Spaghetti politics. (political simulations and computer games) (Column)
by Paul C. Schuytema
Now there are tools for those of us who want to test the waters of superpower governance, to dabble in despotism or delve into democracy D. C. True has developed Shadow President, a simulation of presidential foreign policy. Spectrum Holobyte offers Crisis in the Kremlin, a simulation of domestic policy in the former Soviet Union.
Shadow President places you in the Oval Office and hurls the world in your face. You're presented with a map of the world, and selecting countries allows you to examine the influence, ambition, and ethical levels of their governments. You also have access to a wide range of advisers, from the chief of staff to the director of the CIA.
Shadow President is a flexible simulation that allows you to set your own agenda: world peace, ending hunger, or total world domination. You start out on June 1, 1990.
This game made me appreciate how complex and convoluted the world order is. Even my best intentions were stymied by opposing ideologies. When I took off ice, I wanted to do right by the world, and I thought I would start with the war between Ethiopia and Somalia. But neither side wanted my help-no troops, no peace envoys, no money, nothing. I was Don Quixote with no windmills to battle.
Beyond being a fascinating game, Shadow President is quite an education in international politics.
When Robin Antonick and Brad Stock were tossing around their ideas for a presidential simulation back in 1984, they had no idea what an effort it would be. After doing some research, Stock came to the conclusion that some research just wasn't enough.
He enrolled in the doctoral program in political science at Tufts University and spent seven years studying international politics.
After years of study, he had learned enough about international relations to be asked to brief the State Department before a NATO meeting.
By converting Stock's studies into a complex array of algorithms, the programmers at D. C. True were able to blend the formulas with the comprehensive world data from CIA World Factbook to create a dynamic, living world.
And they expect me to be able to run the thing?
Shadow President is great for kids. It will provide them with a window on the mysterious connections and relations they hear about on the news.
Beyond the borders of the United States, the Soviet Union was once the most powerful nation on earth, and Crisis in the Kremlin by Spectrum Holobyte puts you at the helm of that late, great superpower. In the early summer of 1985, you, as president, can elect to govern as a Hard-liner, a Reformist, or a Nationalist.
The objective is simple: stay in power. But the means are much more difficult. Historical events unfold in much the same way they did in those years: Republics attempt to secede, Chernobyl nearly melts down, and the U.S. urges weapon reductions.
Larry Barbu, the designer of Crisis, not only wanted to make the simulation real but also wanted an end product that didn't look like a model. As you attempt to find a safe path through the domestic and international crises, information comes at you in a myriad of ways: jokes, phone calls from foreign ministers, and television broadcasts.
What I learned in Crisis was that compromise is the only tool that allows any progress but that sometimes it isn't enough.
I held the Soviet Union together for 12 years (actually, a handful of republics had seceded), and all of the indicators showed that things were improving: health, education, food, exports, and foreign relations. I was even able to survive a popular election, but I made one fatal mistake: I cut the military budget too deeply, and there was a backlash. Even popular support is useless against an assassin (but the state news reports fabricated a natural demise).
So after 12 years of hard work, I was out of the picture.
I learned something from these games. The political world is much murkier than I had ever imagined, and rational thought is not the panacea I once believed it was. Maybe if political malcontents the world over could cut their teeth on these simulations, they could get a good feel of this global spaghetti bowl we live in. As for me, I'm going to dole out another packet of humanitarian aid before I get really mad and throw some missiles at the problem.