Can games teach us about development theory?

I have been thinking about games a lot recently. Games as in game-theoretical models and generally any sort of spelled-out analytical model; but also games as in real-world, fun-not-work games, whether tabletop or digital. And I am particularly intrigued by the potential of mixing the two together and seeing what comes up; asking if there is anything that we analysts can derive from games (other than fun!).There is a strong tradition of strategy videogames which attempt to simulate social, economic or conflict processes. In a basic sense most games of this sort deal with the basic questions of development: economic rationality, sustainability, balance of power, value chains, inequality, even sanitation.

You better keep those cities clean and happy

For instance, in the -ostensibly military-  strategy game Rome: Total War (which is excellent, by the way!), you need to conquer, pacify and develop cities in order to enhance and sustain your empire. The designers introduced a couple of very neat mechanics there, for instance the troubling fact that if a conquered population retains their cultural monuments and their old temples they are less likely to accept foreign domination; or the messy realization that an overpopulated city without sewers and public baths is likely to succumb to disease, which not only impoverishes citizens but makes them angry. So be careful as you enhance agricultural production to support more soldiers, because Rome: Total War teaches you that reckless expansion can be self-defeating.

Who doesn’t want to be a dictator

There is actually one specific game series called Tropico which tries to replicate the challenge of being a Caribbean dictator during the Cold War. I will write about this greater length, because Tropico 3 is basically a massive model of the political economy of development, in which your choice of domestic policy – and kickbacks! – is influenced by crop yields, social unrest, the need to appease competing social groups, unpredictable global markets, and the whims of great powers. For my money, it looks like a far more sophisticated model of development than anything we in academia have managed to come up with. Simplistic in some senses, perhaps; prone to making particularly stringent assumptions about politics, yes; but still a damn good stylized simulation of economic and social change.

If you are not too fond of screens, there are also plenty of boardgames with dynamics similar to those that development theorists study. (You can check out this site to learn all about some excellent games out there, but make sure to watch this first.)

It looks like the real world to me

In Settlers of Catan – one of the most popular and accessible boardgames – you politely compete with other players to build the most settlements and roads within the boundaries of an island. Terrain is limited, and each region produces different kind of resources, which activate randomly each turn. This means that you have to trade to get the resources that you want, either with the game itself at a pretty steep exchange rate, or more likely with other players through unregulated bargaining. But the game also introduces the figure of “the robber”, a little token that precludes resource generation in any surrounding region. Roll a 7 on the dice, and you get to decide where the robber goes: if you want the game to remain polite, you place it away from any of the players; if you would rather weaken them to your own benefit, then you place the robber where you can make the most damage, in which case you can also say goodby to fair trade. In this way Settlers of Catan mixes resource extraction, policy choices, trade, trust and time consistency; what looks like a mechanistic game at first (economics!) can evolve at any time through player agency into a confrontation about trust (politics!).

Even boardgames which do not directly attempt to simulate development issues could help us think about how we build our theories. After all, games define an underlying structure of play (institutions), goals and winning conditions (motivations), what players can do and how they affect each other (actors, strategic interaction); they often have some element of chance to it whether through dice or card (stochastic dynamics, external shocks); and all these combined favor the emergence of play stiles and encourage certain types of player behavior (norms and identity). To the extent that they need to function properly in order to be playable and fun, game designs need to be precise and coherent, not too complex but not too simple either, and consistent to the extent that they lead to basically predictable dynamics within the limits of strategy and chance (thus squaring the circle of the agency paradox).

Sounds familiar? Of course! And this is why:

Good games – tabletop or digital – are exactly like good theories.

Something to think about, right? For those looking for new teaching opportunities, but also those coming up with a new analytical model. Expect to see more from me on this topic, too…