Life in the State of Null-Sec: Or, Was Hobbes Right All Along?

I taught Introduction to Political Philosophy this past semester, so my students and I spent a fair bit of time parsing the long-standing debate in Western philosophy about “the state of nature.”  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, the “state of nature” is a phrase used by several social contract theorists in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe what they imagined the world was like before organized government came into being.  Thomas Hobbes, for instance, famously argued that prior to the development of government, every human being was perfectly free to do as they pleased, but that this freedom led to a “war of all against all.”  Accordingly, the life of men and women in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Eventually, though, human beings realized there had to be a better way of doing things, and turned over complete power to the Sovereign, who maintained peace between them with an iron fist.

His counterpart, John Locke, had a more sanguine view about what human existence might have been like prior to the emergence of government.  Locke, influenced by Biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden, suggested that the state of nature was a condition of abundance, where humans co-existed more or less peacefully.  In his view, government was simply established to adjudicate between competing rights claims, like when my right to freedom runs counter to your right to private property.

IR scholars have long been interested in this debate because they have traditionally claimed that in many ways the contemporary international system resembles a state of nature: there is no government or authority above states that can require them to act against their wishes.  Accordingly, if we want to properly understand the current state (and likely trajectory) of global politics, we should have an opinion about what life in the state of nature was actually like.

There are a number of ways to go about such a project, of course.  The easiest would be to carefully consider the findings of Anthropology (I’m personally partial to Steven Pinker’s summary of the main findings of prehistoric anthropologists in The Better Angels of Our Nature), but IR has never been particularly good at taking another discipline’s word for it.  Some IR scholars have looked at “failed states” like Somalia for clues, while others have studied how the modern state emerged historically.  But the secret wish of many IR scholars working in this area would be to organize massive social experiments that would place people in pre-governmental situations and observe their interactions.  Sadly, post the Stanford Prison experiments, this is something that no Institutional Review Board in the world is going to allow.  So large-scale observational studies of people living in a state of nature just don’t seem possible anymore in the 21st century… or do they?

It’s with all of this in mind that I recently came across a just published paper in Games & Culture by Oskar Milik about the (in)famous computer game EVE Online.  Like me, you’ve probably never played EVE, but you might have read about it: it’s the game that routinely garners headlines like “Inside the Epic Online Space Battle That Cost Gamers $300,000” and “‘You Will Lose Both Hands’ — How the Biggest Theft in EVE Online History Ended in Death Threats.”  At its core, EVE is a space opera-themed MMO with very minimal rules.  The game’s developer, Iceland-based CCP Games, prohibits using external software to manipulate things in-game, but besides that pretty much anything goes: you can lie, cheat, trade, scam, build, spy, intrigue, extort, fight, and murder as you please… and so can everyone around you.  It is arguably a classic state of nature, with all 500,000 active players having near-total freedom (and considerable anonymity).  As Milik writes,

The nature of EVE Online would suggest that large organized systems would not readily emerge in this sort of environment, and that in fact, it would be far more likely for the whole system to collapse into a collection of small groups that break apart frequently for short-term gain.  In practice, however, this social breakdown has not occurred.  In fact, the organizations that form in Eve Online are massive, strict hierarchies that have complex leadership and bureaucratic structures.

Milik reports that players have banded together in corporations ruled over by self-styled “warlords,” who make high-level political decisions about war and peace, leading to frequently shifting alliances and coalitions.  At the same time, however, the warlords must ensure that their corporation members actually log into the game often enough and perform certain actions for their political decisions to have any effect.  The warlords attempt to motivate their subordinates via “propaganda” broadcasts, some of which are explicitly modeled after the “State of the Union” speeches American presidents traditionally give.  A sample excerpt, from a past leader of the Goonswarm coalition:

As you know, Goonswarm is involved in a war with enemies that truly hate us.  The war isn’t about space, or moons.  The war is about the Goons.  Our enemies hate our culture.  They hate our propaganda, they hate our posting, and they hate us as people.  This is not a war for resources.  This is a war to wipe out our culture.

As Milik notes, this doesn’t sound terribly different from what leaders on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict routinely claim.  Another quote from a different leader’s speech would make Niccolò Machiavelli proud:

I can either be a nice upstanding citizen and screw over Goonswarm by not being allowed to use the kind of tactics that are necessary to have us succeed and survive in null-sec [“no security” space, the most dangerous areas of the game], which people in the media don’t understand, is basically like lawless Somalia.  You can’t show weakness in null-sec, you can’t behave like a good citizen, or you end up like Attendant Frontier did–those wonderful citizens who got of course rolled over by a stronger power at the first opportunity.

Following successful wars of conquest, it’s also the warlords who get to decide to divide up the territorial gains among their followers, in true feudal style, which is the other major way warlords have of maintaining control over corporation members.  Indeed, when you compare this time-lapse video of territorial changes in the Eve Online universe with this video history of Western Europe, it seems rather clear to me that some of the same fundamental processes are at work in both.

But a fun wrinkle for would-be warlords is that they often don’t know who in their organization they can trust, as apparently spies and double-agents are rife among players: “misplaced trust [can] have huge repercussions.  A single person, given proper access, can instantly dissolve an organization with a thousand members, as seen in multiple game-changing spy actions in the history of the game.”  Despite these difficulties, the corporations persist and are a central element of players’ experiences of EVE.

All in all, then, it would seem that the core insight of Hobbes’ take on the state of nature seems to hold in the case of EVE, namely that in an anarchic state of nature individuals will voluntarily surrender their freedom and band together for safety from one another.

Could IR scholars gain additional insights into how human beings act in anarchic situations by studying virtual worlds in a serious manner?  Could MMO games provide social scientists with quasi-experimental set-ups for deeper explorations into how individuals act under a variety of conditions?  I’d argue it’s worth looking into.  Milik closes his article by noting that perhaps more than the near-total absence of rules in EVE Online, it’s arguably other features of the game that lead to its Hobbesian outcomes, such as the fact that territoriality was hard-coded into the game.  Indeed, in one of the most famous IR articles of all-time, Alexander Wendt suggested that when actors encounter anarchic situations, the anarchy per se doesn’t determine their behavior, but rather the actors’ mindsets going into it.  Are there other popular MMOs out there whose game developers have chosen to emphasize different aspects of human behavior (say, Second Life)?  If so, what could those games also reveal about human nature?  Social scientists should find out.

The Koreans Are At It Again…

For the 2016 Summer Olympics, the New York Times made some beautiful charts displaying which countries have dominated which Olympic sports over time.  You should really check out all the charts for yourself here, but just to make things easier here are two of them:

Total Medals Across All Sports

(My goodness was East Germany a sporting powerhouse during the Cold War, especially compared to West Germany, which had four times its population–16 million vs. 63 million in 1990!!!)

At the level of individual sports, the dominance of specific countries is even more clear-cut.  Here’s the chart for the medals just in long-distance running events (the 5K, the 10K, and the marathon):

long-distance-running

Ethiopia and Kenya nowadays account for well over half the medals in these sports, although that honor used to go to Finland (of all places) during the interwar period.

This relationship between sport and nationalism, about a country performing well on the international stage is important to a lot of people, which is why some governments are willing to spend $7.2 million in training and support for each Olympic medal their athletes bring home.

Entering into this potent mix of nationalism, money, and athletics are the new e-sports (about which I’ve written here previously and will again shortly).  One thing that’s interesting thus far in the brief history of international e-sports competition is that it’s not the usual suspects bringing in the loot.  Over-generalizing somewhat, the U.S. and Russia tend to be conspicuously absent from elite global tournaments, which are instead usually dominated by the South Koreans and the Chinese.  Indeed, in the ongoing League of Legends Worlds 2017 tournament, for a remarkable *third* year in a row the two finalists are Korean teams, ensuring a Korean threepeat regardless of the outcome of the matches that will be played in the sold-out “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium in Beijing on November 4th.

As my own just-updated-but-much-less-pretty-than-the NYT‘s graph shows, this isn’t because more Korean teams are qualifying for the World Championship, but rather because of simply outperforming teams from other countries during the tournament itself:

Geographic Origins Chart

The last aspect of this story to consider is that the International Olympics Committee, with its finger in the wind, has just formally offered to consider e-sports for inclusion in the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics and beyond.  Now, if I’m the next South Korean minister for culture and sports (not the one that was recently convicted of perjury as part of the corruption investigation into now-ousted President Park), I’ve got to figure that for a tiny fraction of the £350 million the British spent acquiring their medal haul in the Rio Olympics, I can simply lobby the IOC to include as many e-sports in future Olympics as possible.  The medals should simply drop into my country’s lap, although only time will tell…

The Rise of a New Regulatory Power in the East?

One form of power states can have in global politics is regulatory power (also sometimes called market power).  The idea is that if your state contains a large, rich domestic market, you can derive influence over other parts of the world eager to gain access to it.  For instance, the United States is by far the largest market in the world for pharmaceuticals, which gives decisions taken by the U.S.’ Food and Drug Administration a significant international impact.  Pharmaceutical companies from all over the world have lobbyists in Washington D.C. who carefully scrutinize the agency’s every move (in fact, Big Pharma is the industry that spends the most on federal lobbying).

Scholars of the European Union (EU) in particular have seized upon the idea of regulatory power.  Most international observers agree that the EU is a powerful actor on the global stage, but few agree as to why.  The EU doesn’t have the most jaw-dropping military in the world (as Donald Trump seems to have recently discovered, the U.S. accounts for the bulk of NATO’s combat readiness – one NATO estimate claims that US defense expenditures effectively represent 72% of the Alliance’s overall defense spending).  And while the EU collectively provides just over half of the Official Development Assistance in the world, claims that it is a significant “civilian power” have yet to attract many adherents.  Others argue that the EU’s power stems from its consistent commitment to human rights and other global norms, but critics retort that the EU is just as hypocritical as any other great power when its interests are on the line.

All of which leaves some EU-philes to fall back on the size of its market and argue that the EU’s main influence in the world comes in the form of regulatory power.  And it is true that the EU’s Common Market is the richest market in the world, even with the U.K. poised to leave in a few years’ time.  Industries in developing countries sometimes live and die as the result of internal EU regulatory whims.  On topics like vehicle emissions standards and food safety regulations, when the EU speaks, the world listens (especially at places like the WTO).

As with so many other things, however, the emergence of China as the major new economic power threatens to disrupt this regulatory status quo.  You can see it in lots of places (for example, regulations surrounding renewable energy), but recently it’s become apparent to me in an unusual corner of the world economy: digital games.

Both the Chinese government as well as Chinese society more broadly are worried about their children spending too much time playing digital games, particularly on mobile phones.  In 2008, China became the first country to officially declare internet addiction a clinical disorder, and the country’s relationship with digital gaming has only become more complicated in the years since.

For instance, earlier this year the Chinese government forced all digital game companies that release games in the PRC to publicly report the formulas that calculate their in-game item drop rates.  For context, in many kinds of digital games, you get rewards for accomplishing various in-game tasks: perhaps a better sword or a cool-looking suit of armor if it’s an RPG, or perhaps a unique color scheme for your character in an MMO.  Game makers discovered decades ago that having an element of randomness to these rewards kept people more engaged (and playing longer) than if it was a simple matter of doing X leading to Y.  Accordingly, semi-randomly generated items that “drop” when the player is successful remains a core mechanic for many of the world’s leading digital games.

The Chinese government is now forcing game makers to publicly reveal the rates at which such items are generated. While the government’s announcement didn’t give a lot of detail about its rationale for the move, most observers agree that the main goal is to try and limit excessive gaming: if players can do the math themselves and realize that it will on average take them dozens or even hundreds of hours of performing a same repetitive action to obtain a given piece of loot, they might just give up on the whole thing.  (Or they might just decide to buy the desired loot at the in-game store using real-world currency, but that’s a separate problem.)

Chinese gaming companies are increasingly paying attention to these signals emanating from Beijing.  Last month, the world’s biggest digital game maker, Tencent Holdings,  took the unprecedented move of voluntarily restricting how many hours a day its younger users could play King of Glory, the leading mobile game in China.  Henceforth, players younger than 12 will be restricted to only one hour of playtime per day, and those between 12 and 18 will be limited to two hours a day.  (In addition, the age-verification system, which is already linked to real-world identities, will be beefed up).

Why would a publicly-traded company interested in its bottom line volunteer to limit access to one of its most profitable products?  Perhaps because the influential state-run newspaper People’s Daily had recently run a slew of editorials against the game, calling it “poison,” with a predictable drop in the company’s share price.

Overall, the big takeaway here is that the Chinese government is displaying a willingness to directly regulate a global media industry in a way that used to largely be the domain of Western nations.  What we are witnessing emerging in China right now has the potential to re-shape the global entertainment industry in a way not seen since the rise of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its film ratings system in the 1930s.  With digital games having overtaken movies in terms of both their sales and cultural salience, China is taking the lead on regulating an industry that promises to be one of the most dynamic of the 21st century, with consequences that will likely ripple out for decades to come.  Stay tuned… and don’t spend too much time grinding for that loot.

 

Painting Nationalism in the 19th Century

Three places, three artists, a 75-year time span, one recurring artistic motif: depicting an entire nation through a female figure.

Eugène_Delacroix_-_La_liberté_guidant_le_peuple

Eugène Delacroix, “La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple” [Liberty Leading the People], 1830.

American_progress

John Gast, “American Progress,” 1872.

Bharat_Mata

Abanindranath Tagore, “Bharat Matā” [Mother India], 1905.

And the legacies of all three depictions, all of which resonated widely at the time they were produced, continue to produce effects over a hundred years later, for both good and ill.

On Grading States

Did you care about your grades in school?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  Perhaps you thought that your own personal learning and experience was more important than some arbitrary number some outside entity assigned you.  Or perhaps you realized that regardless of how your grades were obtained, it mattered because others (parents, peers, universities) believed them to matter.

Recently a number of IR scholars have been pursuing a similar line of inquiry, but for states rather than schoolkids: do governments care about the grades that they get from outside observers?  There are, after all, an extraordinary number of international actors that periodically rank countries all around the world on a wide range of criteria, from how free they are, to how easy it is to do business in them, to how happy they are, to the degree they can be considered a “failed state,” or even on how well they provide their citizens with iodine.

Do these rankings matter at all?  Do governments change their behavior in response to receiving either good or bad grades?  An excellent piece recently published in the Washington Post by Duke University political scientist Judith Kelley provides a quick literature review of the emerging consensus on what is being called “Scorecard Diplomacy.”  I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read it in full, but the main bits are probably these:

Why should states, or anyone else, care about scorecards? First of all, they are easier to understand and digest than complicated policy reports. Instead of emphasizing detailed data, they sort countries into categories (e.g., countries that are succeeding vs. countries that are failing), or rank them with some score, showing which countries are at the top and at the bottom. These categories and rankings are framed to pressure the countries being ranked. For example, if your country is at the bottom of a well-respected scorecard for “Ease of Doing Business,” you might find that international businesses start to avoid investing in your economy.  […]  My recent book on the TIP report on human trafficking explains what I call the “cycle of scorecard diplomacy.” The TIP report doesn’t just rank countries. Producing the report involves U.S. diplomats on the ground engaging with governments year-round and orchestrating indirect pressure by media and civil society.  […]  Because countries are rated again and again, they have an incentive to improve their behavior in the hopes of boosting future grades. As a result, states pay more sustained attention to an issue than they would do if they were just shamed in an ad hoc way.  Beth Simmons and I have shown that countries criminalize human trafficking more quickly when they are included in the report, get worse grades or see their grades drop. My work on TIP shows that this is not just because countries fear being sanctioned. The stigma of the scorecard makes states change their behavior. Countries that criminalize trafficking also work harder on related efforts to fight the problem. In many countries, the TIP report has led states to set up new institutions, to train judges and police, to improve shelters, and to increase trafficking prosecutions and convictions. Thus scorecards can prompt real changes.

In addition to the evidence that Kelley, Simmons, and others have found, my own work going through U.S. diplomatic cables confirms that government officials around the world really do care about the results of external benchmarking.  For instance, in November 2009 the Tanzanian president told visiting American diplomats that following a poor outing in the World Bank’s Doing Business report that year, he had set up an inter-agency team to respond to the shortcomings in Tanzania’s business environment the report had called out.

Taking a step back, the bigger picture here is that International Relations as a discipline is increasingly cognizant of the fact that states are not the hyper-rational, soulless, emotionally-stunted creatures that many scholars depicted them as during the realist and rationalist heydays of the 1980s and 1990s.  States are disembodied, corporate actors, yes, but they are ultimately comprised of individual human beings and often respond in typically human ways to circumstances.  For instance, states can be shamed; states avoid actions that will cause them cognitive dissonance, even if they are in the state’s material interest.  States “puzzle about problems” and learn from one another.  In short, states are “social.”  So maybe it’s actually not that surprising that they do care about their grades.

A Pandemic in the IR Classroom?

In February I attended the International Studies Association’s annual conference, held in Baltimore, MD.  At the conference, I had the great fortune to participate in two pedagogy panels which showcased the wide range of techniques that are being used in classrooms all over the world to get students excited about learning International Relations (IR), meet a wider range of students’ learning styles, and improve learning outcomes across the board.

There was some great stuff on offer: Felix Rösch of Coventry University uses a form of dancing called Contact Improvisation in his classes to get students to not just think about IR but also feel about it–the necessity for empathy and trust on the dance floor serves as a way for students to begin reimagining the status quo of world politics).  Andreas Aagaard Nøhr and Gustav Meibauer discussed a simple-but-elegant way in which Powerpoint presentations can be turned into Choose Your Own (IR) Adventure stories for students.  The diplomacy-focused simulation they presented had our group weighing the pros and cons of serving Icelandic fish head stew at the diplomatic gathering that we had been tasked with virtually organizing!

There were also several presentations about ways to use games and simulations in the IR classroom, something I’m always super excited about in principle but get scared of when it comes time to put it into practice. During the talk, I started thinking about various well-known board games, and how they might be related to IR theories.  Specifically, it occurred to me that IR educators might be able to take advantage of a major new trend in the board game world: the rise of cooperative board games.

For a bit of context, consider board games as existing on a spectrum from purely zero-sum games to highly cooperative games where individual victory can only be achieved via group success.  Let’s illustrate with a few IR-related board games.  At one end of the spectrum might be Risk, which is the board game incarnation of a quintessential winner-take-all, hyper-offensive realism (replete with “the stopping power of water“!).  A bit further along the spectrum would be Diplomacy,  which I would argue resembles classical realism, with real politik somewhat attenuated by alliances, private and public communication systems, and rudimentary international norms.  [Diplomacy has gotten a fair amount of attention from IR educators already – here’s the take of my former colleagues Dave Bridge and Simon Radford.]  The next step up might then perhaps be the well-regarded Settlers of Catan, which somewhat approximates neoliberal IR theory: we’ve moved out of the realm of outright warfare into economic competition, but relative gains still tend to outweigh absolute gains.  In a great post, Mintaro Oba highlights how players often choose to modify the game’s official rules in order to make certain tactics more or less usable, and also notes how norm violators can be sanctioned by other players.  So informally “modding” the game can certainly incorporate some of the key insights of constructivist IR theory.

While Settlers is a great game (I should know, I’m the reigning champ in my family!), it is not the be-all and end-all in terms of board games.  One can still climb up a few rungs on our continuum and get to wholly cooperative board games like Pandemic.  In Pandemic, a team of 2-4 players must work together to prevent several ferociously spreading infectious diseases from destroying humanity.  While each player controls their own avatar and can take whichever actions they wish to combat the plagues, players swiftly learn that the only way in which they will prevail is if they closely coordinate, often down to the level of what means of transportation characters will use to move from one region to another.  Typically, 15 minutes or more of intense group discussion may precede a single turn being taken.

In terms of mapping it onto an IR theory, Pandemic arguably showcases several of the features of “epistemic communities.”  Epistemic communities are groups of technical experts in a single issue area whose power stems from their collective application of reason and expertise to a given problem.  Still, though, I find that Pandemic offers a less useful vision of global politics than do some of the other games mentioned above.  This is because the game completely removes power differentials and national self-interest from the gameplay.  In the world of Pandemic, all parties are guided by altruism and a desire for the group as a whole to do well… or else the world ends.  But recent history has shown us that even when potentially devastating global threats like Ebola/Avian Flu/H1N1 or global warming are taking place, international cooperation still occurs in an overall context of national self-interest. (Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Change Accords is a clear case in point.)

So, are cooperative games not useful in the IR classroom?  What if we modified the rules of Pandemic a bit to make it resemble real world politics a bit better?  For instance, the instructor could assign each player responsibility for a specific region (just like in current structure of the World Health Organization, which is organized along regional lines) and, unlike in the official version of the game, players would receive individual scores, not a single collective outcome.  These individual scores would depend on whether or not the group succeeded in stopping the virus, but with points subtracted for the magnitude of the deaths in the player’s assigned region.  We are now in the realm of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s stag hunt, where overall group success exists in uneasy balance with individual incentives.  Done properly, our students would have a chance to gain first-hand experience with and reflect upon the wide range of social techniques societies have devised to prevent free-riding in collective action situations.

Who knows, maybe next time I get asked to teach IR 101 my students and I will see what we can get out of playing board games along the IR spectrum!