Digital Games and IR

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I first began thinking about the relationship between digital games and International Relations when I got to graduate school and realized that I thought about alliances very differently from most of my colleagues.  Whereas the literature in IR tends to emphasize the complicated and tenuous nature of alliances (such as the fraught U.S.-Pakistan alliance, or cases of “the tail wagging the dog,” where junior alliance members can find ways to dictate policy to their more powerful partners), I envisioned alliances as clear, predictable, and pretty straightforward.  Ultimately, I was able to trace my idiosyncratic understanding of alliances back to the computer games I had played in my younger years, where alliances were usually depicted like this:


As you can see, not only is it unambiguous that Burgundy and Castille have just signed an alliance, on the left you can make out that their relationship is currently quantified as being at 107 (on a scale from -200 to 200).  In the real world, of course, policy makers never have this degree of certainty, even in robust alliances like NATO.

That got me thinking… in what other ways might playing computer games shape people’s conceptions of global politics?  That led me to publish a paper in International Studies Perspectives, where I performed a content analysis of nine historical strategy computer games (HSGs).

“Are We What We Play?  Global Politics in Historical Strategy Computer Games”

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.

Looking to build on that paper, political psychologist Mark Paradis and I have begun designing and administering a medium-sized survey of players of HSGs to empirically determine if they have significantly different attitudes towards global politics than non-players.

Separate from my work on HSGs, I’m also very interested in the emergence of e-sports and its potential impacts on global popular culture.  The e-sport I’ve looked most closely at thus far is League of Legends, which for several years now has been the most-played computer game in the world.  My colleague Ronald Blue and I have a working paper on  how the makers of the game–Riot Games–deliberately deploy nationalism in their efforts to market League of Legends to audiences around the world.

League of Legends or League of Nations?  Marketing a Digital Game by Commodifying Nationalism in the 21st Century”

As e-sports have begun growing rapidly in recent years in terms of participation, viewership, and revenue, they have frequently adopted traditional motifs from existing offline sports.  For instance, Riot Games, the video game company responsible for the extraordinarily popular game League of Legends (LoL), has borrowed heavily from the FIFA World Cup in its efforts to broaden its audience and generate mass popular attention for its game.  However, Riot’s efforts to expand its global reach by mimicking the tropes, narratives, and visual representations of offline sports could potentially backfire.  Most notably, Riot must walk the fine line between commodifying nationalism to increase interest in professional-level LoL competition and opening the door to chauvinist commentary and racist actions by fans and players alike.  The many juggling acts in Riot’s global marketing should be of interest to scholars interested in how nationalism is created, understood, and contested in digital online games.

You can also find shorter pieces I’ve written examining the relationship between global politics and digital games on my blog, including discussions of: the four questions I most often get asked about e-sports; China’s leading role in regulating digital games; how nationalism manifests itself at the League of Legends Worlds Tournament; and whether the sci-fi MMO Eve Online disproves Hobbes’ political philosophy.