I’ve long maintained that the world would be a better place were I in charge. Appoint me your benevolent dictator, and all mankind shall feel the warm embrace of an iron fist. I promise not to squeeze too hard.

Of course I’m joking, but only in a sense. I think most people look at the job that their government does—whether local, regional or federal—and think to themselves, “What a bunch of morons.” Sometimes we disagree with the politics motivating decisions, and sometimes we object to the ways that policies and programs are implemented. Either way, we suspect we could do better.

Your citizens are revolting: a brief survey of “government games”

Sid Meier’s Civilization, probably the best-known “government game,” debuted in 1991 and has been refined many times since then. Civilization games are turn-based strategy games that open by giving the player absolute control over a small group of barbarians in prehistoric times. The goal is to grow from these humble beginnings into the world’s dominant civilization by making wise decisions over a period of several thousand years.

Although various religions and forms of government are available to the player depending on his or her choices, the limits Civilization games place on player power are minimal. The player has almost total control over areas including diplomacy, exploration, militarization, research, resource management, construction and taxation throughout the course of the game. This makes Civilization more of a “god game” than a realistic simulation, although there’s no doubt that the systems in place in the game are intended to echo the complex interactions of their real-world counterparts. Focusing on industry has environmental repercussions, for example.

In an interview on Mindjack with journalist and academic David Brake, Civilization series creator Sid Meier described one of his goals as conveying to the player that “You are the King and someone else takes care of the details.” The games are flexible enough to allow both hands-off leadership and unbelievably anal micromanagement. Autopilot options for individual units is one key component of this customizable approach. The presence of multiple victory conditions is another; this is especially true since some strategies (waging war, colonizing another planet) require much more planning and attention to detail than others (diplomacy, cultural supremacy).

KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, which predates Civilization by a couple of years, takes a much more simulation-based approach. Based on a classic Chinese novel, RotTK games place the player in the shoes of a historical warlord vying for greater power in the second- and third-century Middle Kingdom. The decisions the player must make range from the exciting to the deeply mundane. The interesting (or maddening) thing about the series is that the sexy bits—recruiting powerful generals, waging war and conducting espionage—are really no more important than the sections where you decide your monthly irrigation budget.

The RotTK games are incredibly granular. There are many, many things on which the player can spend his resources (which include the time and attention of his character and generals), and the effects these decisions will are not always apparent. The learning curve for this niche series is very steep. There is a greater sense of realism than in most genre entries, however, not least because the difficulty of maintaining political alliances is taken seriously. In Civilization, political missteps rarely have permanent consequences, and a rebellion of unhappy subjects is easily quelled by purchasing a temple or colosseum. In a Romance of the Three Kingdoms game, your most trusted adviser may betray you for some personal slight, crippling your ability to properly administer your empire at a crucial moment.

Both Civilization and Romance of the Three Kingdoms provide the player with very broad powers and responsibilities. They differ only on questions of mechanics, presentation and timeline. In fact, very few games present players with narrower challenges within a political milieu. It would be interesting to see more games mimic the day to day concerns of real politicians: things like building coalitions, flattering colleagues, spinning issues in an image-conscious way, and trading tit for tat.

I’ve always wondered why the SimCity series never evolved to include this aspect of city management. Having grown up near Boston, it seems self-evident to me that being a mayor is far more about gladhanding, backroom dealings and balancing constituencies than it is about civic engineering. SimCity games do make some nods in this direction, including the presence of advisors and the need to fulfill certain basic requirements for citizens, but those mechanics are very much data-driven. The more social aspects of politics are what I have in mind: a situation in which you cannot fulfill a specific campaign promise because to do so would destroy your credibility and political capital with a key across-the-aisle ally.

One of the theoretical problems with translating complicated real-world interactions (whether social or systems-based) into video game form is the fact that all outcomes in a game must either be explicitly hard-coded, or else possible as a result of emergent gameplay. Even a heavily statistical game designed for face-to-face play, such as Dungeons and Dragons, can be difficult to translate in this way. Human beings overseeing a game can be flexible and adapt creatively to unexpected choices; machines cannot.

One way around this fundamental limitation is to build room for direct human interaction into the structure of a game that also includes automated elements. If a game requires a negotiation phase, allow the players to negotiate and then move on to the phase of the game which can be more easily tracked or represented with the aid of a computer. This is exactly the way that a game called Diplomacy is played. Diplomacy began life as a board game in the 1950s, and with the advent of email, began to be played remotely. A video game version was released several years ago, but has failed to supplant the board game’s play-by-email and play-by-web adaptations (apparently due to poor technical and design decisions).

Diplomacy is an example of a board game that evolved to incorporate technology because technology can simplify tasks like rule adjudication and communication. NationStates was a game that took a similar tack, save that it was designed from the ground up as a human/computer hybrid. Like Diplomacy, NationStates placed players in charge of one nation among many, though it allowed for the creation of fictional nations. Gameplay was fairly limited (I’ve seen the nations described as “internet pets”), but enhancements are planned for the sequel, currently in open beta.

An RPG called Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura did the best job I’ve ever seen of presenting a realistic political negotiation scenario in video game form. You can find a detailed account one player’s experience of this scenario at the Let’s Play Archive. The account is written mostly in-character, although it does include a brief analysis of the behind-the-scenes mechanics of the encounter.

There are many other examples of government games. The fact that I mention the games below only in passing is more of a reflection on the amount of time and money I have for research than on the games themselves:

  • The Political Machine — an election simulator that lets you run current and historical candidates against each other for U.S. President. Attemps to simulate real-world issues, as well as regional preferences in the U.S. Published by Stardock, and recently updated for last year’s election (2008).
  • Conflict: Middle East Political Simulator
  • Crisis in the Kremlin
  • Tropico — a friend recommended this tongue-in-cheek game, which places you in the position of a Caribbean dictator clinging to power in a banana republic. Update: I’ve since played Tropico 3 and Tropico 4, and they are great examples of the “just a little bit more!” gameplay often ascribed to Civilization. They’re full of moderately complex politics and history, presented through the lens of silly satire.
  • Democracy 2 — a game that I’ve been dying to try; alas, I lack the disposable income to play games for research at the moment. From the developer: “Unlike other political games, Democracy 2 gives you control of the policies, not just the election process and the campaigning, In some ways, Democracy 2 can be described as ‘sim government’.” Update: Cliff Harris and his Mac porting house gave me a copy. My review is here.
  • Commander-in-Chief/Geo-political Simulator — a French-developed simulator that seems to include some interesting interpersonal aspects of international politics. Unfortunately, it’s PC-only.

Sure it’s fun, but is our children learning?

One final note on the games above: they put entertainment first, and education second. This is an important distinction. Blogger Derek Rumpler points out that these priorities are reflected in Will Wright’s more recent Spore. Sid Meier goes one step further in his 2002 interview with Mindjack, not only arguing that entertainment is a prerequisite for learning to take place, but actually drawing a line between learning and education:

“I want to make the distinction between education and learning. Education is typically boring but learning is very exciting. We like to introduce learning into a game without making it feel educational. In learning you decide what to learn—in education you are told what to learn… We don’t evaluate a game idea on how much learning is possible, we basically evaluate it on how much fun the game could be. We find that part of fun is an element of learning and it inevitably becomes part of the game because they are set in the real world.”

Also of interest: Paul A. D. Waelchli, a librarian with an interest in educational uses for games, has a post up about his personal history and experience with Sid Meier games on his blog, Research Quest.