Crispy Gamer

War and Peace and Everything in Between: 10 Games for Foreign Policy Wonks

You wouldn't know it by looking at my publishing record, but I have a Ph.D. in political science and international relations. University of Toronto, class of 2000. I worked with some really smart people and then decided that the academic life wasn't for me, and have subsequently become an embarrassment to my family and mentors.

But you can't take the Metternich out of the boy, so I read Foreign Policy magazine's "Foreign Policy Film Festival" with great interest. Stephen Walt and Daniel Drezner each compiled a list of great and not-so great movies that would supposedly teach our Secretary of State and her staff important lessons about how the world works. (Fred Kaplan dissented from many of the choices in a great article in Slate.)

The only proper response to a list is another list, so it wasn't long before I started thinking about games that have lessons for people interested in foreign policy. After all, politics and diplomacy have been central themes in gaming since Diplomacy, and maybe even earlier than that.

It would have been easy to just fill the list with history-based games like the Civilization or Europa Universalis franchises. Toss in a couple of classics like Balance of Power and the day is done. But where's the fun in that? Besides, I'm not all that convinced that history has any clear lessons for us beyond not fighting land wars in Asia. So here, in no particular order, is a list of games that might have something to say about getting along in a hostile world.

Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy

1. DEFCON

Though Chris Crawford's Balance of Power remains the best game ever made about the Cold War nuclear standoff and Mutually Assured Destruction, no game comes closer to capturing the fragility of alliances under pressure than a multiplayer game of DEFCON. Introversion's tiny masterpiece has no diplomatic interface at all, but once you get four or five people playing DEFCON, it becomes a supergame of chicken -- you can't focus on all your enemies, and you're not sure if any deal you make before the nukes start flying will hold up once you hit DEFCON 1. One can make the case that almost any multiplayer strategy game will eventually revert to traditional balance-of-power politics, where people gang up on whoever is winning. But you can't un-launch a nuke, making DEFCON the epitome of great-power paranoia. Every interaction has the potential for disappointment and betrayal. Watch your back and always keep some subs lurking in the shadows.

Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy

2. Imperialism

This classic series from Frog City Software focuses on the dubious lesson that trade leads to friendship. The deeper your empire's claws dig into a smaller power, the more it likes you until it finally submits to your will. The world doesn't work like that much of the time. The more important lesson of Imperialism is that trade, without the power to defend it, may earn you nothing but grief. The game is a series of guns-and-butter decisions, where building trade relationships with smaller countries means that you might have to sacrifice your military power in the short term. You might not want to sell steel to a neighbor, but the big profit may be necessary. (Imperialism is also the best game ever made about the importance of sea power for projecting your influence.)

Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy

3. Peacemaker

This one is a bit on the nose. Peacemaker is a serious game about the Middle East process. You can play from either the Israeli or the Palestinian side. Though it simplifies their complex relationship, the game is up-front that both parties have legitimate concerns about moving forward and major constituencies that will resist any progress towards a solution. Once you figure out "the answer" to the game, you might feel a tiny bit cheated, but Peacemaker does more to humanize the slow and frustrating decision-making process than many other serious games do. When a suicide bomb goes off in Tel Aviv, you, as the Israeli prime minister, must accept that any move toward reconciliation with the Palestinians could come at great political cost. If you lose popular support, then your government won't be viable. It's about when to move as much as where. Does the game have an agenda? Of course. But it never pretends that this is easy.

Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy

4. Classic Sierra adventure games

People of a certain age probably remember playing King's Quest or Space Quest or Police Quest, and knowing what had to be done to solve a puzzle but not knowing how to put that solution into place. What is the magic phrase that will let me put the whatsit on the thingamajig so I can unlock the doohickey? Sometimes there were rules to follow (Police Quest loved to kill you with rules) and sometimes there were surprises (like that rotting bridge in King's Quest II). But much of diplomacy is about saying the right thing or getting the proper phrasing in place so that both sides can save face and reach the inevitable deal. (Think One-China policy.) Are there easier ways to learn this lesson? Yeah, but they aren't as colorful.

Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy
(Photo: MobyGames)

5. Façade

On the topic of conversation and communication, this indie darling from a few years ago was supposed to presage the rise of character-based gaming and interactive theater. You play a guest at a couple's apartment and watch as the pair bicker and fight and cut each other down. It's a cel-shaded "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and very, very awkward. Façade is also about diplomacy, since you, as guest, have the chance to get the couple to make up. Or split up. Can you read the signals they are sending? What issues are really at the core of this relationship? Façade is a listening tour of two prickly nations that can't get away from each other.

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Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy

6. Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Probably Brian Reynolds' best game, this was more than just Civs in Space. Besides pioneering many of the ideas that found their way into Civilization IV, SMAC had heavy doses of social engineering, environmentalism and technobabble. It was also one of the earliest games to take ideology seriously. Each rival faction had priorities that might clash with your own, and everyone had a limit in how far they would compromise. The Believers had doubts about both the science-based University faction and the planet-loving Gaians, who also hated the planet-raping Morgan Industries. It was a network of unique and original personalities that still more closely represents aspects of our world than the newer Civilization games. Beyond culturally-specific values, there were also universal taboos about things like nerve-stapling. I can't be the only one who would pay extra for a sequel or remake, right?

Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy

7. Sid Meier's Pirates!

And while we're talking Sid Meier and company, his great action/adventure/role-playing game captures a few essential truths about the world we live in. I wasn't the only person to notice how the anarchic situation of the game's Caribbean gives license to freebooters and freelancers: Political pundit Matt Yglesias made the same observation when Somali pirates were the villain of the week. More than that, though, Pirates! captures the inherent problem with mercenaries and independent contractors. Who among us has not attacked a friendly treasure fleet because it was, after all, a treasure fleet? Propping up a military establishment with no real accountability or fixed role can lead to coups, insurrections, organized crime or general lawlessness. Your imperial employers may well ask if taking a tiny Dutch port is worth all the trouble of funding your high-seas pillaging, when you can ultimately turn on them.

Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy

8. Viva Piñata

A more uplifting message can be found in Rare's ever-so-cute farming and husbandry game. Better than the textbook-heavy, gameplay-light SimEarth, Viva Piñata communicates that the world is a system in which everything has a part to play. Even the blights that attack your loveable piñata crops evolve from an ecosystem that must be managed. It's not a competitive game, and you are more Farmer God than a diplomat, but the way you build your garden determines which creatures you will attract. A good farmer finds a way to make it all work in harmony. Viva Piñata is one of the best meditations in gaming on interdependence and universal connectedness.

Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy

9. Mercenaries

The whole card-deck thing was a straight adaptation of the "Iraq's Most Wanted" deck from the opening months of the 2003 Iraq War and occupation. But Mercenaries doesn't just borrow from the world around it; it helps start new fights, too. Both games in the series have provoked controversy because of their settings. The first one, with a North Korean enemy, was banned in South Korea for inciting ill feelings about a still-unresolved conflict. And Mercenaries 2 was attacked by the Venezuelan government as a propaganda device that would prepare the American people for an attack on the South American country. The lesson? Some people will get upset about anything, even fiction, and international relations has all kinds of distractions you may not anticipate. So while the games itself have little to teach us, the stories around the games are a reminder of how sensitive (or opportunistic) some world leaders are to any perceived slight or cultural reference.

Top 10 Games Sort of About Foreign Policy
(Photo: GameSpot)

10. Political Machine

Stardock's popular election simulation game is more cartoon than real politics. The artificial intelligence is generally not too keen to challenge you in the states that matter, and it stays away from real politics and policy as much as possible. The game is about campaigning and staying on message, adapting to whatever the voters want to hear and playing to your candidate's strengths. But Political Machine does get one thing right -- most Americans really don't care about foreign policy. It's not a big vote-getter in the game, and usually not one in real life. Trade deals with Mexico don't count for much until you can blame U.S. job losses on them. Winning a war is fine, and losing it is not, but the reasons behind a war are generally not that interesting. All politics are local, even foreign policy, so the Secretary of State shouldn't get too worried about how her position on human rights in China will play in Peoria. So long as Wal-Mart gets filled with stuff, she won't be a liability to the President's re-election bid.

This list is far from exhaustive, both in games and in aspects of diplomacy. Since most games have conflict, the list is heavy on those titles where distrust, betrayal and miscommunication are the norm. It's typical of what some international relations scholars call the "anarchic world system" -- with no overseer, only the actors themselves can enforce whatever rules are in place.

What do you think? Are there any other not-so obvious titles we should send off to the State Department? Leave a comment below.

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I couldn't agree more. I had a great time reading this post. - J. Kale Flagg

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