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:

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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?  I ultimately published an article 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, my colleague Mariya Jilinskaya-Pandey 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 eSports and their potential impacts on global culture and politics.  For those not familiar with the term, an eSport is when a video game is played competitively by professional athletes.  Check out my introduction to eSports here.

While I casually follow several eSports like PUBG, Hearthstone, and Overwatch, the eSport I’ve studied the most closely is League of Legends, which for several years now has been the most-played computer game in the world.  There are several fascinating aspects about LoL, such as how the sport is governed and how Riot Games seeks to encourage pro-social behavior from players.  But most of my writing thus far on LoL has examined its connection to nationalism, such as how fans exhibit nationalism at the annual Worlds championship, or why South Korea is so dominant in international LoL tournaments.

I am looking to build on this research with a working paper my colleague Ronald Blue and I are writing on how the makers of LoL–Riot Games–deliberately invoke nationalism in their efforts to market LoL 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.

If you’re interested in the relationship between digital games and global politics, consider signing up to receive my blog posts, where I occasionally write short takes on topics like China’s leading role in regulating digital games and whether the sci-fi MMO Eve Online disproves Hobbes’ political philosophy.