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 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.


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!

Straddling the Fine Line between Healthy Nationalism and Troubling Racism at the League of Legends Worlds Tournament

You probably don’t know this, but the annual League of Legends World Championship is going on right now.  What is “League of Legends,” you ask?  Simply put, the most popular computer game in the world.  And since I’m currently in the process of writing an academic paper about it, readers of this blog are going to be hearing about it in the coming months.  (Curious to see what the game looks like?  This five-minute video provides a good primer.)

If you’re unfamiliar with League of Legends (often abbreviated LoL), the first thing we have to talk about is its globe-spanning popularity.  Riot Games, LoL‘s developer, recently announced that it’s averaging a mind-blowing 103 million monthly players (i.e. individuals who play at least once a month).  Prior to this announcement, Riot had last disclosed its player numbers in January 2014, when it claimed 67 million monthly players and 27 million daily players, so the game is continuing to grow in popularity even 7 years after its initial release.  Perhaps even more interestingly, while Riot did not break out its average number of daily players in the latest announcement, if we assume that the proportions of monthly to daily players from 2014 still hold, then somewhere on the order of 40 million people around the world play LoL on any given day (roughly equivalent to the population of Algeria).

Compare those numbers to something like Pokémon Go, which you surely heard about during the big craze in July.  At its peak, Pokémon Go was averaging around 43 million daily users worldwide (see Figure 1 here), but has since seen a precipitous drop-off in its player base.  And while it’s not a perfect comparison, the bottom line is that insofar as you thought that Pokémon Go was significant/important/worthy of further study, you should be even more interested in the bigger, richer, and much more stable LoL.  Indeed, one (admittedly non-randomly-sampled, and hence suspect) analysis done in November 2015 found that LoL accounted for 23% of all the time people spend playing online computer games.

Ok, so the game is a big deal, at least for people who play computer games.  But the second thing you need to know about LoL is that people don’t simply play the game, they also watch it.  As in, they watch highly-skilled professional players compete live or online as a form of entertainment.  Watching video games in this way is called e-sports, and e-sports, according to its proselytizers, is the future of all sports.  I don’t want to wade too much into that debate (you can instead read a random Wall Street Journal columnist tackle it here).  Rather, what’s significant for our purposes is that the biggest LoL competition of the year is the annual World Championship, which 334 million viewers across the world tuned into last year (a number which will be undoubtedly even higher for this year).  And the World Championship is directly owned and operated by Riot Games, which invites the teams, chooses the venues (this year’s finals will be in a sold-out Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles), broadcasts the matches, and sets the overall tone of the event.

The third thing about LoL we have to talk about is “the Koreans.”  Statistically speaking, professional LoL teams based in South Korea are the most dominant in the world.  As the figure below shows, while South Korean teams have only made up 19% of the entrants in the five most recent LoL Worlds, they have taken 33% of the quarter-finals spots, 50% of the semi-finals spots, and 70% of the finals spots.  A Taiwanese team managed to take home the trophy in the 2012 tournament, but since then a Korean team has won the top spot every year… including in this year’s finals, which hasn’t even happened yet, but given that both of the finalists are from South Korea, the trend is sure to continue.


(* All teams based in Russia and Eastern Europe are categorized as “European,” even if they qualified for the tournament via the Wild Card slots.)

What makes the South Koreans so dominant (and not just at LoL, but e-sports more generally)?  Arguably a series of interconnected factors: a well-established professional gaming infrastructure, with things like dedicated gaming houses, coaches, and support staff; financial and social rewards for elite pro players that are higher than anywhere else in the world; accordingly, more elite competitors in close proximity, giving Korean teams better opponents to practice with; and lastly, truly relentless training regimens.

From the perspective of Riot Games, the continued streak of Korean dominance at Worlds is not necessarily a bad thing, since it generates some handy narratives and provides a useful framing device everyone can grasp: will this finally be the year the Koreans are upset?  Indeed, in my academic working paper I focus on how Riot Games is seeking to commodify nationalism in order to generate interest in its professional-level e-sports offerings while at the same time trying to avoid the problematic racism and xenophobia that is often prevalent in the online gaming community.

This is an ongoing tight-rope walking act for the savvy, Chinese-owned but Santa Monica-based studio.  Some other game developers have punted in similar situations.  For instance, Blizzard Entertainment designed its popular Hearthstone game in such a way that players can only interact with one another through a very limited set of pre-scripted dialogue options, lessening the possibility of negative player interactions.  At the other end of the spectrum, Valve Corporation seems to have little interest in policing the notoriously toxic Counter-Strike community.  Overall, e-sports is already and quite unfortunately developing a reputation as a nasty realm, with all-too-frequent examples of racist language occurring (e.g. here, here, and here).  And the misogynistic streaks rife in online gaming culture were on prominent display during the 2014 Gamergate saga.

It is into this potent and problematic brew that Riot is making huge splashes.  I argue in the paper that Riot’s model thus far seems to be to emulate FIFA’s World Cup, while also borrowing liberally from ESPN and the Olympics.  Thus, Riot allows some displays and markers of what I believe it considers to be “healthy nationalism” to appear in its broadcasts as a way of playing up regional differences and generating audience interest in its tournaments.  For instance, Riot has allowed players at Worlds to incorporate national flags as part of their on-stage uniforms and even to drape themselves in their national flags.*

But at all times Riot remains extremely leery of opening the door to racist and chauvinist behavior from fans and players, which the company clearly believes would delegitimize its product, affect its bottom line,** and dash its dreams of bringing e-sports into the global mainstream.  That fine line between healthy nationalism and troubling racism was on prominent display at this year’s LoL Worlds tournament.  For instance, the Chicago crowd at the quarter-finals waved American flags and cheered on North American team Cloud 9 with chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”, but also had the dubious distinction of openly booing South Korea’s Samsung Galaxy team when they took the stage, a first for the LoL community (see reactions here and here).  On an even less positive note, Riot took the drastic decision to formally sanction a professional Chinese player while the tournament was ongoing for having recently used racial slurs in non-tournament play.

In the end, what all of this offers the outside observer is a window into the thinking of a hyper-globalized company that makes a digital product that it seeks to distribute and monetize across cultural lines.  How can nationalism and international competition be commodified in “good” ways in the 21st century?  We’ll have to see what Riot’s long-term answer is, and if it continues to prove as successful as it has.  For the time being, though, if you’re at all curious about any of this, I invite you to tune into the world finals on Sunday.

Put your money down on the Koreans.

* Technically Team Solo Mid’s support player Biofrost wore the Canadian flag onstage at last month’s North American regional qualifier, not Worlds.

** For a useful discussion of the limitations of Riot’s commitment to diversity, particularly in its hiring of broadcast personnel, see Ferguson Mitchell’s commentary here.  But see also Phil Kollar’s recent paean to Riot’s farsightedness and all-around decency here.  The truth is doubtless somewhere in the middle.