Pray Brethren

Pray Brethren

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Strategy Games: The Gateway to Culture and Geopolitics

While we live in a very complex and multifaceted world, the events that shape the world – many of them involving the use of arms – are not irrational. In the realm of geopolitics, violence is very rarely senseless. The jihadis who attacked us on 9/11, for example, were neither nihilists nor anarchists and their attack was as much grounded in their geopolitics as their personal religious beliefs.

History’s great strategy games act as a meeting place of culture and geopolitics. Their creators, having themselves been formed by their culture’s worldview, introduce the player to a manner of strategic thinking and problem solving which roughly correlates to the broader geopolitical situation of their nation or civilization.

There are three classic strategy games that all men should have at some time in their lives played; three games which introduce them to the interconnectedness of culture and geopolitics. The following is an introduction to each.

1. Chess

As most readers of this blog have undoubtedly played Chess, the game needs little introduction. What makes it culturally unique is its focus on concentration of power with the aim of eliminating the other player’s forces and ultimately checkmating his king. Chess is the game of European-style warfare in which strategic thought emphasizes decisive battle through force concentration with the ultimate goal of destroying the enemy’s armies and decapitating his leadership or seizing his capital. For an excellent analysis on this style of warfare and its interconnectedness with culture, check out Victor Davis Hanson’s book Carnage and Culture.

2. Go

The difference between the games of Go and Chess are as vast as the difference between the cultures that produced them. Indeed, perhaps the only thing the two games have in common is that both are played by two players. Unlike Chess, the pieces used in Go are not ranked in a hierarchy of points and abilities; Go uses simple white and black stones all of equal power and value. Strength is to be found not in individual stones but rather in the formations the stones can make when placed next to each other.

The strategy of Go follows the strategy of Sun Tzu, who, placing little value on attacking enemy armies and seizing enemy cities or capitals, instructed would-be generals to attack an enemy’s strategy and an enemy’s alliances. In short, Sun Tzu said fighting is a general’s last resort; his best strategy is to win without fighting. Unlike Chess, which focuses on engaging the enemy’s forces and decapitating his leadership, the masters of Go engage in limited fighting across a large grid board. Their goal is to seize as much territory of the board as possible without a great deal of fighting between formations. New Go players often treat the game like Chess, with many stones being captured on both sides – but such aggression leads only to defeat when matched against a master.

In his work, On China, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued that modern Chinese foreign policy could only be discerned by one who knew the strategic thinking of Go along with the cultural past underlying its conceptual framework.

3. Diplomacy

While Kissinger drew heavily from the game of Go in his analysis of China, his own personal favorite board game is Diplomacy, a game also favored by President John F. Kennedy. The game's creator, a Harvard graduate who was fascinated as a child with his an old book of maps he found in the attic, died this past February.

Like Chess and Go, Diplomacy uses no dice; unlike Chess and Go, Diplomacy is a seven-player game set in the real life geopolitical climate of pre-World War I Europe. As the name suggests, Diplomacy requires the social skills needed to maintain the balance of power between other nations while finding ways to increase one’s own political and military expansion. The original title of Diplomacy was Realpolitik – and players of the game experience firsthand the international power politics that brought about the Great War and why President Washington implored future American statesmen to avoid getting entangled in a messy web of overseas alliances.

For those who play Diplomacy, the game teaches geography, history, and a hefty dose of social skills. Indeed, where an aggressive, Chess-like strategy is a no-starter in Go, the silent strategist, the Go master, and the arm chair general will all find themselves quickly behind in a game of Diplomacy where face-to-face negotiation is a prerequisite for advancement. Since the death of Allan Calhamer, the game’s creator, his daughter has received countless letters and emails from Diplomacy players and this is how she summed up their content:
“…what I'm seeing over and over again in these emails is that the recurring theme is: ‘I was a really, really nerdy awkward kid who had trouble relating to people, but because ‘Diplomacy’ required interpersonal skills and required you to get people to do what you wanted them to do, that's how I built my social skills.’”
Whether we learn decisive battle from Chess, the power of order and formation from Go, or how to negotiate international affairs and territorial boundaries from Diplomacy, these three games remain quintessential classics which introduce us to the larger world of culture, geopolitics, and strategic thought. If you haven’t played these games, it’s time for you to visit a game store and invite some friends over for a game day. You won’t regret it.


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