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Machiavelli’s heirs

Immersed in a strategy game.
Immersed in a strategy game. | Photo (detail): © Adobe

Very few computer games explicitly deal with current politics, but this in no way means the gaming world is apolitical. 

By Johannes Zeller

From Monopoly to Risk, classic board games are often based on the principles of capitalism and Machiavellianism. This might just be down to the natures of games, where by definition each friendly match ends with clear winners and losers. Is the same true of computer games: do they also convey basic political convictions and perhaps attitudes as well?

Games: conveying politics without taking a position

Actually, few computer games reference current political developments. Even games with a political bent generally take a historical approach.

The real-time strategy powerhouse Crusader Kings 2 (CK2), for example, conveys the complex hierarchies of the medieval feudal system by allowing players to mess about in the history of Eurasia and Africa as the ruler of a county, duchy or kingdom. Hundreds of cultures, religions and ethnic groups as well as thousands of ruling dynasties fight for their place in history on a gigantic map. CK2 places great importance on historical correctness. Interestingly, unlike in most strategy games, here characters need a real, legitimate reason to declare war. This is fairly easy if the desired opponent is from a different faith, as the religious conversion of an area can always serve as a reason for war. For opponents from the same faith, however, players are better served by diplomacy, intrigue and cleverly planned marriages than by an invasion.

Very few games deal with political scenarios from the present day, though two development teams have dared to take the leap. Positech Games is currently working on the fourth part of the Democracy series, in which players set the state budget and laws of a modern democracy. As the govern, they often have to weigh the pros and cons to stepping on one interest group’s toes versus another, choosing between what is necessary and what is popular. To stay in the game, players not only have to keep the country and national budget ticking over; they also have to secure their own re-election. Democracy playfully conveys how political processes work and promotes an understanding of democracy without taking a political stand.

Jujubee has come out with Realpolitiks, a complex, Machiavellian economic war game that brings the Crusader Kings 2 concept forward to the present day. In contrast to Democracy, in Realpolitiks everything revolves around international politics. This entails more brutality, since the game is based on an expansionist principle and the ultimate goal is world domination. With just six out of ten stars on the Steam gaming platform and 52 percent on the Metacritic rating portal though,the gameis not really a favourite among game critics.

When things take an unexpected turn toward the political

Still, even if most games completely ignore current events, this in no way means the gaming scene is apolitical. Games have triggered and continue to trigger political debate.

Like developer Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5, the subject of heated exchanges on online forums in 2017. In Far Cry 5, players take on the role of police officers tasked with stopping a racist doomsday sect, an armed group of fanatical Christian patriots, in the rural USA. The gaming press hailed the game’s premise as a satirical allusion to political developments in America under the Trump administration, while posters from the USA’s ultra-right called for a boycott, since white Americans were the enemy to be vanquished in the game.
The Ubisoft booth at gamescom in Cologne. The Ubisoft booth at gamescom in Cologne. | Photo: © picture alliance/imageBROKER Developer Ubisoft has denied that the game reflects a political stance, noting that the idea for the plot was developed back in 2014. This does not necessarily mean that real-life events did not serve as inspiration during development, of course. Ubisoft has already issue similar disclaimers for Division 2, scheduled for release in spring 2019, in which players in the Washington, D.C. of the near future fight a corrupt, authoritarian government. Any resemblance to real people or events, they claim, is purely coincidental.

But regardless of whether it was Ubisoft’s intention, a discussion of political attitudes in the US and the message of Far Cry 5 has long been in full swing.