Game Design with the Help of Social Sciences

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
7 min readFeb 27, 2016


Yes, in case you’re wondering, that could be a thing


Using social science approach to the design of games is actually something that I have attempted in my thesis, but since that paper only exists in Czech language, I might as well tell you a bit about it here. Given that I majored in political science, the focus was on politics as a field and strategy games as a genre, but the method would be similar for any other fields or genres.

The Realities of Politics

Assuming it can do anything at all, political science can tell you a number of different things about politics, depending on how you use it. You can use it to describe a political system in terms of its structure and define types of regimes, you can discuss political ideas and values and determine what’s good or bad, or you can attempt to predict something about the direction of history.

Many of that would be speculative, and may only work on a limited number of examples in real time and space, or largely be up to personal choice, but for a strategy game design, it’s a treasure trove of inspiration. Not necessarily in terms of using real examples and making a “realistic” game about them, but instead by picking various ideas and playing with them in speculative fiction.

So far, any serious attempts at simulating realistic models of politics have done precisely the error of trying to only be simulators of real world Earth today. Consequently, the Democracy or Geo-Political Simulator series were rather dry and with a very limited appeal. Strangely enough, only Czech Webgame was really fun. If you go too realistic, you only amplify the unrealness of the simulation.

Webgame is still a very popular Czech text MMO turn based strategy. Strange right? It doesn’t get any more retro than that. There’s no good equivalent in English. It works because it is near future enough — you start today, or 20th century let’s say, as a realistic regime, but you can advance to contacting aliens or go through a Terminator-like revolution to Robocracy.

Applying Politics Modularly

The trick I think would be to consider politics one element at a time. Whatever gameplay you have in mind for your strategy, it’s unlikely that it would benefit from trying to fit in every aspect of politics at once, but it may be greatly enhanced by just the right kind of minigame or strategic element. Politics are many different things and games so far explored only a few.

First of all, there’s the division of political powers thought of by Montesquieu — the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Games normally only do unrestrained dictatorial executive, and nothing whatsoever from the other two branches of government. While that may make some sense given that most strategy games are constant warfare, it’s not the only way.

The shining exception would be the Sim City franchise, where you can decide the zoning of your city, but not directly what kind of buildings will be built inside of zones. This teaches the player to focus on designing the best possible infrastructure, thus creating the right conditions for the desirable outcome to emerge on its own. Similarly, you could involve other powers in decisions.

As a real world leader, you’d typically only have a limited legislative initiative, which means in plain talk that your task would be to make the best of the laws that somebody else passes. You may of course try to influence which laws will get passed, but generally, it will not be in your power to simply decide. There can also be a feedback loop between the two powers.

In a game, there could be an autonomous system in place that chooses policies and you as a leader would have points of influence that you can spend to make sure that certain things get passed, but you’d never have enough to control everything. You’d earn those points for being good at executing policies, while some necessary decisions would be unpopular.

In such a system, you could also have the supreme court like institution at least as means to later take down a law that turned out to be passed. In terms of consequences, the policies would generally affect the availability and distribution of various resources (material, workforce, budgets for research or other departments, etc.) or illegality of certain items, impacting social morale.

Even if most of your strategy game focuses like the rest of them on the player being a general, having an intermittent political minigame like that between battles could conceivably be fun. Similarly, even more intermittently, you can have an elections minigame, which ultimately could be inspired by the various Theme-Something strategy games, like Theme Hospital for example.

Elections: The Game

Elections can be reduced to a number of main candidates (possibly as few as two), who campaign. Campaign can be understood as a turn based time period during which the player can perform certain actions in certain order until they run out of budget or time. Goals would be of course winning voters of different demographics over by debates or ads, and to get more funds.

To that end, the player could also hire staff members for a number of predetermined functions, and each employee would have a number of statistics to balance between. The staff can also do various research, and ultimately, if a truly realistic fun is to be had, some dark side moves should be available, with some bad karma or danger of backfire attached to such moves.

As for the nature of available candidates, there could be a system of standard types of political parties to choose from, with various advantages or disadvantages (like more money versus more sympathy, elites versus populists, religion versus science appeal, etc.). Finally, there should also be random events happening throughout so that responsiveness is important.

The only substantially technical element of elections within the political science theory are the settings of electoral systems, which either make one candidate or party win a lot of power, even if they win by a little bit, or it can be a system where the mandates won are proportional to how many votes you got compared to all other parties. The second option would cause coalitions.

In game, being a leader in a coalition would mean that some legislative options would be further limited. Only policies on which all of the coalition parties would agree would be easily passable, and that’s where the choice of party or political leaning would play into the game — the strategy would lie in what kind of policies you’d like to have passed more often or more easily.

What Are Your Values?

That is to say, if the elections were a part of a larger strategy game and had consequences. I believe that’s enough examples for now, but before the end, I’d like to address a little bit the least technical aspect of political science, the political philosophy, and why considering that for the purposes of game design is important. After all, any game you make is a political statement.

Especially if you involve in your game some version of economy or warfare, what you’re always inadvertently doing in the educational sense is normalizing some form of society or human relations. It can be less obvious in a sci-fi or fantasy setting, but it can never be escaped. Games can still be racist, sexist, classist, or any other kind of -ist, and creators should at least be aware.

It doesn’t mean that the political regimes one can play in your game have to be perfectly moral, but it should be clear what your take or message is about that which the player can control. A good start is generally to attempt to have a balanced range of options, because the greatest strike is probably to force the player to be able to “choose” only a single perspective, presented as good.

The key notions in western tradition of political philosophy are freedom and justice, and there are dozens of interpretations of each. Resulting from that, there are a number of ideal political regimes, many of which have at least been attempted in the real world. Each has potential positives and negatives, and that’s something that’s very important to be realistic about, even in a game.

A game that only allows dictatorial leadership makes the lowest classes fully expendable and powerless, makes war constant, and treats exploitation as the only way. As I stated in my previous article, that really is a lot fascist. Even if the game mechanics remain unchanged, this all can be addressed at least on the level of story, and it probably would be much better addressed.

If constant war is necessary for the gameplay, maybe you could have one side that isn’t very happy about having to be at war. You can demonstrate the horrors of war at least as often as you glorify it. You can make it clear which side forcibly controls its units and which side’s warriors, even if ordered by you, obey of their own volition, and why. It wouldn’t ruin the game any.

In conclusion, applying the social sciences to games is not hard, it only needs people who both play games and know social sciences, which I imagine will become quite common in the future. Games educate even if that’s not intended, so they might as well teach something useful. Much like speculative fiction in itself, it’s not about dry and boring realism, it’s about good what ifs.



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