Bought myself Tropico 3 – the island dictator simulator – for Xmas. [Downloaded thanks to the magic of Wimax: wireless broadband(ish). I can see why it’s seen by many as the future of internet in the developing world.]
I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that one can really understand the experience of a place like Haiti through a video game, but it is striking how many little insights pop up.
You start off the game in the 1950s as a newly risen dictator of yore (Papa Doc is an option), or you can design your own – replete with backstory, positive and negative traits.
A biblical scholar installed by the CIA, with a penchant for booze but a flair for administration, perhaps? Then all you need is a snazzy new outfit and you’re ready to go.
Your challenge is to build a sustainable island economy – a mix of farming, mining, logging, industry, tourism – while keeping various factions content, staving off rebels, maintaining order, and avoiding the ever-present threat of invasion from the US or USSR.
It’s extremely entertaining, brought to life by striking scenes of island life unfolding before your eyes, with a great Caribbean soundtrack and constant wry commentary by the local radio station.
Needless to say, survival is a constant struggle. Give people too much freedom and they demand a endless stream of services – even the occasional elections; clamp down and they run for the hills and join the rebellion.
There is never enough money for everyone. Skimp on the armory, and your soldiers start threatening you; fail to build enough churches and the religionists get antsy.
And thus the insight: even with the best will in the world (and only the smallest trickle of money going into your swiss bank account) you quickly find yourself cutting corners, building unsightly tenements, forgetting to construct new clinics, failing to provide enough food.
At that point international aid workers get in on the action, and accepting their assistance could help my people… but install a humanitarian relief camp and the nationalists start to get angry, so it’s tempting to refuse.
Meanwhile the US is constantly on your back, trying to control your resources and demanding luxury houses for industrial barons, so dallying with the commies becomes quite tempting. And as for those tourists -always getting into trouble, stealing cars and crashing them into the local church or some such travesty – banging up a few and throwing away the key is deeply satisfying.
As time went on, I found myself increasingly irritated by the constant harping of human rights activists. So what if I made all immigrants change their names and speak Tropican? Installed a few secret police? Those bureaucrats have no idea what its like to keep an angry mob of nationalists at bay.
And quit harping on about low wages and unsanitary living conditions. How am I meant to build a new airport to keep your fat yankee compatriots happy in my casinos if you insist I feed my population three square meals a day?
Dark humor aside, it is striking how a simulation game like Tropico can bestow some sense, however limited, of what it might be like to take profoundly impactful decisions of state under great pressure and constant criticism – even with the best of intentions, let alone if one’s goal were to fatten one’s own bank account.
In short, I found myself becoming quite dictatorial quite quickly. Of course I remain committed to my people… the enhanced security measures are ‘only temporary’, and I assure you, my compatriots, that the democratic process will be restored in due course.
It’s certainly the closest most of us are going to get to being in that position.
This is not the first time I had this sense of direct relevance in a game. In Iraq – where I was posted briefly for the FT – I played “Civilization” from my hotel room in Baghdad, cursing the damn digital freedom fighters who kept on shooting at my glorious tanks after I invaded an oil rich neighbour. So inconsiderate; without that oil my own civilization faced collapse.
While at the UN I played a game called ‘Medieval Total War’, in which factions would intrigue for papal approval for their latest military adventures. The similarities with the UN Security Council were striking.
Anyhow, next time I swear at badly maintained roads in Haiti, I might have a little more empathy. After all, elections beckon, and there’s that wonderful new cruise ship port in the north to focus on. What else would I show Bill Clinton on his next visit?
Incidentally, I came across this excellent analysis today, written two decades ago but still very pertinent, called “Why is Haiti so poor?” Worth reading.