategy games.

Except for games about politics itself (Political Machine, Hidden Agenda, etc.), most gamers see little red-meat politics in their games. Sure the player gets to control politics. All good grand strategy games (Hearts of Iron, Europa Universalis) and some of the bad ones (Superpower) allow the player to tweak their ideology or domestic policies to one end or another. But political control for the player is not the same as having the politics of the designer in your face. Even the political sims, like Political Machine, are generally value neutral even if its developer is outspoken about his/her personal politics.

Act of War posits a near future in which high oil prices are manipulated by evil foreign corporations in bed with terrorists. Eco-terrorists are referred to as if they pose a real threat to American security and the bad guys are armed with Russian and French weaponry. These bad guys strike at the civilian heart of America and are actively working to bring the US to its knees.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the plot, because it is actually pretty good for a real time strategy campaign. It’s certainly not the first game to craft a “proud to be an American” campaign, but it does it with such skill (and forbids you to play the campaign from the other side) that certain elements are worth noting.

One early campaign scenario has heavily armed terrorists blend in seamlessly with anti-oil, anti-corporate protestors at a global summit. Are we to assume that they are linked somehow? The campaign begins with the capture of an Arab terrorist leader before quickly transitioning to the main plot. Is there a connection between the one and the other? The installation process features a mini-debate between a European energy exec and an American executive with the US rep accusing his rival of a conspiracy to keep oil prices high so he can make money off of alternative energy options. Since the American exec quickly becomes a target of the terrorists, what are we to make of his charges?

Some of this stuff is made clearer as you make your way through the campaign. But the fact is that the plot makes you wonder whether there is a political motivation behind the design of the campaign. Since the best part of the game is the campaign, and more energy was apparently put into it than into the skirmish game, it is reasonable to infer that the campaign is, in many ways, the point of Act of War.

Whether or not you agree with the game’s politics (or possible politics), it is refreshing to find a game that makes you think that the developers might have point of view on something beyond game design. Alpha Centauri had a political perspective (the planet was alive and sensitive to exploitation) and SimEarth was a textbook on the Gaia Hypothesis and other environmental theories. We never ask if business or building sims have a political opinion, though they tend to endorse traditional ideas of economic growth and development.

Act of War may be something different. The politics may seem clear on the surface, or there may be more going on beneath its B-movie beauty. Either way, Act of War has engaged parts of my brain that most strategy games never touch.


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