Strategy game developers are doing society a disservice through the simplicity of the mind-nommings they serve. Unless we’re particularly resilient to the understandings put forth by others (or misguided enough to believe so), games alter and contribute to our framework for comprehending reality. Strategy games are alone in portraying an experience many of us are likely to never have – control of people and objects beyond ourselves – so when a framework is established, we’ll find it difficult to evolve our understanding by comparing the simulated to the real. It’s a simple (though upsetting) lesson to learn that walking over a chicken dinner won’t replenish your hit-points, but how can we be sure that leaders of nations are absolute decision-makers – as in Civilization, Total War and Alpha Centauri – without personal experience?
There are a number of schools of geopolitical thought, one of which is named Realism. Subscribers to Realism envision a world governed entirely by the nation-state, in which any other actors – individuals or organisations – are either powerless or granted power because the nation-state structure wills it. From a Realist perspective, the UN exists because it serves the interests of powerful nations – as do the city populations who toil for their leader in Civ. In strategy games, the command-and-control power structure is enshrined – those who are not in command must be under control.
Minor examples of non-collaboration exist – represented by the barbarians in Civ, the mind-worms in Alpha Centauri, and the … barbarians in Total War. These invertebrates and unsophisticates cannot build, form alliances, or act peaceably. The player must destroy all that is not of the same configuration and ambition as his own imperial manifestation, or else these entities will not relent in restoring his efforts to their entropic equilibrium.
The modern strategy game fails to allow for emergence. The factions who’ll make an impact on their world will be the ones existing at the start, except in rare circumstances (such as when the Mongols appear in Medieval) in which the new arrival acts as a destructive force. This way of being does not accurately reflect my conception of reality as a place of shared power – with state and citizen and international organisation each playing a role in the moulding of their common future. The Senate/Papacy in Total War and the United Nations in Sid Meier’s games come close to satisfying me, but the former are not emergent (they exist at the start) and the latter, like our own United Nations, has a membership comprised solely of the world’s nation-states – with no room for non-partisan or grassroots opinion.
It’s true, Alpha Centauri‘s factions are unique in that they diverge on the basis of ideology rather than nationality – according to the backstory – but the moment these sentiments touch down on sediment, they metamorphose into the traditional architecture of a top-down self-interested nation-state. Only the expansionist viewpoint is valid in the modern strategy game, it seems. Even supposed ‘cultural’ victories boil down to nothing more than imperialism by neo-classical architecture spam.
The Realist framework goes unchallenged in gaming, and as such we become lazy-thinkers about the way our world operates. I’d like to see more give-and-take, compromise, power-sharing, indirect control and multi-factionalism simulated within our empires, else the war might be total but the reality will remain incomplete.