Recent Lessons from Games for Political Science


The board and video game world this past week have at least two compelling reports that offer some lessons for political science.

First, David Hill did both a write up for Grantland and a segment on This American Life about the Diplomacy (the game) world championships. Players in this game have to focus on territorial control and creating/maintaining alliances. This strategic game from the 1950s lacks a true randomization component (dice, coin flips, etc.). However, the game is not Chess either.  Instead, the components that makes the interaction dynamic from game to game are the relationships between the players (up to seven) and the alliances forged between the players.  Thus, there may be some level of randomness given the types of players you are playing against (where signalling player types becomes very important to know if someone is trustworthy or not) or if they randomize their behaviors (as rational actors sometimes ought to do).  In creating his report on the Diplomacy world championships, Hill brings Dennis Ross (a former US diplomat under the Clinton administration) as his diplomatic adviser who offers quite a bit of useful tidbits that seem to improve his play during the match. The This American Life segment is an entertaining listen (listen to both the Prologue and Act 1) even for people who have never played Diplomacy or board games in general.  This is the type of game that can ruin friendships.

"Dennis Ross" by Nrbelex - Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -
“Dennis Ross” by Nrbelex – Creative Commons

There are few interesting tidbits from Hill’s experience for political science and international relations. First, figuring out when to get mad is not purely a response to how angry you may actually be.  Hill mentions twice about an opponent that seems to lose their emotional control and begin to rage about how Hill (or other players) played the game. If you are familiar with online video games at all, this is a familiar sight.  Games like League of Legends or Call of Duty are notorious for players that behave with bad manners.  It is not a shocker that people do not like losing.  If a player loses due to a teammate not fulfilling their expected role, they actively betray them, then emotions and words may fly.

Raging in board games is a more scarce phenomenon as you are playing directly with people who can observe you, your behavior, and may actually know who you are; however, it still happens.  I imagine some readers can conjure up a tense family night of Monopoly or Sorry (inferior strategic games, by the way).  However, Hill makes the astute observation that it is possible that both acts of rage in Diplomacy are strategic.  In the first incident from his youth, he thinks the individual may be reputation building as a hothead so other players know not to cross him in the future.  In the World Championship, his ally goes from quiet to incensed in a possible play to encourage a six-way draw and an end to the game; this is something the opposing alliance is not interested in.  By raising the interpersonal costs of trying to draw out the game longer and break the draw, the player is getting their preferred outcome.

This reputation building certainly exists not only in diplomatic negotiations, but also in characterizing the strategy of countries.  In some cases, it may be strategic to appear insane or irrational to strike a better bargain: your adversary may see the likelihood of gaining marginal benefits in future rounds of negotiations as both unlikely and potentially costly. Nixon gets the credit for formalizing this as US doctrine with the Vietnamese to some degree. Writers often accuse the North Korean regime as erratic or irrational, but there has been a logic to their negotiation strategy as well.

Another very astute tidbit is when a player confronts Hill and argues that Hill has cost him both the game and the possibility of advancing further in the tournament.  Again, this is another example of a player blaming an opponent for their overall performance.  Hill, at first meekly, suggests that perhaps it wasn’t he who made this result inevitable, but the player himself failed by not reaching out to Hill in the correct manner.  There is a saying in poker that goes, “play the person, not the cards” and it is valid for Diplomacy as well.  Often, your own capacity, status, material capabilities, or value may be less influential than how you represent and use those assets.  Taking into account other actors’ perceptions and preference is necessary for consistent success.

A second interesting piece relevant to our own research is this semi-random musing by Ralph Koster as to how we define and perceive copies or clones within the video game community.  So, in discussing games, he gives us a few different terms we can use to discuss differences in games that applies pretty well to game theory.  A “clone” or “reskin” is a game that has the same rules but has alternate space problems. We can credibly think of Lichbach’s Peasant’s Dilemma as a reskin of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. A “variant” is one where we have a change of a rule (or a new rule), so the British game “Golden Balls” is a fair variant of the Prisoner’s Dilemma—they are not the same game as the Nash Equilibria are different, but they are close. 

The piece concludes with a list of ways to create a truly new game which, again, applies to our own field of study:

So, the recipe for inventing a truly new game:

  • Identify a new mathematical model. This is often done by finding a new kind of scenario to model: human relationships (The Sims), gardening (Farm Town), etc.
  • Proffer a dimensional change on an existing rule set, such as Tetris modifying the classic game of pentominoes by adding time and movement vector. Pac-Man and Miner 2049er and Flip & Flop are almost the same game (traverse every node on the graph). But the rule changes are major.
  • Explore alternate sorts of graph structures, such as Blokus to Blokus Trigon or Gemblo. Jumpman vs Miner 2049er is a good example here, or indeed any other “gather things” platformer; changing the graph of points that require visiting alters much.
  • Offer a replacement goal within an extant rule structure, which can force a major variant. A racing game versus a demolition derby sort of racing game is an example here.


Michael A. Allen

About Michael A. Allen

Michael is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Boise State University with a focus in International Relations, Comparative Politics, and Methodology (quantitative and formal). His work includes issues related to military basing abroad, asymmetric relations, cooperation, and conflict. He received his Ph.D from Binghamton University in 2011.

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