‘Tropico’ Was the Game That Taught Me About Politics

How a 2001 game from the makers of "Railroad Tycoon II" gave me a whole new perspective on the world of governance.

by Ed Smith
May 5 2015, 4:50pm

'Tropico' box art (2001)

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

These days, I'm quite the politico. Before voting, I spend hours trawling party manifestos and cross-referencing them with independent reports. I spend further hours still examining the Commons voting history of each cabinet, or prospective cabinet minister, trying to drill down not just into what I'm voting for, but who. I read political books, I watch political television, and I listen to political radio. Politics today is a large part of my life.

But it didn't used to be. During school and university, when my peers wore "Anarchy!" badges and read the books of Karl Marx, I lived inside a vacuum, willingly separating myself from all of politics. I was a cynic—I didn't think voting, the government or any of it mattered, because real change could never happen, and I was bored. I found politics uninspiring and was content to do anything but watch the news. Then I played Tropico.

Tropico is, quite simply, one of the best games ever made. Like the original Medal of Honor, it illustrates one of the things that video games, when made well, are uniquely equipped to do: smuggle through the customs of a bored young man's mind substantive debate on real world issues. Superficially akin to Theme Hospital, Command and Conquer, and even The Sims, when I first started Tropico it felt like business as usual, and I engaged with it merely as a strategy game. But playthrough after playthrough, the 2001 game slowly turned me on to politics. To become better at it, I had to grapple with and learn about various political concepts.

To begin with, these were basic. The in-game almanac provides an overview of your citizenry and their political leanings, and I could see that the majority of my people were communists. And so, my education on communism became kind of threefold. Tropico would challenge me to beat it, as a video game. I'd go away and—as if I was playing Grand Theft Auto or Metal Gear Solid—I'd look up strategies and tips, like introducing low wage disparity, or equal opportunities for schooling, housing, and food. Equipped with that knowledge, I could then go back into Tropico and observe the effect these new policies had on my approval rating. I was doing it in the name of beating a video game, but I was nevertheless seeing, in a contained and simulative way, politics in action. The pill was sugared, but it was a pill nonetheless. I quickly became addicted.

A screen shot from 'Tropico'

Broad politics, like the differences between communism and capitalism, the art of electioneering and the practicalities—or rather, impracticalities—of policy-making, came to me quickly. And if it educated just about those things, deftly or otherwise, I don't think Tropico could be considered great. Plenty of games (Civilization, SimCity) can teach you about not just political theories but also real-world machinations—how ideas, economics, and reform are rolled out at the bureaucratic level. You can learn the formulas of politics from plenty of video games. But Tropico is unique in that no matter what you do, no matter how rigidly or loosely you adapt textbook political ideas, you will always lose. What that game taps into—what it zapped me with when I was first playing—are the incalculable, amorphous influences that corrode any system of government. Essentially, it boils down to either the apathy or capriciousness of your voters.

In Tropico, you might get a memo on your desk saying that the people are wanting for lack of decent health care. So, you take your economic surplus and invest it into new hospitals, all fully staffed and equipped to serve perfectly the needs of your population. A year later, a memo arrives saying that you're hemorrhaging support because—lo and behold—people have noticed that your government's spending budget has shrunk in the past 12 months. You have a people in Tropico that will complain about lack of healthcare, but then also complain when you're spending money to provide better healthcare. You face an electorate that subconsciously and by default considers you guilty, and would prefer to see you replaced.

This is a world where the fundamental of politics—give the people what they need and what they want, and you will stay in power—is consistently challenged. Your policies are not punch cards, fed into the counting machine of an electorate, to be processed as either support or dismissal. The process of government is organic. It's moving. It's politics, but it's alive. And it's such an invigorating vision.

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Often, politicians and governments seem to presume the public's behavior, and endeavor to compartmentalize and classify their electorate. We hear terms like "C1 voters" or "middle-England," as if people from certain places and backgrounds can be trusted to always behave the same way. Tropico challenges that lazy and pessimistic form of politics. Even though this is a video game, where systems and algorithms control everything, your people are not predictable. They are not sheep. And to govern them well, you cannot be cynical.

And after playing Tropico, neither could I. It introduced entry-level political concepts, but also the idea that politics was less about top-down government and cold economics, and more about interaction, feedback, and concomitant trust between politicians and voters. Tropico does not come down hard on either side. It says that the government must be allowed to push legislation, to argue its case and to not kowtow entirely to the whims of the people. But it insists also the importance of a public voice. It's a game where selectively deaf, hard-line government is just as likely to destroy progress as a labile, unsympathetic electorate. It's politics as is—here are no clean hands, and it's only working together which catalyses change.

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