Games can be criticized for being too violent, or a brain-dead waste of time. But they are not usually criticized for being political. Games are entertainment, not politics, right?
However, consider the popular computer game Sim City, which first debuted in 1989. In Sim City, you design your metropolis from scratch, deciding everything from where to build roads and police stations to which neighborhoods should be zoned residential or commercial. More than a founder or a mayor, you are practically a municipal god who can shape an urban area with an ease that real mayors can only envy.
But real mayors will have the last laugh as you discover that running a city is a lot harder than building one. As the game progresses and your small town bulges into a megalopolis, crime will soar, traffic jams will clog and digital citizens will demand more services from their leaders. Those services don’t come free. One of the key decisions in the game is setting the municipal tax rate. There are different rates for residential, commercial and industrial payers, as well as for the poor, middle-class and wealthy.
Sim City lets you indulge your wildest fiscal fantasies. Banish the IRS and set taxes to zero in Teapartyville, or hike them to 99 percent on the filthy rich in the People’s Republic of Sims. Either way, you will discover that the game’s economic model is based on the famous Laffer Curve, the theoretical darling of conservative politicians and supply-side economists. The Laffer Curve postulates that raising taxes will increase revenue until the tax rate reaches a certain point, above which revenue decrease as people lose incentive to work.
Finding that magic tax point is like catnip for hard-core Sim City players. One Web site has calculated that according to the economic model in Sim City, the optimum tax rate to win the game should be 12 percent for the poor, 11 percent for the middle class and 10 percent for the rich.
In other words, playing Sim City well requires not only embracing supply-side economics, but taxing the poor more than the rich. One can almost see a mob of progressive gamers marching on City Hall to stick Mayor McSim’s head on a pike.
Sim City is only a game, yet it is notable how many people involved in economics say it gave them their first exposure to the field. “Like many people of my generation, my first experience of economics wasn’t in a textbook or a classroom, or even in the news: it was in a computer game,” said one prominent financial journalist. Or the gamer who wrote, “SimCity has taught me supply-side economics even before I studied commerce and economics at the University of Toronto.”
Other games also let you tinker with politics and economics. Democracy 3 allows you to configure the government of your choice. The ultra-cynical Tropico is the game where the player—who is El Presidente of a kleptocratic Latin American government—can win by stashing enough loot in his Swiss bank account. In Godsfire, a 1976 boardgame of galactic conquest, players roll dice each turn to see what kind of government rules their empire. Extremist governments only build warships to attack their neighbors, Moderates spend less on defense and more on economic growth and Reactionaries will only spend money on planetary defenses (which also double as domestic riot suppression systems for keeping the citizenry in line).
However, the best example of politics and games is the legendary Civilization, an empire-builder and bestseller since it debuted in 1991.
Admittedly, some Civ political depictions are debatable. Communism in Civ 4 increases food and factory production and reduces waste from corruption? Someone should have told this to the Soviets in 1989, or China’s rulers today. Authoritarian regimes can’t create new technologies? Cheery news for Londoners who watched their city destroyed by Nazi V-2 rockets in 1944. Democracies embrace science? In Civ 3, the first nation to discover Darwin’s Theory of Evolution gets a science bonus, a game feature that some Kansas school boards would disapprove of.
What is most remarkable about the politics of Civ is how unremarkable all this seems to an American like myself.