Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

A digital “banana republic” and teaching the political economy of development

For many years now, one of the assignments in my introductory course in political development at McGill has been to write a book review. Students are usually allowed to choose which book to review from among four or five possibilities. This year the choices were the World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report on conflict security and development; journalist Doug Saunders’ book Arrival City, on the dynamics of contemporary urban migration;  Roger Riddell’s examination of Does Foreign Aid Really Work?—and, last but least, Kalypso Media’s 2011 computer game Tropico 4, in which players assume the role of El Presidente of a fictional island “banana republic.”

Tropico makes no claim to be a realistic simulation of economic and political development. However, the modelling of domestic political dynamics is fairly complex: the population is divided into various factions (each with particular demands), and the degree of popular support El Presidente enjoys is also shaped by the general standard of living (food, housing, health care, wages, and so forth). As the leader you can buy off individuals, use repressive means to stay in power, and even try your hand at electoral fraud. If El Presidente isn’t careful, he might lose an election, be  overthrown by rebels, toppled in a military coup, or even deposed by a hostile superpower.

The economic system of Tropico runs much like most resource management/construction games, with the player choosing what to invest in and what supporting infrastructure to purchase, based on both natural resource endowments (agricultural potential, mineral resources, tourism potential) and the global market. In this sense, the island of Tropico looks far more like a centrally planned Cuba than it does most developing countries. Although a capitalist faction is included, they don’t seem to have any actual capital—rather, with the sole exception of the shanties erected by inadequately-housed workers, pretty much everything on the island is built and owned by the state. Periodically natural disasters can affect the island, destroying some of the assets you have constructed.

The whole thing is highly playable, witty, nicely rendered, and pretty engaging. Tropico 4 has received some good reviews, including a8.5 /10 at IGN, 7.5 /10 at Gamespot, and 72% at PC Gamer. This is the second time I’ve assigned a version of Tropico to this class, having assigned the earlier Mucho Macho (2002) version back in 2006. This year it was much simpler to assign, however, since the game can be easily downloaded via Steam.

But why assign a decidedly non-serious entertainment game that offers an often cartoonish portrayal of the “third world” to a serious class on political and economics development?

In many ways, that’s the point. Students are being challenged to think about the extent to which the Tropico “model” accords with real-world political processes, and the extent to which it departs from these. Typically this involves not only playing the game, but also thinking about it with some analytical sophistication. Do revolutions and coups really happen that way? (Yes, to some extent they do—in Tropico rebels appear when segments of the population become deeply dissatisfied, while coups tend to occur when the military is poorly paid or differs substantially with government policy.) Is the election model credible? (Actually, it isn’t bad—and election outcomes are even affected by the issues you highlight in your campaign speech.) What about foreign political and economic relations? (The game does an OK job of simulating the tug-of-war of the superpowers, but is less effective at representing multinational corporations. These never invest directly in the economy, for example, or own particular assets.) What about the economy in general? (As noted above, this is by far the least “realistic” part of the game, with the economy driven by state investment decisions, and no private sector that actually owns, invests, or divests.) Like SimCity, the game poses some interesting land use challenges: Should you farm or mine in a given area? What environmental degradation might be caused by certain industries? (It pays to keep parts of the island beautiful if you want to attract tourists, free of both pollution and unsightly shanties. Some hotels, tourist sites, and bars help too.) Do you focus on a limited import substitution strategy, or aim for export-orientated industrialization? (The game design pushes the player towards the latter, but in any case Tropico is too small of an economy to make ISI feasible even in the real world). Spend too much and you’ll find yourself increasingly in debt, although the game doesn’t really present you with the possibility for IMF-style structural adjustment.

Quite a few students manage to link the game to issues raised in the various course readings and lectures. Some even use it to offer some comment on Western images and stereotypes of the developing world—something that the game obviously caters to (or panders to, depending on your perspective) for entertainment purposes.

So how did they do this year? I didn’t collect systematic data, but my impression would be:

  • Some students did very well, clearly understanding how the game could be used to generate an analytical discussion of politics in the developing world. Others did less well, often focusing on issues of game play and interface rather than the models of politics and economics built into the game. Compared to the more standard book review assignments, I think the usual normal bell distribution was a little more spread out, with a larger standard deviation.
  • Few students than expected opted for the assignment: out of 600 students in the class (yes, it’s a large class!) only about 90 or so opted for the game, compared to 150-200 for each of the three books. Perhaps a few didn’t have computers suitable to run it, but I think a bigger consideration was the novelty and hence uncertainty of the assignment. It simply seemed easier, or safer, to write a standard book review.
  • The assignment, on average, seemed to have been done a little less well than in 2006. I’m not sure why that is, but one possible explanation is that the latest edition of Tropico is far flashier than its predecessors, with much more detailed and immersive graphics. As Sherry Turkle has argued in Simulation and its Discontents, this may create a situation where the simulation becomes so attractive that users lose track of the extent to which it may depart from reality, or otherwise are inclined to unquestioningly accept its assumptions and dynamics.
  • The game reviews were largely plagiarism-free, in large part because no one writes and publishes political science-y reviews of fun games about island dictators. Any student who did plagiarize likely did poorly, since the game reviews available online are all about the game play experience. (Book reviews, on the other hand, are getting harder to assign in an age where you can find scores of online reviews, both in academic journals and While I am confident that the overwhelming majority of my students don’t cheat, I think I’m likely to stop assigning book reviews next year in the interests of fairness.)
  • The most obvious weakness of the game-as-a-simulation, namely its Stalinist economic model, was overlooked by a surprising number of students. That might be my fault, of course—although I did spend an entire section of the course (plus a chapter of the text) on economic development. I think it has more to do, however, with this being the norm in resource-allocation games. It may also be a sign (as I have long suspected) that many undergraduate students of international development often have a rather top-down approach to the issue, coupled with an uneven grasp of the important role of entrepreneurship and private sector growth.

Might I assign another game as a review assignment? Certainly. I’m satisfied that the assignment itself is intellectually challenging, encourages students to consider game dynamics as a theoretical model of sorts, and critique it from the knowledge they acquired. The bigger challenge is finding games that are appropriate, and relate to the subject matter I tend to teach.

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