In its crudest form, world politics – and especially the affairs of the great power – may seem like a game. No wonder, then, that they served as inspiration for the classic 20th century military board games that revived during the pandemic and new users fled to the strategic tabletop games of the past. However, games that might address current and future foreign policy go well beyond Risk and Axis & Allies.
Many foreign policy (web) pages have been devoted to these new games, which range from cheeky and shaky to meditative and sad – some even try to address historical trauma. For the past few years we’ve covered a board game used to train future U.S. defense strategists, a late 2020 release called Sex With Stalin, and many other games in between.
The most tempting, at least at first glance, may be Sex With Stalin, but as writer Nate Christiansen wrote last November, the video game is disappointingly boring, despite being based on the “really depraved” idea of time travel to the Soviet to seduce rulers. Of course, the idea that the figurehead of a repressive regime criminalizing homosexuality is central to a game with sex in the title is ripe for satire. But Sex With Stalin itself, the gameplay of which is compared to a PowerPoint presentation, does not realize its transgressive potential. Instead, it contains uninspired monologues by Stalin and is ultimately, according to Christiansen, “so nervous that it doesn’t make any sense”.
If sex with Stalin is just style and not substance, then Hedgemony is just the opposite. Hedgemony – spelled with a “d” because it forces its players to “use hedging strategies that weigh up different priorities,” according to one of the game’s designers – is a board game that is rooted at the core of great power politics. The blue team (US, European Union and NATO) competes against the red team (China, Russia, Iran and North Korea) by developing a defense policy that takes into account military resources and defense budgets, among other things. If it sounds complicated, there’s a reason – the game wasn’t intended for the public to use. Rather, it was used by the Pentagon to write the 2018 National Defense Strategy, explains journalist Michael Peck. The Wargame-meets-Dungeons & Dragons paper was then used as a teaching aid for graduate schools and colleges for military personnel in the United States.
Similarly, a war game simulation from the Washington-based Center for New American Security, “A Deadly Game: East China Maritime Crisis 2030,” was developed to aid statecraft. The simulation, which ran last July, followed Washington’s role in a Sino-Japanese conflict that changed due to the vote of public participants through Zoom. The game showed that helping Japan in such a conflict would risk war between the United States and China, but a winner’s declaration wasn’t exactly the point. Rather, the value of the simulation lay in its narrative and insight into the reasons why events happened in the order in which they happened and why players made certain decisions along the way.
Of course, not all such strategy games were designed with the future in mind. The board game Gandhi, released in 2020, depicts India in 1947, the year British rule ended. The four main factions in the game are the British Raj, the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, and the Revolutionaries (a collection of groups that support a violent uprising). It is a largely non-violent independence movement and players constantly have to weigh the merits of violence against peaceful protest. Nonetheless, it is a “war game in the heart” – although one, Peck wrote in another play, “gives an insight into how nonviolence could triumph”.
While Gandhi may offer some lessons for today, other historical games are specifically designed for the purpose of dealing with the past in order to address collective trauma. In fact, the common theme that connects a wave of new Polish virtual reality games is the criticism of the oppression by Russia and the Soviet era, wrote journalist Tomasz Grzywaczewski in late 2019. “I think history should be told in such a way that young people can understand them, “said one of the developers of Siberian Run, a game in which an Eastern European refugee tries to avoid capture in the Siberian taiga during World War II. In this sense, video games, as the developer put it, be a “modern tool for telling stories similar to books or films”.
The creator of another survival game, Gulag, was motivated by a desire to bring to light the crimes of the Soviet Union during World War II – crimes he believes are too often forgotten in the face of German atrocities. Gulag, based on the experiences of its creator’s ancestors and a book by a Polish army lieutenant who claimed to have fled a Siberian gulag, is a “tribute to the victims,” said the creator, and “[shouts] according to the world about their fate. “Another tribute is an adventure game based on historical sources and dedicated to the Kursk submarine disaster that killed more than 100 people in a Russian submarine during naval exercises in the Barents Sea in 2000 after an internal torpedo exploded. Nuclear powered boats died. At the time Moscow was criticized for its reaction to the event. And when a Polish video game developer released Kursk in late 2018, it sparked controversy and attention in the Russian mainstream media – Grzywaczewski wrote as “Proof of concept that it is possible to draw attention to important political and social issues with a medium that is, is popular with younger viewers. “
All of these games are pretty niche, but there is one that, while still obscure, already has a loyal following in the foreign policy community. Even former President John F. Kennedy and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger enjoyed it. Last October, editor David Klion described the board game Diplomacy as “ideally suited for nerds who have a deep interest in international relations, geopolitics, or absolutely any politics” – or affectionately as the game that ruins friendships. Diplomacy, invented in the 1950s by a Harvard University student and now available to play online, is a strategy game with only two types of pawns – armies and fleets – where states compete for spheres of influence and players rely on the occasional manipulation are. It is a game that “encourages its players to imagine themselves as great negotiators who redraw borders with international colleagues at a summit, rather than as rulers responsible for upholding religious, national or democratic values,” wrote Klion who played it as a teenager with Michael Ellis, another diplomacy supporter who would later become an influential member of the Trump administration.
Whatever these games and simulations do to train current and future members of the blob, they undoubtedly encourage interest in – and mythology – the mechanisms of foreign policy, state building, and national narrative. Games may be for fun and desperately needed more than a year after the pandemic began, but they are also products of a time and place – and those whose effects may linger long after they end.