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Raison d’etat

April 14th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Uncategorized

While finishing up my review of the non-violent conflict sim A Force More Powerful (hopefully coming to a magazine near you in a month or so) it occurred to me that it shows a side of politics that is completely missing from strategy games – the question of legitimate and illegitimate actions.

In a site that I am not always sure is parody, Right on Games notes with complete accuracy that most Civilization players would not have put up with Iran’s flouting of their desires without a prompt attack. In Civ III, I’ve started wars over horses, iron and dye. In Civ IV, I’ve attacked the Aztecs because, well, they’re the Aztecs. (I’ve also started wars over oil, but somehow that doesn’t seem as far-fetched.)

There is also no domestic penalty for any of this. Sure, war exhaustion will kick in if you’ve been at it for too long, but the reasons you go to war are never made explicit to anyone in game. You may annoy some mutual friends (like France) and nuclear weapons really get rival nations upset. But there is no price to be paid at home for an adventurous foreign policy.

This is the analog of the “casualties/schmasulaties” problem I wrote about last year. In that post, I observed that wargames give no sense of the loss involved or sacrifice required in a battle. Battles are isolated from campaigns, losses don’t necessarily carry over from one fight to the next…many modern wargames are more about equipment losses than manpower losses.

In short, as much as strategy gamers like to say that they appreciate tough decisions, they are never faced with the really tough ones. War becomes a cost-benefit analysis (in a “realist” model) and not a decision that has important consequences for anyone but yourself. In Europa Universalis II, I’ve started wars even though it meant that an ally would get overrun – sometimes even because they would get overrun. Nuclear weapons are always beautiful when they explode.

Much of this is because of the god-like perspective that strategy games give to the player. You are the big picture guy/gal who can’t be bothered with the problems of citizens except insofar as they might revolt. There is no impression that your rule is a charge or a trust or dependent on the legitimacy of your actions.

Oddly enough, Crusader Kings – with all the divine right that the term “king” connotes – comes closest. Here, almost all of your concerns are domestic. Do your vassals respect you as a leader? Do you have a reputation for piety? If I assassinate my eldest idiot son so he can’t rise to the throne, I might lose all legitimacy (through acquiring the “kinslayer” trait.) Upset the Pope and you could get excommunicated – say farewell to your kingdom as everyone around you grabs claims on it.

I’ve written before about how the realist notion of a state of nature permeates the strategy genre. It even approaches neo-realism in how states are billiard balls in a game centered on a balance of power. And I love me my wars – virtually, of course.

Still, I am convinced that there is something to be gained by giving the cyber commander-in-chief more to be concerned about than what he/she can get by conquering their peaceful neighbor to the north. Because if life was Civilization, Canada would be gone by now.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Thomas

    I don’t think ROG is parody. I know people that crazy.

    But likewise, he’s confusing the is/ought gap. Yes, many game players would (in a completely safe and simulated situation) take actions that are brutal and irrational. That does not mean they would do so in real life, or that they are incapable of telling the difference.

    But you didn’t need me to tell you that, of course.

  • Troy Goodfellow


    I still think it’s parody – mostly because it is so strong on the lefty conspiracy in all games. A true conservative gaming blog would still talk about gaming as gaming. It’s too well honed in its message to be authentically crazy.

    I agree that there are equally crazy people out there.

  • Bruce

    “A true conservative gaming blog would still talk about gaming as gaming.”

    No, an *intelligent* conservative gaming blog would still talk about gaming as gaming. It’s the Internet. I used to think Daily Kos was a parody.

    Shadow President and its ilk did the “strategy with consequences” thing. If you nuked someone you were pretty much guaranteed to get assassinated. The whole point of Balance of Power, of course, was the idea of actions and consequences. But this kind of trade-off gameplay was really the province of role-playing games.

    But I disagree that strategy gamers aren’t faced with “really tough decisions.” Deciding whether or not to use my locomotive as a fifth red card to grab New Orleans to Miami in Ticket to Ride when I know the other player has been collecting reds is as tough as it gets. Just because it doesn’t model some kind of process with a real world moral analog doesn’t make it any less tough. No game can actually force you to make “tough decisions” – it’s all meaningless. Doesn’t Oblivion give you the ability to commit crimes, with the possible consequences of being put in prison? Who cares? You just start another game.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    “Just because it doesn’t model some kind of process with a real world moral analog doesn’t make it any less tough.”

    Sure, the Ticket to Ride decision is “tough” in one sense. And it’s not necessarily a moral analog I am after.

    But strategy games could do a lot better in communicating consequences, especially when they model real world things. I’m not looking to get preached to, of course. I do think that games could go further than they do, though.

    “No game can actually force you to make “tough decisions” – it’s all meaningless.”

    Sure, they aren’t *really* tough decisions. It’s all smoke, mirrors and save games.

    Balance of Power, though, is a great example of how even the fakery of gaming works to get across a point. You couldn’t appease your way to peace, you couldn’t bully your way there either. And since the big consequence for failing was Game Over, I think it worked pretty well to urge caution on the player. Shame that Crawford is so focused on story-telling now.

    Your point on Role Playing Games is apropos, naturally, but look at The Sims. It’s not exactly a matter of getting distraught, but people do get wrapped up in the lives of the tiny people they control. One of my early Sims died in a fire because he was too freaked out to move out of the way for the firemen. And I was more than annoyed. I remember that single little guy better than any of my hundreds of wargames, Civ experiences or Down in Flames duels because The Sims does things that let you know when things work or don’t work and the “real life” consequences are clear.

    Sure, you can play The Sims as a freak show. I have a Sim somewhere upstairs who is sleeping his way through the neighborhood. But the consequence is that all these women keep hanging out at his house and he can’t keep up the relations without a fight breaking out.

    As for Oblivion, sure you can be a murderous son of a bitch. For some people (like Dave Long – http://www.gamerdad.com/detail.cfm?itemID=3135) that is too big a cross to bear.

  • Bruce

    “Sure, the Ticket to Ride decision is “tough” in one sense.”

    I dunno – to me it seems tough in every sense, meaning the gameplay sense of if I make the wrong decision here, I will lose. Kaboom. I have a similar story about a PBEM Third Reich game about ten years ago (!) where I had set up what I thought was the perfect defense, only to have overlooked or miscounted or whatever my opponent’s airborne range, and he dropped on a port and SRed about a million infantry in there and the whole thing went from really close to game over. I still remember that, just like you remember The Sims thing. We’d been playing for I think two years and just like that it was done. That was pretty irritating.

    You can get wrapped up in any game. At that point, every decision you make is a tough one, if that decision has any gameplay meaning. We played a game of Alpha Centauri on q23 for a couple years, I think, by PBEM (I believe Dave Long was in that one) and at some point (before it was stopped by the player-elimination bug) I was thinking over each move pretty carefully, because I had gotten wrapped up in it. Not it some bizarre way where I thought I was the U.N., but still. Like you and The Sims guy. And just like there, it was pretty clear what worked and what didn’t work (like when I prematurely attacked Dean and he took all my cities). The consequences were clear to me, anyway.

    I don’t remember games any better because their consequences were “real world” (even though I hate to use this term because no game consequences are “real world” unless you are playing poker for real money) and I remember plenty of wargames and Down in Flames duels. I remember a game of ASL where one of my American paratrooper squads survived something like seven straight normal morale checks to win me the game by exiting the board. And I *know* that had to be at least ten years ago. Conversely, I don’t remember a single role-playing real-life morality incident of any kind, because I probably just reloaded the game upon failure or quit out of disinterest. And I found Balance of Power straight up boring, precisely because it turned me into Lawrence Eagleburger. If I want to experience a bad facsimile of international diplomacy, I’ll subscribe to Foreign Affairs.