The conceit of strategy games is an interesting one. Most strategy games place you as the general of an army, or some other authority figure, and tasks you with managing an army or other complex system and directing it towards victory. This makes sense as a sort of high level abstraction, but also makes it so abstract that aren’t playing so much as a leader but as a living embodiment of the army (or town, or empire) that you are meant to be managing. Giving orders is not a matter of communication with your officers or of drawing up plans, but of pressing buttons and relocating objects directly – and these orders have a narrow scope of what they can be (usually constrained to moving somewhere, building something, or attacking something), and are instantaneous, and are never misinterpreted or disobeyed.

This is a conception of what leadership looks like that is particularly interesting because it is highly erroneous. Of course, armies aren’t controlled by individuals, they are controlled by a chain of command, which has decisions made at every level, with each decision interpreted with varying levels of creativity, and communication channels that are not always reliable. Games are seldom interested in these sorts of leadership challenges, though, preferring to present players with the unsullied challenge of acquiring and allocating resources. However, this tendency extends beyond games: We seldom think of leadership in general this way, of a distant and easily-misinterpreted voice yelling from a rooftop – we instead tend to think of the leader as being in some way the heart of the system they are meant to command, to being the source of all its successes and its failures, and this is the understanding of leadership we’ve crystallized into our strategy games.

The outcome of a complex system seldom comes down to the actions of one individual. While leadership is a real skill with real consequences, the success of a system comes down to how well that system functions as a whole, not down to how well it’s managed at the top. Some more recent strategy games have a degree of awareness of this: You might have to manage individual leaders with individual personality traits, or balance a relationship with your labor force – but these are only treated as volatile resources for you, the leader, to manipulate into position, rather than actors in the system with their own approach and agenda.

These implicit assumptions about how things must work end up skewing the worlds depicted. There’s always a tendency in games to reify the idea of meritocracy, to attempt construction of a world where the most ‘worthy’ players, who understand and can execute on the systems, are rewarded with the most success. This assumption lands very differently, though, in games which portray one-time incidents with protagonists in unique situations, as in adventure or action games, than it does in games which span large number of people, such as city planning or military strategy.

We have a set of axioms that we call good game design: The player must be in ultimate control of their fate, the outcome of an action must be predictable before the action is undertaken, and there should be no options that are always the best or always useless. However, all of these are toxic as an implied model of functional reality: Individuals are seldom in ultimate control of their destiny, the outcome of our actions is never easy to predict, and there are many options that are clearly useless or obviously optimal. The reason why I say toxic, rather than merely inaccurate, is because this does start to hew rather closely to the right-wing conception of the world – where all negative consequences are due to individual failing, where if anything bad happens after someone’s actions they clearly deserved it because they ought to have known better, and where the ends can justify the most atrocious of means – after all, if you add the tactical decisions of ‘enhanced interrogation’, execution of dissidents, or even genocide to your game for historical or simulational reasons, you are then obliged to make them viable decisions for reasons of ‘game balance’.

This is one of the reasons why the idea of ’empathy games’, games designed to engender empathy for those who are systemically disadvantaged by putting you into their shoes, has never succeeded – because, in order to turn these challenges into a game, you must make them quantifiable and surmountable, which then leads the player to an even less empathetic, more right-wing mindset. To even create a simulation in the first place, you are required to systematize, in concrete terms, decisions and entities which have debatable actual effects in the world – that is, whatever our real opinions on militarized police and the carceral state, in a video game about city management adding a police station will reduce crime and reduced crime will make people happier – and it’s as simple as that. Nuance and complexity are lost because these are inimical to the fairness and clarity required by good game design as we understand it.

What might be a better model of leadership, then? It is frankly difficult to imagine one in the context of a single-player game. If we expand out to multiplayer, though, we can imagine one that is simultaneously co-operative and competitive – as so many real-life situations tend to be. One where the players are working towards the same goal, but have vastly different priorities as to how that goal is achieved. For instance, we could have a game where the players jointly control a factory: One, the CEO, tries to maximize the corporation’s monetary output at all costs, while the other, the worker, attempts to gain enough pay to survive on while expending the minimum possible cost to their time and well-being. Neither one is particularly interested in the well-being of the other, but both are interested in keeping the factory running smoothly. We could add other players, such as a spouse who has to manage the worker’s resources, a customer who tries to purchase goods as cheap as possible, or a manager who has to be the intermediary between the CEO and the worker, to create a fuller and more interesting simulation Of course, one could ask why the worker needs the CEO at all. Regardless, another version of this might be the general and the soldier, where the general needs to take a tactical objective at any cost, but the soldier’s goal is to stay alive. One might wonder why taking that objective is worth the soldier dying for. Nevertheless.

The problem, really, is that fairness is treated as an axiom of game design, but as exasperated mothers everywhere like to say the world isn’t fair. This rock and this hard place keep butting up against each other, and slowly the tenets of game design start to give way – and we become more willing to explore the territory of unfairness, through the random territory of roguelikes to the volatile war zone of battles royale.

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