I've been playing NationStates for just over a year now. An amazingly simple, yet somehow deeply addictive on-line game, you basically play by setting up your own nation and then making a few decisions every day. Guns or flowers? Coal or solar? Cars or bicycles? Religion or secularism? Gay marriage? Polygamy? Nudism? Welfare? The power! The pressure…
Your decisions affect your country's economy, political freedoms and civil rights – often in ways you don't expect. For example, after passing legislation to tighten gun control, I got this message: “Kids are arrested at gunpoint for playing with toy rifles”. Well.
There are a great many social, environmental and economic indicators which all change as your decisions start to pile up. And by many, I do mean many. Your country also gets classified differently depending on your mix of rights, freedoms and economic performance. My nation, for example, has been a Left-Leaning College State, a New York Times Democracy and a Scandinavian Liberal Paradise.
You can't really win anything on NationStates, although your Regional Influence can change and you can also get more involved on the forums and in managing regions. You can also get badges and banners and endorsements if you're into that kind of thing. You can even wage war if you want to, and on Halloween, you can choose to either repel or join the zombie hordes. (Which comes with its own philosophical considerations.)
What I love about NationStates, though, is agonizing over the decisions I need to make for my nation every day. These are often based on contemporary affairs and serious ethical and philosophical issues, and are set and moderated by a group of groovy volunteers. The issues force you to think carefully about every course of action, as well as the likely consequences of those actions. I've even tried getting my students involved, in order to hone their philosophical and critical thinking skills, but alas, like so many things I've tried, NationStates didn't really take off.
Although it's labeled a political simulator, NationStates has much to offer those of us with a philosophical bent. And even though there are many thousands of us playing, I think more people should. Here's why:
- As with their real-life counterparts, there are seldom clear-cut right answers to most issues. Almost every choice you make has an unintended negative effect somewhere along the line. Often, it's a case of choosing the least damaging option.
- Because the issues are often so very close to real events, you are encouraged to ponder what you would do if you had to propose a solution. These events are often more complicated than they seem at first, and they often challenge biases that you were not even aware that you had.
- Even the most serious issues are handled with a dash of irreverent humor. I think we can learn a lot about defusing emotionally charged situations in this way. I am not saying that sober issues themselves need to be laughed at, but our handling of them could be tempered with a measure of good-natured humor. And sometimes, because the issues and options challenge what we believe, they become much-needed bitter pills hidden inside a sweet coating (to paraphrase Vonnegut).
- You eventually realize that too many political freedoms and civil rights can lead to their own problems. Raise them too high and you get anarchy. Too much of a good thing, as they say…
- There are times when you make a castrophic decision (whether by glitch or by not thinking things through). And you cannot undo it. But, looking back, you invariably understand why the consequences were what they were, and you are less likely to make the same mistake in the future. Of course, sometimes you get heavily penalized for doing something you think is the right thing to do. In which case you get to ponder the cost of upholding your ethical principles.
- It may just be me, but I often get all 'meta' about NationStates and try to see behind the curtains. How do the designers link items together? How do they decide to weigh some issues as more consequential than others? To what extent do their own biases creep in? And so on…
- I often think about what NationStates is lacking. For example, although there are many indicators, the main ones have to do with the economy, civil rights and political freedoms. I would have the state of the environment and living standards more prominently displayed, as they both play a major role in my decision making.
But that's enough out of me. Here is an example of one of the issues you get to ponder on NationStates so you can see for yourself how it provokes deep consideration. I just wish my students would get as excited about it as I am.
The Issue: After new DNA evidence has proven that recently executed inmate @@RANDOMNAME@@ was actually innocent, human rights activists have been campaigning to ban the death penalty.
- “This is government sanctioned murder!” chants @@RANDOMNAME@@, a human rights activist, from outside your office door. “It must end! Not only is it murder, but it amounts to hypocrisy of the highest nature. Yeah, keeping criminals locked up instead of mercilessly killing them might be costly, but maybe we can offset the cost by putting them to work making handcrafts in the prison store? Regardless, we have to abolish the death penalty – it’s the only right and moral thing to do!”The Results: prisoners work-share to cut down rising costs of keeping them in jail.
- “What about other potential criminals out there?” whimpers @@NAME@@ Neighbourhood Watch spokesperson @@RANDOMNAME@@, who has taken to hiding beneath your desk. “Did you know that since we introduced the death penalty the crime rate has decreased hugely? I say we introduce the death penalty for more crimes, like burglary and trespassing, and then no-one will ever dare to do anything wrong!”
- “There’s absolutely no proof that the crime rate has decreased”, states @@RANDOMNAME@@, your foreign affairs advisor, with a nod. “But I have an idea. If we’re going to be killing these people, we ensure it’s as non-violent and as respectful as possible; make our executions more humane and give these people some choice in how they die. The international community will love us for our civility and humaneness. We’ll be an international benchmark!”
- “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” @@RANDOMNAME@@, the Chief Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner states, swirling a pair of handcuffs on one finger. “We don’t go around executing innocent people for the fun of it; accidents happen! So those hippy people should quit their boo-hooin’. Look, if we give our boys in blue some more cash maybe there’ll be less room for mistakes. Everyone goes away happy.”
- “Hows abo’ bringin’ back dem-dere good ol’ fashioned lynchings? Bring justice back ter tha peoples!” shouts Jethro, a survivalist. “Who’d dare ta kill innocent peoples when tha punishmen’ is bein’ pelted ta death wit’ rocks?”
What would you do?
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