Realpolitik and Political Theory in Role-Playing Games
What can we learn from the political fiction of some good RPGs (and what RPGs have to learn from realpolitik and political theory)
If politically-themed video games are not just about entertainment and competition, but also about representing ideas and facts, then they have a lot to learn and teach in terms of realpolitik and political theory.
In the classic book Homo Ludens (1938) by Johan Huizinga, it is said that the functions of a game can be defined in two fundamental aspects:
“a fight for something or the representation of something.”
Interestingly, this quote can also serve to define the functions of politics: all politics are made in order to fight for something or someone and/or in order to represent (in a different sense of games) the partial expression of a people. In this story, I will show how both aspects of politics can be captured and elaborated by political fiction in RPGs, especially tactical RPGs.
As I discussed in another SUPERJUMP text, in Western RPGs, the players can often customize their own avatar or enjoy ample freedom for the flow of the story, while in Japanese RPGs it is more common for the players to assume the role of a character well-defined and have a more limited freedom in their choices.
One way or another, the fact is that developers can create RPGs with a greater focus on the gameplay itself, as in Dungeon Encounters (2021), directed by Hiroyuki Ito, or with a greater representational focus, as in the art, narrative and design of the game mechanics of Disco Elysium (2019), directed by Robert Kurvitz. In this story, I’ll focus on the representational part of RPGs, especially tactical RPGs, to communicate ideas about politics and interact with the ideals and political intuitions of the players.
The delimitation of the subject in RPGs, of course, is not fortuitous; it reflects the common concerns of this genre with tactical RPG mechanics and with proposals to play roles in a plot that involves countries and nations. In this way, as some RPGs attempt to represent political phenomena or political ideas, they have a lot to learn from “real politics” (realpolitik) and political theory.
For RPGs with this type of proposal, it is essential to study these themes to write persuasive characters, diplomatic dialogue and political plots. Conversely, to the extent that some RPGs are able to create interesting interactive representations of politics, they need to be taken more and more seriously for us to think about real and theoretical problems that spring from this topic.
Real politics in video games
When intending to make a video game about politics, there are many reasons to study real politics or “realpolitik”, that is, political phenomena that actually happened or are happening. The main reasons that make this study extremely useful for game developers are:
- Background for historical fiction;
- Examples to increase the verisimilitude of political events;
- Inspiration for mechanics.
As a historian and philosopher of the historical sciences, I must say that the level of historiographical accuracy and plausibility of counterfactual history in video games like the Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty series is very low compared to the level of accuracy and plausibility of brilliant historical fiction in the cinema and especially in literature, like Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg, or Memoirs of Hadrian (1951), by Marguerite Yourcenar. Fortunately there are a few exceptions like Medal of Honor (1999), also directed by Steven Spielberg, and some strategy games like Crusader Kings III (2020), directed by Henrik Fåhraeus.
Good historical fiction requires attention primarily to two factors:
- Historical accuracy;
- Historical plausibility.
In the first case, I am referring to the fact that a historical fiction about an event x in a period of time t needs to take into account what historians know about event x and needs to set the fictional events in such a way that they appear to be in the time t. As an introduction to the topic, I recommend Whose History?: Engaging History Students through Historical Fiction (2013), by Grant Rodwell.
There are a lot of political games that take place in medieval times, but the “Medieval RPGs”, or at least most of them, are not set in the medieval period exactly, but rather take inspiration from things from the period for the political events of their own fantasy world. This occurs, for example, in Dragon Age series, in Ogre series and many others. This trend goes back to the origin of this genre in Dungeon & Dragons and the influence of Tolkien’s books.
In the second case, I am referring to the fact that a historical fiction, because it is fiction, it can speculate beyond what actually happened, but it needs to do it in such a way that the fictitious events are plausible, that is, “could have happened”, both in terms of historical knowledge and in terms of fictional rules established by the developers. And that second aspect brings us to the second reason why game designers need to study realpolitik: “examples”.
In one of my earlier essays for SUPERJUMP, The Poetics of Narrative Design in Video Games, I wrote about the Aristotelian concept of verisimilitude and demonstrated a number of design choices (mostly narrative) that make events in a game seem more believable. The concept of plausibility has to do with verisimilitude, but not only. This concept is very well discussed in the book Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences (1991), by Geoffrey Hawthorn.
Everything that was said in that article is also valid for the case of historical fiction games, but with the addition that they also need to take into account what used to happen in the historical period t or that had some parallel in human history, in order to sound plausible to the player that, although a fictional event y did not occur, if the past were different, y could plausibly have occurred in place of a historical fact x. For developers of politically themed historical fiction games to know how to write plausible dialogue, characters, scenarios and fictional events within a historical period, they need to study examples of analogous events in human history.
A good example of “historical inspiration” in the political field is The War of the Lions in Final Fantasy Tactics (1997/2007), directed by Yasumi Matsuno. This fictional war is a clear allusion to The War of the Roses, a series of civil wars fought over control of the English throne in the mid-to-late fifteenth century, fought between supporters of two rival cadet branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: Lancaster and York. In addition, The Fifty Years’ War may allude to the historical Hundred Years’ War between England and France, with Ivalice representing England and Ordallia representing France. Historical inspiration in these events also led translators Alexander O. Smith and Joseph Reeder to use terms — such as ‘ser’ in place of ‘sir’ — from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, another work inspired by The War of the Roses.
And in parallel with the historical inspirations for the political plot and the setting, political mechanics in role-playing games should also be mentioned. When it comes to non-tactical RPGs, it is common for the player to follow a political plot from an individual point of view, which may eventually involve individual choices, as in Disco Elysium. On the other hand, in tactical RPGs the protagonist’s individual choices can dictate the fate of nations, as in Tactics Ogre (1995/2010), directed by Yasumi Matsuno. And to emulate democratic choices, not only of the protagonist, it is also possible to adopt a system of persuasion and voting, as in Triangle Strategy (2022), directed by Kazuya Miyakawa.
Looking at games like the ones mentioned above, it’s easy to see how the study of real political phenomena can enrich a political RPG in terms of setting, plot and even in the design of game mechanics. And to the extent that games like this can partially emulate real political phenomena, this means that players can partially learn real political phenomena as they play, while still feeling immersed within these phenomena.
However, unfortunately most RPGs with a political approach don’t live up to the real political complexity. With a lot of effort, some manage to escape the stereotype of evil vs good, but they hardly even pass a good understanding that politics is essentially the collective means by which both conflict and dialogue begin and end in an attempt to achieve divergent interests that are generally rational and understandable in their respective socio-cultural contexts.
For an RPG with a political focus to become interesting, in terms of political reflection, it is not enough for developers to use elements of real political phenomena in the plot, setting or mechanics. All this, if done well, can guarantee, by itself, a partial political learning for the players, but it is necessary to go further if one intends to reflect critically on political phenomena, it is necessary to go to political theory.
Political Theory in video games
Just as political history can be useful for developers of politically themed RPGs, political theory can also be useful for those developers. I believe the main uses are:
- Basis for fictional experiments in politically themed games;
- Examples of arguments to be used in dialog lines;
- Inspiration for creating characters.
Political theory can be understood as the intellectual effort to understand or solve problems of a political nature. Political problems are numerous, some concern international relations, others legal theory, others political sociology, etc., and the most fundamental of these problems concern political philosophy. There are usually no consensual answers to the theoretical problems posed, but this does not mean that “anything goes”. There are usually different theoretical approaches that bring equally acceptable solutions or each one with different undesirable consequences.
Some of these problems are “what should a society be?”, “can people with radically divergent moral principles live in the same society?” and “how can culturally different societies collaborate?”. These three problems are touched by RPGs such as, Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (2003), by Katsura Hashino, Triangle Strategy and Disco Elysium respectively.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne is a case of applying political theory at the three aforementioned levels: fictional experiment, argumentation, and character creation. Each of the main characters of Shin Megami Tensei III was created in such a way as to represent a different ethical position, one of them defends a close and harmonious connection between the human and the determinism of nature, such as Baruch Spinoza; another defends a society governed by social evolutionism, in the style of Herbert Spencer; and so on.
Each of these characters tries to convince the player, through arguments, to take his side, his Reason. Such arguments, while simply put, clearly reflect a prior study of political philosophy on the part of the developers. As demonstrated by Sam Hatting, and as I commented on Nintendo Blast (Portuguese), this narrative construction was designed with inspiration in Niezstche’s philosophy, as a kind of “political experiment” that ends up giving a critical and realistic answer to how the human can deal with the their ideals of the “perfect society”.
Realism in political theory is marked by a premise of viewing political relations as a continual struggle for power. This thesis goes back more directly to philosophers of the early modern era, such as Machiavelli and Hobbes, but this position is already found in Plato’s Republic, opposing it to a position that we today consider idealist, a position of reflection on “how a society should be”.
In the opposite direction to Shin Megami Tensei III, Disco Elysium also discusses the problem of the coexistence of radically contradictory moral principles, but this RPG explores this problem as a more complex rhetorical fight, and not simply with combat with skills and physical attacks. Yes, there are also traditionally dialogue options in the Shin Megami Tensei series, but these options are quite straightforward and simple, not enough to characterize something like a debate or discussion between player and NPC.
Disco Elysium explores RPG mechanics in two dialogue aspects. The internal dialogue, with the protagonist’s mental faculties, and the external dialogue, with NPCs, each with a different moral and/or political position, with positions such as hyper liberalism, communism, fascism, among others. Disco Elysium’s political experiment is very interesting, it shows the complexity of political rhetoric at the same time that it shows the complexity of political agents: they are not just people with a single and coherent motivation, but complex beings with various mental faculties, desires and doubts that are faced with dilemmas to try to harmonize contradictory desires in society and within themselves.
It could be said that Shin Megami Tensei III provides a realistic experience of politics on a metaphysical and individualistic level, while Disco Elysium provides an idealistic experience of politics, on a more naturalistic level (no monsters or demons). In addition, Disco Elysium provides an introspective and interpersonal debate. Triangle Strategy, in turn, has a cast of characters with more serious political decisions, they are not ordinary citizens, but nobles or important soldiers who represent nations, and it provides not only a realistic and idealistic experience of politics, through the use of hard power and dialogue choices, but also offers an experience in liberal values, economic dilemmas and international relations.
Triangle Strategy demonstrates the importance of economic interdependence for harmony among nations. In addition, it discusses coup d’état, interventionism, bilateral pacts and sovereignty of nations, making the player in these and other themes need to choose between prioritizing morality, utility or freedom. A narrative design of political and military choices clearly inspired by Ogre series, although the trend of medieval and fantastical political approach in tactical RPGs goes back to the Fire Emblem series, and its influence is also notable in Triangle Strategy.
Many other examples could be given in RPGs, but my intention is neither to delve into case studies nor to be exhaustive in the examples. I’ve offered just enough examples to demonstrate how realism, idealism, and liberalism are present in politically themed RPGs, as well as elements inspired by real politics.
The quality of these theoretical and empirical appropriations of politics can and must be contested. In fact, I believe that video games still have a lot to improve in political approaches. However, the existence of these phenomena in video games deserves greater visibility both in academia and in public debate. There are several political issues addressed in video games that, as Ian Bogost has demonstrated in his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2007), should not be underestimated in their persuasiveness.
Imagine the potential that this medium has to create artificial political experiments, with interaction between players and AI. Various philosophical ideas can be recreated in interactive fictional worlds, both to test players’ reactions to ethical and political issues and to motivate players’ creativity to find solutions to problems in these areas.