Let’s buy Putin an Xbox: Using games to reflect on (im)moral geopolitics.

I began this blog with a post on why the Syrian Civil War gets me thinking about using games and education, so it’s probably not surprising that I would write another post on the same topic inspired by one of the next geopolitical crises involving Russian-backed autocrats. Over the past few days, the crisis in Ukraine has raised several questions in my mind and around the globe over what justifies or does not justify armed intervention in another country. This post is not at all about trying to offer an answer to those questions but is rather about the potential of games to help students wrestle with finding those answers.

I’ve previously written about my belief that games can serve as a moral laboratory for students to test out their own beliefs on this and other tough questions, so it’s fitting that Russian intervention in the Crimea came at a time when I’ve been playing as a French king in Europa Universalis IV. The time setting for my simulated geopolitical adventures began in the mid-fifteenth century, where France looks very different from the modern day. This in itself could make Europa Universalis a tool for teaching about the history of France (though the book The Discovery of France would be better) or the difference between pre- and post-Westphalian countries, but in my personal experience, Europa Universalis has the most potential for helping students think about the decisions that world powers and world leaders are faced with.

EU4 begins right in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, when France is trying to expel English invaders from their territory. In fact, one of the first missions that the French player (in this case, me) can accept is to expel les rosbifs (these are the words the game actually uses) from l’Héxagone; accomplishing this task awards the player with certain kinds of points in addition to whatever inherent pleasure comes from beating back the enemy. While it would be exaggerating to say that English/French conflict in this time period was straightforward, it was fairly easy to justify this military action, and I think most people would agree with me.

It got trickier from there. England and Brittany declared war on me, and while sending troops to defend myself was an easy call, was it really right of me to conquer Brittany, put an end to its autonomy, and replace Breton culture with my own? The in game mechanic of “core provinces” soothed my conscience some: In other words, as far as the game is concerned, the Kingdom of France considered those territories to be their own, so I was just restoring my just rule. I was decidedly less happy, though, when my enemy Burgundy did the same thing to some Lorrainer territory several decades later, though. Surely that was different, though, right? And accepting the rest of Lorraine as a vassal (with plans to eventually outright annex them) was for their own protection, wasn’t it?

When I play games, I always begin by telling myself that I’m not going to make any decision in the game that I wouldn’t be comfortable making in the real world… but as hard as I try, I nearly always break that rule. I’ve broken the law to keep my job in Papers, Please, I’ve sacrificed my political ideals for electoral victory in Democracy 3, and I’ve outright started a war with and crushed other countries in Civilization just so that their space programs wouldn’t develop faster than mine. I think that everyone uses some kind of scoreboard to evaluate the world and that Russian actions in Ukraine are meant to move Putin and friends up a few places on the scoreboard that they subscribe to. I may think that these actions are morally reprehensible, but is it all that different from my simulated Breton oppression for the sake of simulated royal satisfaction?

So, if I approach it right, EU4 can be part of my civic education as I try to value my morals above my score in these moral laboratories. I don’t know that I’ll ever be asked to make the decision on whether to used armed force, but maybe the struggle I go through in this game can help me better handle the smaller moral dilemmas that pop up from day to day.

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