Philosophy Fighter

By Shamus
on Mar 20, 2007
Filed under:
Game Design


Via Corvus I find this gem. (I’ll add: That mock-up screenshot is hilarious.) The set-up:

How do you design a game about competing philosophies? Re-skinning Street Fighter is probably one way to do it, but there have got to be more interesting ways. Make your case. It doesn’t have to be a power-point, just an insightful comment, or a blog post of your own. I’ll post my design later, but first I want to see what you think!

You could make a pretty humorous game by adopting an insult swordfighting system and having the chosen philosophers trade barbs built from their own quotes or ideas. The writing would be tough, and would likely require a lot of research, and in the end 80% of the jokes would sail over the heads of the non-philosophy majors of the world. Still, the concept itself is kind of funny to me.

But this idea reminds me of the post where Jay Barnson played Democracy, and described his run-through of the game as President of the United States. Okay, now we’re talking about competing political philosophies, which is a small subset of philosophy in general, but you can argue that this still meets the goals of the challenge.

The approach taken in Democracy is that you must run for president and then “do a good job” in order to get re-elected. This implies that somewhere in the many decisions you make in the game, there are right ones and wrong ones, which means that to a certain extent the game is taking sides, philosophically. (It also means that small / limited government types will have to adopt some other worldview for the purposes of the game, since a game where you run a limited government would be by design painfully dull.)

For example: Does banning guns reduce crime? Lots of people have opinions on this. They have statistics and charts to support their position, and a list of reasons why you should ignore the other guy’s statistics and charts. I have an opinion on this is well, which I will keep to myself in the hopes that the comments will follow my example. We can postulate all day on the right and wrong of the thing, what the result of a particular law will be, and what consequences one might face, but once we move the thing into the context of a computer game we move the debate into a simulated world where the answer was decided by the designer. In the game, you pass the law and you see the unambiguous results. This seems a little unfair, and is likely to chafe anyone that doesn’t agree with what the game world says will happen. Crime will go up or down, and you will be “right” or “wrong”. (I really hope that these are randomized from game to game, or else the whole thing will feel like little more than propaganda to those with differing opinions.) In this case the ideas are not so much competing against one another in the minds of the players and in the mechanics of the game as they are supported by portions of the simulated population.

Still, the real goal of the game is to hold office, not solve problems, so the player need not get hung up on philosophy as long as they are willing to abandon their own values in the pursuit of raw power. I’ve certainly done worse for much less in a lot of other games.

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From the archives:

  1. Jeremiah says:

    This isn’t 100% on point, but Burning Wheel ( has a really cool mechanic called ‘Duel of Wits’. It’s basically social combat, you can make points, obfuscate, rebut, avoid the topic, and do a few other debate-like maneuvers. The point is to reduce your opponent’s “body of argument” and convince them, and other standers-by, that your point-of-view is correct, and get what you want. The really cool thing is that it’s rare to get what you want 100% because by the end of it, your opponent has made some good points, so there’s usually a compromise.

    I realize this challenge sounds like it was meant for a video-game perspective, but I never miss an oppurtunity to toot the horn of my current favorite RPG. :)

  2. Hagan says:

    Very interesting and well said. Your 100% right if the game doesn’t randomize those types of things than it really would come across as propaganda… picturing the game that doesn’t randomize that hurts… but I’ll leave your imaginations to run wild.

  3. Defining “philosophy” even more narrowly, Alpha Centauri did a pretty decent job of showing different philosophies of society in place, and you have to live with the consequences of each. (Civ does this too to a lesser extent but I think Alpha Centauri had a larger canvas to work with.) Two things struck me about it.

    First, the AI does a decent job of actually following the philosophy. It’s not perfect, but you can actually see differences. The most obvious one is the collectivist/communist faction, which spreads out fast and thin, with lots and lots of poor societies created. This faction often does well up into mid-game, but later gets toasted unless they got lucky enough to have uncontested control of a major continent.

    Second, the game was intentionally balanced to make each of them roughly equal, so there’s no arguments being settled here.

    One effect is that you’ll probably do better with a faction you basically agree with. In the end, I found the faction that valued economic power was almost too powerful in my hands as I came to internalize the idea that it’s not armies that go to war, it’s economies; this faction took a military and population penalty but would still tend to stomp the factions with military bonuses if given enough time to build an economy.

    This is a bit trivial in some ways, but it’s also the purest example I know of of competing philosophies actually competing within the boundaries of a game, and not as a gimmick (most of the suggestions for this challenge) or as a hard-coded “correct choice” (Ultima 4; innovative in that what is right has a more moral dimension, but it still boils down to a right and wrong).

    (This tends to tie into my contention that Civilization in general, and perhaps even Alpha Centauri in particular, should actually be used quite deliberately in school. Those games can show things that can’t be taught any other way in any reasonable amount of time.)

  4. Shamus says:

    “One effect is that you’ll probably do better with a faction you basically agree with.”

    I always sat down thinking, “This time, I will do something really different.”

    And then I’d play as the Scientist (Zakarov?) yet again. I played that game a LOT, and 95% of my games were as the scientist.

    The factions might have been balanced in human hands, but the AI religion faction ALWAYS sucked. They never gave me a run for my money.

  5. Ryan says:

    I did the exact same thing, Shamus. I played as the University and the Cybernetic Consciousness almost exclusively. No matter how hard I tried to do something different, I’d get drawn back into them.

    I created a few custom factions as well – the “Intellectual Evangelicals” is one that comes to mind – why there couldn’t be a single religious & scientific civ was something I never understood. In the end, though, I always came back to the original groups.

  6. I started with the University on every playthrough.

    I ended up migrating to Morgan (economist) after I tried him once and discovered that in the hands of a human, Morgan actually ends up researching even more quickly than Zhakorov (I’ll take my own crack at the spelling for entertainment value rather than look it up :) ) in the hands of a human.

    His stereotypical rapacious capitalism is a turn-off to me (I’m a capitalist most ways but believe that one of the proper purposes of a government is to internalize externalities like “pollution”), but Morgan is in a better position to be environmentally friendly because he’ll have the resources to put in all the economically-friendly buildings sooner, rather than later. There’s lessons there, too. :)

    Ryan: I also agree that religion and science don’t have to be at odds, but for game purposes there need to be weaknesses for all the factions. All the factions are caricatures, really. Even Lal, the Peacekeeper, is the idealization of what the UN is supposed to be, not what it actually is in real life.

  7. I don’t know if there’s a way around it. Putting that into the hands of the players would let them optimize it until the game was unbalanced and trivial for their own ideology.

    The designer himself expressed some of these same concerns about the game. Eventually, he said he realized that it had to be about making a fun game, not making it as realistic as possible.

    Another balancing factor he threw in was extreme reactions of voters. If you play as the UK, you may notice that doing a lot of what brings the country’s problems under control will result in an assassination attempt or terrorist violence from extremists, which the government will buckle under and leave you hanging out to dry (if you weren’t killed in the attempt).

  8. Adam says:

    “I always sat down thinking, “This time, I will do something really different.”

    And then I’d play as the Scientist (Zakarov?) yet again. I played that game a LOT, and 95% of my games were as the scientist. ”

    I did the same thing. Finally, I wouldn’t let myself play unless I could bring myself to be either Morgan or…er…whatshername…the fundamentalist Christian lady. It turns out that the AI plays both of them very ineffectively…they’re deadly in a human’s hands.

    “Ryan: I also agree that religion and science don’t have to be at odds, but for game purposes there need to be weaknesses for all the factions. All the factions are caricatures, really. Even Lal, the Peacekeeper, is the idealization of what the UN is supposed to be, not what it actually is in real life.”

    Exactly. Also, the religious faction in the game isn’t supposed to be representative of *all* religion. It’s specifically a caricature of 20th/21st century fundamentalist movements, which really do tend to be anti-science.

  9. Now see, I played Spartan exclusively, and found that nobody could even come CLOSE to me when I played them. I was dominant to the point of absurdity, and despite the industry penalties, I’d outbuild everyone on wonders too.

    That you play better as a faction you agree with is an amusing point, and I suspect it is mostly true.

  10. Shamus says:

    Yes. I didn’t really like fighting. I would expand and then turlte in. Then I’d run up the tech tree. My goal was usually to make sure that if Yang or Miriam came knocking it would be their spears vs. my tanks. It wasn’t always possible to get quite that far ahead (and really, the game balance didn’t work the way it should, because 5 spearmen would be able to put the hurt on my tank) but this was how I liked to run things.

  11. RHJunior says:

    That’s the problem with political/philosophical games or sims… they are invisibly biased towards the designer’s worldview. They LOOK like “lifelike simulations” but in reality are preorchestrated performances.

    I’ve played Sim City, for instance, and it quickly became obvious that the behavior of the people living there had absolutely no relationship to actual social, behavioral or economic principles. The responses are pre-scripted, and often reflect a poor understanding of economics or human nature on the scriptwriter’s part…. Forget issues like taxation or privatization or the broken window syndrome, people normally tend to move away when meteorites decimate the downtown area!

    I understand that it’s unavoidable: making a more realistic and lifelike simulation would require gruesome amounts of coding—- programming well beyond the capacities of a simple game. But you’d think they could at least implement a LITTLE bit of what the life-science sims are doing today into their games, and let the little pixels do their OWN dancing. Less choreography, more life simulation.

  12. evilmrhenry says:

    I feel I should post this:
    Likely not what you wanted, but what you asked for….

  13. Ravs says:

    It’s worth taking a look at Jennifer Government Nation States: Create a nation and decide whether to pass certain laws and see the effects. Interactive play is done through the United Nations where block voting decides policy.


  14. Deoxy says:

    Must resist urge to comment on “guns and crime”!!! ARG!

    OK, did it. I think. For now. Despite how painfully obvious it is… Stopping now.

    But this: “Crime will go up or down, and you will be “right” or “wrong”. (I really hope that these are randomized from game to game”

    Actually, considering how the political process “works” (if you want to call it working) and the effects it has on individual laws, randomizing the outcome of any individual law is probably the most realistic thing you could do.

    (What, cynical? Me? Of course not…)

  15. Shamus says:

    Deoxy: You are right. In a game you pass a law and see what happens.

    In the real world, you pass a law and people will claim all of the following:

    * The problem is getting WORSE. This law has the opposite of the intended effect.
    * The problem has gotten worse, because the law didn’t go far ENOUGH. We need to take this program and make it stronger / bigger / better funded.
    * The problem has gotten a little better, which is proof that the law works. Just imagine how much more benefit we could get if we made the law / program even stronger / bigger / better funded.
    * The problem seems to be worse or better, but the change cannot be attributed to the law, for these other reasons over here. We should try making the program stronger / bigger / better funded to see the real effects.
    * The program is working, but has created this unintended consequence over here that is much worse than the problem we were trying to solve.
    * The program would work in theory, but was messed up by lobbyists and is therefore not working as intended.

    You can pretty much just do whatever you like and pick your reasons afterwards. It’s a variant on the uncertainty principle: The more observers measure something, the more they will disagree on the state of thing being studied.

    Eventually half of them conclude it’s black, half conclude the thing is white, and you end up with a law regulating grey.

  16. The true miracle of government is not that it often fails, but that it sometimes works.

    The ironic thing about government is that the best government seems to be the ones set up to have the government mostly consumed with attacking itself (balance of powers in some form). There’s something profoundly wrong about that, but the evidence is undeniable…

  17. ravells says:

    Oh Shamus…careful…you’re getting drawn into the argument…this is just the first step on a slippery slope (excuse cliche).

    Oh…and it’s not a law that regulates grey (wouldn’t that be wonderful?) it’s laws made by the lobbies which have the most influence. It’s very much almost black and almost white…it all depends on whether the blacks or whites have the power on that issue at that time. The greys are in the minority.

    FWIW I’m so glad I live in England.


  18. James Blair says:

    Me? I’m just glad I live in a country where enemies fight with stupid political attacks rather than assassination squads. It’s kind of a reminder that there are still SOME morals on both sides of the conflict…

  19. Raka says:

    “In the game, you pass the law and you see the unambiguous results… I really hope that these are randomized from game to game…”

    This is interesting to me in other ways. It could be fun to have a quiz at the end of the game where the game asks you “You passed law A on year 2; how do you believe it affected X, Y, and Z?”. Since the game knows what mechanics it chose, it would be a good way to illustrate how much your personal biases influence your perceptions.

    Of course, to do this effectively, the engine and interface must have a large degree of ambiguity. In most games, I can see exactly where every dollar is made and spent, and what is causing every point up or down in morale. Changes to these are always clearly identified (whether or not I initiate them), and even if randomization prevents perfect calculation in advance, a trivial bit of after-the-fact math will let me identify the effect to the floating-point limit of my software. Reality is rarely so generous to statisticians.

    This amount of ambiguity sort of defeats the illustrative purposes I imagine above: “You believe that your passage of law A decreased crime, but crime actually rose 14%. Of course, law A was actually set to reduce crime by 10% in this game session, but the following events (most of which were not displayed to you, or were masked by DistractableMedia or InfoFlood events) also occurred after law A was passed: HamstringLocalEnforcement, ForeignInfluence, PervadingMindsetShift, NewScaryDrug, and 26 members of the SocioEconomicPressures array. The following random events, which may or may not have been visible to you, caused to decrease crime…”

    Yeesh. Even assuming it could be implemented in a playable fashion, passing a law would be like throwing a pebble of unknown weight and unknown velocity at an energetically bouncing football on an unknown surface; you are allowed to observe the football’s position at various intervals (with an unknown degree of accuracy), but you’re not allowed to know when or even if your pebble made contact. Oh, and pebbles from other sources are possible, but, of course, unknown. You will be held responsible for the path the football takes.

    Really, the only thing a player of this engine could learn from an after-game test is that it’s pretty delusional to believe he could be certain of any particular affect his laws may have had. Which, come to think of it, isn’t the worst lesson for people to learn. But I’m not sure how much fun the game would be.

  20. JeffT says:

    As far as politics goes, you could offer no 100% correct choices, e.g. every choice has an upside and a downside. The trick would be finding a combination of choices such that the upside of policy A nullifies the downside of policy B whereever possible. You’re not “making the world better” per se, just changing the balance. Some metaphysical conservation of… stuff.

  21. james says:

    Huh. I’ve actually been thinking of a game idea something like a goverment sim. Never thought of laws having random effects though. Intreasting.

  22. Andy L says:

    Sorry for commenting on such an old post. I just discovered this blog recently.

    (It also means that small / limited government types will have to adopt some other worldview for the purposes of the game, since a game where you run a limited government would be by design painfully dull.)

    Hah. You’re assuming that reducing the amount of government in a modern civilization would be a simple task of closing down departments, selling off government buildings, and then lowering taxes to match!

    I think that if it were possible to make a game that accurately simulated the difficulties and benefits of socialized services (eg. Fire Departments), state endorsed monopolies (eg Electric companies), and true competitive free markets, you’d have a fascinating game that wouldn’t be dull either way you went.

    A player who went with a small government would have to deftly use whatever regulatory authority they retained to make sure that the system didn’t destroy itself for the benefit of a few fat cats. The player who went with big government would have more direct control but much higher losses to inefficiency so they have to work harder and harder to avoid destroying the system themselves for the benefit of no one.

    (I suppose in this simplified idea, the player that aimed for the middle would face both problems to a lesser degree.)

    I’d love to play a game where I had to decide if (for example) the highway department should stay socialized or if some sort of National Highway corporation should be formed, and how that would impact my citizen’s average quality of life.

    (I’d be just as happy with it if it took place on Mars, if that would reduce the public relations mine-field the producers would have to cross.)

    Sadly, I’m not sure I’ll ever see such a game though.

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