Surveying one of Tropico’s cocoa plantations.

Surveying one of Tropico’s cocoa plantations.

I was examining the cocoa plantations of the Republic of Tropico in the middle of its election season when I received a push alert that Ukraine had elected a chocolate magnate. You might not have heard of the Republic of Tropico, a sovereign nation located on a Caribbean island in the vein of Cuba or Jamaica, because Tropico is an island that exists only in virtual reality. And there are also millions of others like it living in the pulses of electrons flowing through the silicon on our desks and in our pockets.

Technology has progressed to a point that we can now start to render virtual reflections of reality with high visual fidelity. On one end, you have the open world simulations, which are still relatively impressionist in their fidelity, but wide in their scope. Most notable is the multibillion dollar Grand Theft Auto franchise in which players can pursue fantasies vicariously through characters living in satirical facsimiles of New York (“Liberty City”), California (“San Andreas”), and Miami (“Vice City”). While those cities have heretofore been rendered as isolated islands, hardware permitting, Rockstar eventually plans to connect those cities to create one giant virtual world.

There are also developers that don’t go the satirical route—perhaps because their subject matter is less controversial—and actually create outright replicas of our world. The Microsoft Flight Simulator series included airports from Addis Ababa to Zurich, complete with radio frequencies and approach procedures. The later versions even downloaded real-time weather information that rendered in the simulation. An entire ecosystem of third party developers arose as well, working to make the simulation more immersive, ranging from detailed roads, so you could navigate under Visual Flight Rules, to airports rendered at a higher fidelity than the vanilla version.

On the ground, developer SCS Soft has received critical praise for what might not seem like a blockbuster premise at first blush: a trucking simulator. They really hit their stride with Euro Truck Simulator 2, which created a stylised version of Europe. It was successful enough to warrant the development of an American version, whose game world will eventually include more than 100 cities.

While it is by no means a matrix incarnate, but rather a stylised version of our reality, the breadth of world modelling hasn’t been this ambitious outside the flight simulator arena. It is this type of work that will develop the skills necessary to create a truly immersive next-generation virtual reality system. In fact, Oculus Rift almost seems tailor made for this use case. A search on YouTube of footage of Oculus Rift usage with Euro Truck Simulator 2 brings about some fairly immersive results.

The highest fidelity replication though can be found in simulations that contain the scope of their location modelling. In the Project Gotham series, neighbourhoods are modelled with street-by-street accuracy. Even closer to reality are the Forza and Gran Turismo racing simulations, so much so that we are arguably several years into the Ender’s Game era. The developer of Gran Turismo, which sponsors a real world racing team, uses its product as a talent search tool for its new driver development programme. Its drivers have actually performed remarkably well.

Aside: Self-Driving Cars

These ground level simulations also overlap with one of the hottest problems in artificial intelligence right now: autonomous driving. While the objective of the game developer is to pass the Turing test, the objective of the self-driving car developer is to keep the cars from getting into an accident. The games have heretofore used relatively simple algorithms. Follow a racing a line and brake if a car cuts you off. Introduce a few errors to make it seem more human. But the development paradigms between the two disciplines have started to converge. Elements of machine learning, which is the basis of real-world autonomous driving development, are reflected in the most recent release of Forza. While at this point, it is really just a form of asynchronous multiplayer competition, all that data could, theoretically, be used to teach an artificial intelligence how to race. Emulate the fastest drivers who drive clean laps and don’t emulate the drivers who get into collisions.

But simulation doesn’t just apply to the simstim of William Gibson or the virtual reality headset known by the moniker Oculus Rift. All the backtesting done by quants on Wall Street are, in fact, computer simulations. Even in investment banking and fundamental research, Excel models are really just simulated abstractions of real world businesses.

When you take away the graphical veneer of computerised gaming, at its core, we are merely interacting with complex mathematical equations, albeit in a multisensory manner. Considering that, why haven’t we seen games that can inform our knowledge about political economy in the same way doing laps around the virtual Nürburgring makes you a better driver—or vice versa, where going to Skip Barber at Laguna Seca will make you a better gamer?

Actually, there have been more than a few games which handle that subject matter, and they do it brilliantly.

Do virtual ministers dream of Tron bikes going through the streets of Sim-Davos?
Patent Drawing for The Landlord’s Game

Excerpt of The Landlord’s Game from the U.S. Patent Office.

Greg Mankiw created a presidential game to illustrate some basic economic concepts. And the Swiss National Bank has a monetary policy game that simulates some harrowing liquidity traps. Even the best economic board game ever created—The Landlord’s Game, an illustration of the evils of rent seeking—could be put through a Monte Carlo simulator. But you’ve probably never heard of those games unless you’re a die hard economics nerd. And you’re probably not interested in learning about them.

This is because positioning simulations as primarily pedagogical in nature don’t tend to result in boxes coming off the shelves. In fact, The Landlord’s Game languished, until it was repurposed as a different game that turned the premise on its head: Monopoly.

Introducing extremely compelling gameplay—where the one-more-turn dynamic that is the Holy Grail of game development dominates—is what ensures commercial success. And he who reaches the greatest number of people is the one whose Weltanschauung drives the conversation. Those are the games I want to examine.

Why even look at games? Why not just learn the equations and run them through Mathematica or Excel? First, I would argue that economics and politics can never be fully reflected in equations due to the innately human nature of those disciplines. To put it another way, you can create Monte Carlo simulations of Monopoly games to decide whether Illinois Avenue or Boardwalk are better investments. But you can’t flawlessly predict what a human is going to do in a particular circumstance. These are probabilistic, not deterministic, models. While a Monte Carlo simulation can help aid in decision making, it is the implicit knowledge and intuition that can only be gained by actually playing Monopoly that will distinguish a champion.

Furthermore, while mathematical equations only express an abstraction of a sliver of an actual complex system, they are the best tools we have at the moment. And actually interacting with these complex intertwined equations in a multisensory manner will yield a far better intuitive sense of the system than just seeing numbers change on a spreadsheet. Logos must be combined with pathos to leave impressions in our minds.

In short, understanding the analogies between cyberspace and meatspace, and developing the fluency to switch your mental state from one form to another, can create a deeper understanding of both areas. And these games can also help kindle passions in often dry topics: Monopoly for future real estate moguls and Diplomacy for future ambassadors. I personally first encountered the terms “Keynesian” and “supply side” not through Paul Samuelson or even Robert Heilbroner, but in a book about becoming a better SimCity 2000 player.

There has been a rich history of economics—often intertwined with politics—since the dawn of computer gaming. From the merchant capitalism modelled by Taipan! to the grand strategy and global political economy of, say, Europa Universalis.

However, considering the timeliness of the recent release of Tropico 5, I thought I’d start with that. Expect a piece out some time in the next week.