Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

using “unrealistic” simulations as a learning tool

tropico_coverartA few years back, for my introductory political development course, I set as a possible book review assignment the computer game Tropico. In the simulation, a player assumed the role of the ruler (democratic or otherwise) of a stereotypical “banana republic,” and attempted to survive and prosper. To do so, they had to make decisions about government taxation and spending, build political coalitions, compete (or commit fraud) in periodic elections, forge external alliances, avoid coups and revolution, and even imprison or liquidate opponents. Depending on the persona the player had established, success might be measured in terms of development, citizen satisfaction, or the amount of money diverted into a Swiss bank account. Many of the choices were fun (Should the old fort be used as a tourist magnet, or a prison for political dissidents? Should I pay the palace guards more to prevent a coup?), and if you failed badly you might have insurgents attacking from the jungle or see hundreds of little tiny angry citizens rioting outside the presidential palace. It ran well on both Macs and PCs, and I was able to pick up loads of cheap copies for the library from eBay.

Tropico was far from a realistic simulation. Most notably, it modeled (as many of the SimCity-type simulations do) a very statist economy. El Presidente made all the major economic choices: what kinds of crops to plant, what kind of housing to build for workers, what factories and other investments should be made (and where), and so forth. In short, it looked more like Cuba than anywhere else. 

The “unrealism” of Tropico as a simulation, however, was the very point of the assignment: students were asked to critique the game, to identify its analytical and ideological assumptions about politics and development, and generally utilize their own knowledge of these issues in reviewing the software. 

All-in-all, the whole assignment worked rather well, with some top-notch reviews among the 150 or so students who chose this option. I haven’t repeated the exercise in subsequent years, but certainly might do so if I ever run across another game/simulation that would serve as well.

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