Games often claim to situtate you at the very top of the hierarchy, as the head of state of a country or empire. They promise that you can play as Napoleon or Washington or Gandhi. They deliver something very different though and yet somehow something even more of a power fantasy. They make you the country itself.
There is no real world equivalent for the amount of control that you have in something like Civilization. No real world ruler controls every movement of both troops and civilians, every development that happens in a city and even every technological advancement that comes up. The Sun King himself could only dream of such control.
This is why these games cannot represent differences in government. The player embodies the state. To ask what is the difference between running your state under democracy or under fascism makes as much sense as to ask what is the difference between running your body under democracy or fascism. You can contort your way to some kind of answer, but fundamentally, the question just does not hold.
There’s no space for history from below in a game like Civilization. They center the player and so strip away things that take away from the player’s autonomy, like the autonomy of the people who are being ruled. There is, after all, only one sun in the sky.
In Stellaris, I once went five hundred years before noticing that my ruler had not changed because robots are immortal. In Through The Ages, I’ll build an economy with Hammurabi to build labs as Sid Meier. I am the player and my goals are not just paramount, they are all that is there.
In Crusader Kings 3, I just disinherited my younger son because I knew that my current ruler would die and I wanted my next one to hold my full empire. I don’t even know what happened to him afterwards. I am Ireland, not his dad.
A lot of this comes from the game screen. When your map of the world is your territory and it is all that you see, it becomes impossible to act like a person. Games like Long Live The Queen and Reigns never even show you the kingdom. If your concerns are human, you have to stay at the scale of humans.
You are not limited to statehood either. It is only through this lens that the people of a city-building game makes sense. The colonists in Surviving Mars somehow have the gumption to move to Mars, but not to build themselves houses or make themselves food. They cannot even be relied upon to ensure their own supply of oxygen, preferring to suffocate rather than to fix a leak themselves. They instead inhabit a socialist caricature, one in which every human eats the same, sleeps the same and lives the same differentiated by depending on the game, only minor personality differences and education.
Nor am I the tycoon of the genre. I am the theme park itself. As the CEO, would I design every roller coaster? Every twist of the railway? Every pot of weed? But again, I am not the man running the zoo. I am the zoo itself.
This is why they cannot represent corruption or self-dealing or any of the traits that define these bodies in real-life. It is of course very possible for a person to cheat themselves, but that’s not what corruption is. Corruption is not the state cheating itself, it is a person cheating the state and that person does not exist in these games.
To have the player embody a ruler, you need to make the player character human. You need to limit the character in the way of a person and give them the interests of a person. My local government minister really isn’t concerned with developing this region. He has a driver and a siren, traffic doesn’t worry him. He has a job and a pension, employment isn’t really his problem. Hypothetically, his consitutents are his concern, but in reality, he’s going to be reelected comfortably.
Here, we see the two major problems with embodying real politicians. The first is that I don’t actually know what motivates this MLA. He has money and power and security that I will never see, and yet he continues building up all three. Still, if ever there was a tool built to show the allure of numbers going up, it is video games.
The second is that most games don’t have it in them to represent quite so major a shortcoming of democracy. Somehow “worst, except for all the others tried” gets shortcut to “best possible” and the reality of an elected representative who is guaranteed reelection becomes inconceivable. This is especially true because it feels like bad gameplay. This lack of accountability might be true, but no one considers it to be fun.
Additionally, you can’t “build the city of your dreams” if there are NIMBYs in the way. It’s just more immediately apparent fun if you are completely in control. This is also why there are no cops killing black people in Cities: Skylines. When a game positions you as an absolute authority, it cannot also have you question the manifestations of that authority. So, police stations and police budgets reduce crime. A problem has met a solution and the core loop is unchanged.
You don’t just play a city, or a country, but an antiseptic model of one, one with real humans and so inhumane. You can’t get humanity if you are not willing to build it out.
By doing so, we can start to represent many of the stories that have fallen through the cracks of the current paradigm of abstraction these games subcribe to. It has to feel meaningfully different to play Saruman instead of Theoden and not just because orcs use a different character model than men. We must go further even than representing a difference between leading orcs and men. We need there to be a difference between embodying two different characters.
Slapping imps is one of the most personality-filled interactions in the genre, but I would hope that a true Dungeon Keeper would have more amusements than that and building rooms.
This is not an indictment of any current game in particular. I really like every single game mentioned here. They are only mentioned in this article because of how much I love them. I don’t think that it really matters that these games are built around an impossible representation. All games are unrealistic to a greater or even greater degree. Carping about that misunderstands games. This is just to show space still left untouched.
It would be interesting to see the stories we haven’t yet told. I want to see someone abstract away money to pay for his daughter’s education. I want to see an army be built over a personal insult. I want to see an empire driven to ruin to fund the ruler’s debaucheries.
Finally, I want to see one of the oldest stories of all. I want to see a person start as human as anyone else, a person with a family and a life and a moral compass. I want the player to mirror that character’s obsession with the maps and graphs that represent their kingdom. I want to see them both forget what it was like to live on the ground floor, the human results of the decisions made. And so, finally, I want both player and PC to end up where games are now.