Strategy is Metaphor
August 15, 2022 11:22 AM   Subscribe

In this light-hearted vein, let’s discard conventional games as the relics of the past that they are. If we really want to equip ourselves for competition with other great powers (an imperfect framework to understand twenty-first-century geopolitics but probably the least imperfect of all the contenders), then the type of game to play is “real-time strategy,” and the name of the game is StarCraft. from StarCraft as Statecraft
posted by chavenet (18 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
There was an RTS that tried (in a rather ham-fisted way) to use geopolitical structure as the base for the game's asymmetrical design - Command & Conquer: Generals (which, despite the name, was more akin to an XCraft game than the C&C series.) The game was built on three factions:

* The US, built around the concept of expensive, high powered units (in a 1v1 match up between comparable units, the American unit would always win) with the gimmick being that if a vehicle was destroyed, it would generate a "pilot" unit that would allow veterancy bonuses to be transferred.
* The PLA, which was built around the concept of mass wave attacks, with the base infantry unit and mechanized unit gaining bonuses when fielded in large (5+) groups. They could also use propaganda for further boosts.
* The GLA, a sort of al-Qaida/ISIS knockoff, which had the ability to build suicide units, which was a bit..questionable. (When the game came out, it hadn't been that long since they pulled the Red Alert 2 box after 9/11.) Beyond that, some GLA mech units could use scrap to upgrade to more powerful forms, as well as having transport tunnels.

Like I said, very hamhanded. In StarCraft terms, the US were the Protoss, the PLA the Terrans, and the GLA the Zerg.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:15 PM on August 15 [3 favorites]

Anytime I start to suspect that someone who claims to be an analyst of geopolitics or strategy (or a decisionmaker in those areas) is operating with a mental model derived from videogames or simplistic mathematical simulations, they lose all credibility in my eyes. This is a fun little essay but its analytical import is pretty questionable.
posted by derrinyet at 1:23 PM on August 15 [5 favorites]

The author makes a mistake early on. StarCraft and Brood War were actually released on the N64 as StarCraft 64. It's something of a marvel of game design that they ported such a complex RTS game to the 64, but... it sucks playing an RTS with the N64 claw controller.
posted by TheKaijuCommuter at 1:28 PM on August 15 [4 favorites]

If they're looking for a game as a metaphor for statecraft, it feels like EVE online would be the better choice.
posted by juv3nal at 1:51 PM on August 15 [7 favorites]

@derringyet - well the author did seem to the the strategic director for the NSC…
posted by thedaniel at 2:01 PM on August 15 [1 favorite]

It's interesting that the essay opens with what is clearly the single best Zapp Brannigan quote--but it's attributed to a Terran admiral. And now I'm wondering: did Blizzard actually copy that line for a character in the game? Has Tristan Abbey really never seen "War is the H-Word?" Or did someone think it was a good idea to give Brannigan a promotion?
posted by thecaddy at 3:12 PM on August 15 [2 favorites]

well the author did seem to the the strategic director for the NSC…

I mean, QED? The Blob is pretty much a race to the bottom in terms of what intellectually bankrupt pseudo-ideas each participant is trying to sell.
posted by derrinyet at 3:45 PM on August 15 [1 favorite]

Or did someone think it was a good idea to give Brannigan a promotion?

I'll admit that this is the first time I've heard it suggested that Futurama and Starcraft exist in the same universe, but it does make a kind of twisted sense. Futurama starts 600 years after the events of Starcraft, but I can totally see a universe where the UED got sent off to fight in a distant sector while the folks back on Earth kept on doing their thing and elected Robot Nixon.

(Zapp is a 25-star general, if you'll recall, though we never learn in what branch of service. Usually we think of commanders of spaceships as being in some form of Navy, but that's probably just decades of conditioning from Star Trek. Admiral == General, as far as ranks go)
posted by Mayor West at 4:14 PM on August 15 [4 favorites]

I've been playing Starcraft since the original launched and this was a fun read. One thing that makes me a bit nervous about using the game as a metaphor for real foreign policy is that despite the ins and outs of the meta and the micro and the macro, in general whichever player harvests and spends the most resources the fastest will almost always win.
posted by Wretch729 at 4:23 PM on August 15 [4 favorites]

(The thing that keeps competitive play competitive is that high level players have essentially memorized how to optimize resource harvesting with pinpoint timing to the point that in the early game there is no difference unless it is driven by a specific tactical move, so tactical decisions matter more.)
posted by Wretch729 at 4:28 PM on August 15 [4 favorites]

And now I'm wondering: did Blizzard actually copy that line for a character in the game?

Yes, Blizzard games tend to have a bunch of references to other games/movies. RTS games in general have short voice lines when you click on or order a unit to do something, most of these in Starcraft are references to something: IMDb - Starcraft - References
posted by JauntyFedora at 4:53 PM on August 15 [5 favorites]

I don't have the APM to play RTS well. I want to point out that it's a good thing that build orders remain standard and predictable for a small amount of time so that they are scoutable. If build orders were highly variable, some matches could involve BO poker which makes the game decided before the opponent player even has a chance to adapt. I think the best example would be BW's PvsZ before the Bisu's Forge fast expand came out. Protoss players would have to guess what their opponent Zerg was doing and they lose if they guessed wrong. Bisu discovered another way to play PvsZ and overthrew the crown prince Savior in a decisive upset.
posted by DetriusXii at 5:03 PM on August 15 [4 favorites]

Bonus RTS weirdness: the metaphors involved in the game's macromanagement don't actually make any intuitive sense. Source: my 5-year-old has recently become interested in the Civilization game I'm constantly playing, so I've been walking him through what I'm doing when I take a turn. Most of it he just picks up instantly, as long as the explanation makes sense ("I'm sending my big fighter guys to this barbarian camp, because they're bad guys and I want to make sure they don't attack me later"). First real problem came when I had to explain the production queue.

Q. "What do you think our city should produce, buddy? A guy with a bow and arrow? Someone to explore? A settler, who can go off and make another city?"
A. "Wait, the city can just MAKE PEOPLE?"
Q. "Well, no, not exactly, I guess, but the city can have all its workers focus on training some of its people to become good at one thing, and then we have a new person in our army who can do things."
A. "But you said you can also buy units for money? How can you turn money into people?"
Q. "It, uh, is a thing, you can do, like if you wanted to make a yummy hamburger but didn't have time to make all the parts yourself, so you ordered one from a restaurant instead. Someone else did the work, and you paid them for it, and then it just shows up at your door!"
A. (skeptical) How do you make people out of money?!
Q. *tries and fails not to make sweeping statement about the failings of capitalism*
posted by Mayor West at 6:44 PM on August 15 [7 favorites]

The author is a hack for the GOP and oil industry. This babbling nonsense was so incoherent, I expected a cryptocurrency plug to appear at some point. He mentions quantum computing, which is close enough when it comes to the musings of insufferable quacks.
posted by AlSweigart at 1:47 AM on August 16 [3 favorites]

A. (skeptical) How do you make people out of money?!
Q. *tries and fails not to make sweeping statement about the failings of capitalism*

How about:

“Well, people make other people, like children. So new people are always being made, and labor is essentially a renewable resource. It’s capitalism’s purpose to exploit that resour—“

No, wait…that may open a couple of cans of worms there…
posted by darkstar at 6:56 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

Actually the author's background in the oil industry makes sense. The goal in starcraft is to mine out everything on the map, convert it to military equipment, and then murder your opponent. Then you win, get a score screen, and move on to a new map with no long term consequences. Sounds about right.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:29 AM on August 16 [5 favorites]

A. (skeptical) How do you make people out of money?!

You actually make robots out of money. When your tech level is too low for automation, but high enough to reliably traumatize people, you use slavery to turn people into robots.

When you get automation, your robots and AI have the trauma built into them right from the factory.
posted by othrechaz at 10:29 AM on August 16 [1 favorite]

A. (skeptical) How do you make people out of money?!

That could be interpreted as hiring outside people, like mercenaries or foreign craftsman. But really Civ just isn't modeling real dynamics or decision making at all. Very few games are trying to do that, but Civ especially isn't trying to do that, if that makes sense.

I came to share, this historian-blogger Bret Devereaux has written a LOT of blog posts about games that model historical dynamics, or don't! Here's one series: Teaching Paradox, about Victoria and then Europa Universalis. He also uses examples from Crusader Kings and Total War series games. I haven't played any of those games, but his writing has helped me see the ways that Civ isn't modeling those dynamics.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 2:46 PM on August 16 [1 favorite]

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