Building upon current interest in studies of how popular culture relates to global politics, this article examines one hitherto overlooked aspect of popular culture: computer games. Although not prominent in the field of International Relations (IR), historical strategy computer games should be of particular interest to the discipline since they are explicitly designed to allow players to simulate global politics. This article highlights five major IR-related assumptions built into most single-player historical strategy games (the assumption of perfect information, the assumption of perfect control, the assumption of radical otherness, the assumption of perpetual conflict, and the assumption of environmental stasis) and contrasts them with IR scholarship about how these assumptions manifest themselves in the “real world.” This article concludes by making two arguments: first, we can use computer games as a mirror to critically reflect on the nature of contemporary global politics, and second, these games have important constitutive effects on understandings of global politics, effects that deserve to be examined empirically in a deeper manner.
The games he examines include various editions of Civilization (II, III, and IV); Age of Empires II; Europa Universalis II and III; Medieval: Total War (I and II); and Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. He offers several thoughts as to how the image of international relations embodied in such games both reflects and shapes popular opinion.
Thinking about historical strategy games as a mirror forces us to reflect critically on the nature of global politics in the second decade of the twenty-first century. I attempted above to demonstrate that many of the key assumptions of these games run against much of the best IR scholarship in several domains. At the same time, however, these games would not enjoy the popularity they do if they represented global politics in a way that was too disconnected from the conceptions held by a majority of their players.
They may also shape the preconceptions of IR students:
Furthermore, IR educators have particular reason to worry about the constitutive effects of digital games, given that what they attempt to teach by day in the IR classroom may be undermined by what students are playing at night. Statistics suggest that this is not just an idle fear.
In urging further examination of such issues, de Zamaróczy also argues the need for greater methodological sophistication:
Digital games, through their strong emphasis on active participation rather than passive reception, stand out from the rest of pop culture as the medium that arguably most allows for agency, reinterpretation, and contestation. So it would be inaccurate to expect simple, direct causal effects as a result of playing digital games; the nature of the relationship is likely to be both more diffuse and less determined. Indeed, some have even suggested that instead of having a conservative effect, digital games can actually have emancipatory properties (Chan 2009; Chien 2009; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009; Lammes 2010).
This, in turn, opens the door for further systematic empirical research. Much of the existing literature in IR on the constitutive nature of popular culture, while persuasive in toto, tends to simply posit a relationship rather than seek to test it empirically. This is especially true for the few existing IR studies of digital games, where claims about, say, games’ constitutive role in militarization tend to be asserted rather than tested (e.g., Stahl 2006; Power 2007; Höglund 2008; Gagnon 2010).10 Fortunately, though, scholars in a variety of other disciplines have been developing techniques for empirically establishing the causal microfoundations between pop cultural artifacts and their constitutive effects. For instance, the constitutive effects of digital games have been assessed through survey data (Penney 2009; Wang 2010; Festl, Scharkow, and Quandt 2013), panel studies (Williams 2006), direct observation of in-game behavior (MacCallum-Stewart 2008; Payne 2009; Kafai, Cook, and Fields 2010; Monson 2012), focus groups (Schott and Thomas 2008; Huntemann 2009), content analysis (Šisler 2008; Gagnon 2010; Hitchens, Patrickson, and Young 2014), and reviews of online material posted by players (Brock 2011; Owens 2011; Pulos 2013; Braithwaite 2014). IR will develop a richer understanding of how global politics actually works if it unpacks the constitutive effects of pop cultural artifacts using empirical techniques like these.
h/t Ryan Kuhns