The Man In The Arena: Exploring Political Psychology, Science and Philosophy Through Video Games

“I am Al-Mundir ibn Muhammad Umayyad, the Sultan of Andalusia, the Emir of Qurtubah, the Sheikh of Ushunushah and Niebla and the Wali of Anbujar. And I am a religious tyrant.

But my tyranny does not stem from my wretchedness of my heart. It is a necessary evil forced by fate. For years, I had held back incursion after incursion by the West Francian – Italian holy alliance. The wars had drained my resources and made my vassals restless. I was under the heavy debt of my loans from Jewish bankers in the realm. I had lost my influence in court, lost friends amongst my emirs, and had earned the unspoken ire of my sheikhs for replenishing my armies with their serfs, who speak in hushes and forked tongues of rebellion. Every day I received lesser and lesser levies from them.

There was only one way to secure my rule. Build my reputation as a true believer in the word of our Prophet, and reunite the conspirators under my banner to spread it. My vassals were mostly Ashari, an orthodox sect of Islam. The prospect of joining me in spreading Islam under my flag outweighed their political machinations. I launched a holy war against the small Christian kingdoms of Navarra and Asturias to our north, conquered them and extended our borders up to the Pyrenees, a natural mountainous defense against the kingdom of Aquitaine on the other side. I expelled the Jews from/ Andalusia. I accused Yaqub The Mutazzil, the Rustamid sultan of Mauretania to our south of sympathizing with Jews and Christians, snatched the port cities of Cebta and Tangier from him, and sent my chief Qadi on a conversion programme to those provinces.

Now I have assimilated the strait of Gibraltar from Mauretania into my realm. The revenue from this trading post, along with my holy wars, have reconsolidated my influence in the court. I have finally paid my vassals in full for their levy upkeep. They have completely abandoned their projects against me and my kingdom, and now work for the glory of our realm.

Call me evil. But everything I did, I did to save my kingdom and my Andalusian people from falling into chaos and foreign domination.”

This would be the story of my virtual reign as a sultan from my last weekend playing Crusader Kings II, a video game developed by Paradox, a small but popular game studio based in Sweden. Crusader Kings II is a strategy game set in the historical period between 837 AD to 1453 AD. You can play as any ruler in any part of the world (except the Americas – they haven’t been discovered yet), beginning at any year you choose. The game is extremely detailed and realistic as a simulation – highly precise historical data is used for creating the game world, down to sub-province levels.

Every video game is about decision making. That is what sets video games apart from other arts – it is truly interactive. No iteration of a video game experience is similar to another. | Image: Pinterest

The sheer volume of mechanics in the game overwhelms the beginner. There is a steep learning curve, just as there would be for a real anointed king. You appoint or inherit your vassals and courtiers, give them special privileges (or take them away), receive taxes and levies, arrange betrothals and marriages, develop the economic, military and cultural technology of your provinces, decide on your trade policies, engage in diplomacy with other realms, train your armies, upgrade defensive positions, settle disputes within the nobility, expand your territories by going to war and/or enforcing treaties – you do virtually everything a real king from the medieval age would have to do.

But, like real life, every action in the game initiates several chains of causality, often with inconvenient consequences. Give too much power to a duke, and he might start conspiring with that one rebellious prince for succession. Prolong a war too much, and your vassals might desert it.

Extend your borders too far, and you might not be able to contain the alien populations and their frequent revolts. Raise taxes too high, and your peasants will rise up in revolt. Use marriage too often for diplomatic ties, and you may have a succession war to deal with. Spend too much on civilians and less on fortress upkeep, and your defences might fall like dominoes in a war. Be late in paying hired mercenaries, and they might take hold of a trading post.

The examples above are just a few of the many mechanics in the game. Several other mechanics are thrown in over which the player has no control – bad harvest, plague, religious revolts, the death of close advisors etc. The game is a brilliant demonstration of bounded rationality – one can never consider all aspects of a decision, nor any consequence with utmost certainty. Like in real life, no matter how developed one’s foresight is, one can never anticipate everything.

Every video game is about decision making. That is what sets video games apart from other arts – it is truly interactive. No iteration of a video game experience is similar to another. And this uniqueness of experience is sometimes a video game’s greatest strength as a learning tool – it allows us to witness and assess counterfactuals. But the true power of historical simulators lies in their ability to inspire appreciation for context; an appreciation that is, sadly, seldom encountered – even in classrooms.

Apart from scholars of history and political science, most people judge political figures and their actions in relative isolation. These judgements are based on our moral foundations and assume idealistic scenarios. An all-powerful ruler could choose to act whichever way she/he chose to without repercussions. However, no ruler can ever be all-powerful, for various reasons. Even the monarch must work her/his way around structural constraints to see her/his ends through as optimally as possible – and often, he must reprioritize those ends because of the same structural constraints. He can ill afford to push against any constraint too much.

These structural constraints can be religious, political, familial, cultural, economic, and even epistemological and natural. Historical simulator games take away the luxury of armchair idealism from the judge of history and test her/him in the shoes of her/his subject. For example, a student may abhor a historical figure for being a warmonger, but when placed in his shoes, may see the rationale in that figure’s pre-emptive strikes against his neighbours who were waiting to pounce upon the slightest hint of weakness in his rule.

As Theodore Roosevelt had put it, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. . . . ”

Historical simulation games are a presentation of structural constraints, a playground for game theory. They replace straightforward blackboard virtues with the reality of political trade-offs.

As another example, in Hearts of Iron IV, which is set during the run-up to as well as the course of the Second World War, a player can choose to secure her/his country’s future in many ways. But the two broad choices are to either stay neutral, which has its own costs – such as the risk of being overrun by any one side without an alliance to seek defensive help from – or to join a side, thereby securing allies and mobilizing resources for the war (Hearts Of Iron IV is also a great demonstration of Keynesian economics) but at the same time, guaranteeing participation in the war and loss of life, limb and property of its citizens.

Screenshots from the Hearts of Iron IV | Image: Games Planet

People are often clear on value rationality – which values are worth pursuing and which are not. But people are unsure when it comes to instrumental rationality – how to go about achieving the end.

Historical simulators are an arena for exploring both value and instrumental rationality. It explores the former by allowing the player to rank her/his own priorities, and the latter by providing the environment within which the player must work to attain her/his objectives. Such an experience can be the ultimate expression of the player’s philosophy. Historical video games are thus powerfully reflective. They can add to the sophistication of historical discourses, if not amongst scholars, then amongst amateur historians, enthusiasts and students.

Screenshot from a video game showing World War 2 | Image: Life Wire

One may argue that the days of monarchs are long gone, and the political dynamics of a state have changed. However, even in democracies – especially in democracies an appointed head of state or government must work within several constraints. While the variables may have changed – courtiers replaced by fellow ministers, inherited succession replaced by democratic succession – the equations still have a lot in common. A politician still needs to build influence within a political party, still needs to spend earned ‘political capital’ judiciously, and every now and then make compromises for the long-term greater good – compromises that irk us.

Every political decision in history was a manoeuvre in a structural labyrinth, and every political decision in the current age is a manoeuvre in a different structural labyrinth.

There are several commercially produced video game titles which are realistic and complex enough to help players appreciate and explore the weight and context of decision making, not just for students of political science but other disciplines as well. Such games are already being used the world over in universities as learning tools for students. The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Indiana as well as the University of South Carolina use ‘tycoon games’ (commercial business-simulator video game titles which are popular amongst children and adults alike) such as Railroad Tycoon II to help students develop business acumen.

Harvard Medical School uses in-house developed simulation games that teach students the intricacies and trade-offs in public health policies. At the University of British Columbia, medical students use video games set in a clinic to train in the differential diagnosis of illnesses. MIT hosts the Education Arcade, a collaborative platform by a team of researchers and developers from the video game industry, which develops computer games as learning and experiential tools. The University of Florida uses a game titled Democracy to teach students the gains and pitfalls of political decision making in a democratic system. The European Institute of Business Administration uses Second Life, a virtual reality platform, for establishing contact and interacting with business students from around the world. The University of Gothenburg uses Cities: Skyline (a favourite of the author) where you play a city planner with complete discretionary authority, to teach students urban planning.

The Faculty of Arts at the University of Umea has a master’s course in history which uses Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV for simulation exercises.

Actions are borne out of the experience. To be able to integrate any such ‘experience’, even if virtual, would noticeably add sophistication in learning about such actions. Video games are the next step in the evolution of pedagogy.

Also Read: The CIA and the United States’ Attitudes toward Cyber-squatting

*Ronit Hazarika is a Post-Graduate student from Jindal School of Public Policy. He could be reached at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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