Blog Post

Diplomacy and its Discontents

Greetings, everyone! I've already made a couple of posts here, but I haven't actually taken the opportunity to introduce myself. I'm Richard Mehlinger, and I'm a second-year history grad student at UC Riverside. As an undergrad, I did a double major in computer science and history. When I was growing up, I spent entirely too much time playing games of various sorts, a pastime I still thoroughly enjoy. My favorites were and are mostly strategy games like the Civilization series. These games helped inspire my love for history, by encouraging me to think critically about a variety of mostly macrohistorical issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after I decided to become an historian, I started to focus on the history of games, a topic which I'm in the early phases of exploring.

At the same time, I'm also interested not just in the history of games but in modern games about history. Historically-based games, including not just grand strategy games* but also a variety of other genres, such as the seemingly never-ending deluge of World War II first person shooters, flight simulators, and real-time strategy games, are extremely popular, and make up a very substantial chunk of the PC games market. These games are beginning to attract attention amongst historians. A few years ago, noted economic historian Niall Ferguson discovered a game called Making History, and wrote an article detailing his experience with it. Ferguson, who has edited a volume of counterfactual history, was ecstatic at the opportunity to test some of his hypotheses, such as his claim that had Britain and France gone to war over Czechoslovakia in 1938, Hitler would have been easily defeated. But when Ferguson went to test it as Great Britain, he was steamrolled by Germany when France refused to go along with his proposed alliance. Ferguson was so impressed with the experience of being able to test his counterfactual hypotheses in a game that he began working with Muzzy Lane Software, the game's developers, as a consultant. Recently, he was asked by Britain's new coalition government to take part in a review of history education in the country's schools. One of his ideas is to integrate games like Making History into the history curriculum, which would, at least in theory, allow students to attempt to understand the issues that historical actors faced.

Intrigued, I decided to try out the demo for Making History, to see if I could reproduce Ferguson's results. Ferguson's attempt at preempting Germany failed because he was unable to attract French support for endeavor. So, I decided to open up the diplomacy interface to see if I could do any better. When I saw it, I immediately realized why Ferguson's hypothesis had failed: the diplomacy system was absolutely skeletal. Ferguson couldn't persuade France to join his alliance because Making History's diplomacy system did not implement any form of persuasion other than sending material aid--i.e., bribes--and even this was not particularly helpful. This is not a minor detail--diplomacy and international relations are clearly a crucial part of the story of the Second World War, and Ferguson's experiment failed directly because of a poorly implemented diplomacy system. Nor are these problems limited to Making History. Although it's diplomacy system is unusually thin, even the most complex diplomacy systems I've seen in the decade-plus span that I've been playing grand strategy games are little better than MH's. So if we're going to consider using strategy games either for pedagogy or for exploring counterfactualsan idea which received considerable pushback but which I think may have potentialthen it's necessary to carefully examine the diplomacy systems in these games.

The diplomacy systems in most grand strategy games essentially model all interactions as either bilateral quid pro quos or unilateral actions of aggression, abrogation, or friendliness. Unilateral actions include things such as declaring war, imposing embargoes, cancelling trade agreements, sending gifts, and promising to protect another state if it is attacked. Bilateral actions include purchasing or exchanging resources, territory, or research information; forming alliances or mutual defense pacts; requesting that the other party declare war against or embargo a third party; and requesting the right to move forces through the other party's territory or offering them the right to move their forces through yours, sometimes in exchange for some kind of compensation. Some franchises give players the options to demand goods as tribute, or to ask for aid. The Europa Universalis franchise has what is probably the most complex diplomacy system I've ever seen. Set between 1400 and 1820, it includes the ability to propose royal marriages (which among other things improve relations and can give one participant a claim on the other's throne), a variety of ways to attempt to attempt to provoke other nations into starting a war or providing a casus belli, and ways to attempt to diplomatically maneuver weaker nations into voluntarily accepting vassalage or even outright annexation. The latest iteration of the series also includes a complex casus belli system, where the pretexts under which one goes to war impact the costs for various concessions one can demand as victor during the peace process. And yet, it too is inadequate.

As complex as all these systems may appear, it is striking even at a glance is how utterly unrealistic they are. The first problem is that these systems typically portray diplomatic relations between states as being primarily driven by material concerns and self-interest. Thus the model is primarily one of realpolitik, though to be fair most of the games involved tack on additional factors. For instance, countries of different religions or, occasionally, different government types are not as likely to get along well, countries that share a border are more likely to have tensions. Yet we know that states do not act solely according to the dictates of realpolitik, of their rational self-interest on the international stage. One need only look at the Middle East to understand that. Ideology, cultural similarity or difference, moral concerns, honor, emotion, domestic pressure, rational or irrational arguments and a host of other factors all drive foreign policy along with the state's material self-interest. In the same vein, persuasion and argument play no role at all in the diplomatic process in these gamestypically the only ways to directly influence another power towards one's point of view is through bribery and concluding agreements. Given that to conclude an agreement requires the two parties to be reasonably friendly to begin with, this means that bribery is essentially the only way these games provide to win friends and influence countries. Yet despite all of this, I can only think of a single franchisethe Total War gameswhich allow players to phrase diplomatic proposals as ultimatums. Something is wrong with this picture.

Second, the scope for cooperation offered by these games tends to be very, very limited. For instance, only a very few diplomatic systems involve any option for coordinating military activities or intelligence sharing during wartime. Typically, the best one can hope for from one's allies during wartime is that they send their units in the right general directiononly a very few games allow one to suggest that they pursue specific strategic objectives, and the potential for cooperation in even these games is generally very minimal. As another example, Civilization V implemented a system where only one unit can occupy any given tile on the map at a time, thus allowing neutral or even allied powers to block off access to strategically important points in neutral or unclaimed territory, yet its diplomacy system does not even include an option to ask that the offending unit move aside to allow passage. Even those games which do allow some kind of military coordination as part of their diplomacy systems do not tend to flesh it out in great detail.

Last, and in my opinion most egregious, is the total lack of effective multilateral negotiations. This is particularly troublesome, since so much of the most important diplomatic agreements in history were multilateral accords. The United Nations, the Peace of Westphalia, the Congress of Vienna, NATO, the EU, the Iroquois federation and a thousand other historical events and institutions of note--all of these were the result of multilateral negotiations. Yet strategy games tend to simulate even peace negotiations in multi-power wars as either a series of separate peace treaties, or, as a simplifying measure, by allowing a single "coalition leader" to make peace on behalf of its whole alliance, without input or feedback from other alliance members as to the terms.

Given these three problems with existing diplomacy systems, I'd like to pose two questions. First, what do these systems teach about history and international relations, and what underlying assumptions do they reinforce? It seems plausible to claim that these systems promote a hyper-"realist" vision of international relations, and also that they emphasize unilateral action as being more important than or superior to multilateral action. What else could they be suggesting? Furthermore, do these actually impact their players' thinking about these issues, given that these games generally aren't used in an educational context but as a form of personal entertainment? Lastly, how much of a barrier should these problems be considered to using these games for educational purposes, and how do you encourage students to think critically about the games as models?

Second, how could more realistic diplomacy systems be implemented, given the limitations and requirements inherent in single-player computer games? The first of these limitations (if it can be called that) is that these games are entertainment software, not educational software. That means that whatever system is implemented has to be enjoyable, intuitive, and not overly onerous. The second problem is managing complexity, which becomes especially apparent when we start trying to consider multilateral interactions. The third is that real, human diplomacy inherently relies upon conversation and discussion between participants. However, computer software is nowhere near being able to converse realistically with human beings, and asking game developers to design software that can pass the Turing Test is a bit unrealistic, to put it very, very mildly.

Analyzing and improving these systems seems like it could potentially be a very dynamic area for interdisciplinary research. Historians, political scientists, game developers, digital rhetoricians, modeling specialists, mathematicians, economists, media studies and cultural theorists, and probably lots of people that I'm leaving out all have important perspectives to contribute here, and I would love to hear any thoughts from my fellow HASTAC scholars on these issues.

*There are a variety of different kinds of strategy games on the market. "Grand strategy" refers to games in which one takes full control over a state.




You're onto a very interesting opportunity for interdisciplinary research and collaboration!  My own work looks at emergent strategies for governance in communities within MMOs, but like you I come from a background of single-player turn-based grand strategy gaming.

I see a number of opportunities  - and potentially fundable ones! - here for "serious games" analysis and development.

This could, even as a preliminary approach to the field, make an interesting presentation at Games+Learning+Society - the deadline for submission is coming soon, but I hope you'll consider it.

I'd love to talk further with you about your ideas: I think you're onto something fascinating and very, very useful.


It highlights the problems wshich arise when non-gamers place too much trust in digial "black boxes" as tools - I blogged about this at