Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

The impossible task of country simulation in a video game

As you may know, I make the ‘Democracy’ series of video games. They are pretty serious, pretty complex, fairly in-depth simulation games where you run a real world country. At one point I experimented with fictional countries, but it turns out everyone hates that, they want to be the president of their own country, and show they can do a better job than the current leader. Fair enough.

The only problem with this is it means that I need to simulate real world countries accurately enough that people living in them think I have made a proper effort to do so. This is staggeringly difficult to do with a single (albeit flexible and complex) model of politics and economics. What makes it way more difficult, is that it has to be politically, economically and temporally flexible as well.

Allow me to explain.

Imagine you spend months reading statistics and articles and set all of the values of all of the policies for a single country in Democracy 4, for example the UK, and you get all the various values in the model as close as possible to reality. Unemployment looks about right, GDP looks about right, Wages look about right…and on through literally hundreds of different measures. This is VERY hard to do, and a lot of values need to be flexible in interpretation. For example what level is income tax in the UK? Obviously it depends on how much you earn and many other factors…

…but then the very same model has to work if you change some of those variables. Maybe a player decides to abolish the national health service. Or double the minimum wage. Or scrap nuclear weapons, or introduce a new tax on luxury goods. The same model has to cope in all these circumstances, and it has to be credible over time. The national debt is a certain level NOW, and we know roughly what impact it has, but how do we possibly model what will happen in the future? How do we model the impact of increased automation on unemployment, productivity, wages, and international trade? Ideally a video game is made to be playable for many years. Will Democracy 4 make sense in 2025? in 2030? When we all have self driving cars and teslabots, what do the economics look like?

This is all hellishly hard, but one of the particular aspects of what makes it hard is a thing I’m encountering today. I am taking the first gentle steps into looking at an expansion pack that would add some extra countries to the game, and trying to be more organized, and sensible about adding them so that the model is consistent and makes sense. Its way harder than it sounds.

Take for example: BRAZIL. An exciting country to add to the game, as its so different to the others. I am looking forward to adding a special situation for the amazon rainforest, with all its potential economic boom, tourism value and also massive environmental controversy regarding deforestation. Lots of cool stuff here for a potential Democracy 4 player! But lets zoom in on a single statistic:

What is the correct value for the military spending slider for Brazil?

This is not as simple as it sounds. Its pretty easy to google the military budget of Brazil, in USD terms. Thats 25.1 billion USD with a source here: https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/defense-spending-by-country. It would be easy thus to look at the UK spending (55Bn USD) and do a relative comparison to where we position the UK slider (42%), and use that calculation to set the Brazil military spending at 19%. However, doing a straight USD comparison is fraught with inaccuracies. I cant even find out if that USD number is actual real USD (ie: the value of the Brazilian reals converted at the current exchange rate to USD) or ‘purchase-power-parity‘, which is a different (and generally better) measure altogether. To put it simple: You can probably pay a Brazilian soldier less in USD equivalent than you would pay a US marine. If a Brazilian soldier can buy a house and clothes and food way cheaper than the USD-equivalent spent in a US town, then in effect your military budget is going further…

One way to adjust for this is to take a second measure, using totally different comparisons. So for example, you can also look at the percentage of GDP that is spent on the military, and use that as a baseline. In this case Brazil spends 1.4% of GDP on defense, compared to 2.2% in the UK. Making that adjustment means that the Brazil military slider turns out to be 28% instead of 19%.

To start with, before I go back and play balance and adjust everything (which will take weeks) I’m setting the initial value for those military sliders to be the average of these two measures, so comparing military spending as % of GDP, then absolute value in USD and then averaging the two slider positions. This gives me the following values:

Greece 29%

Ireland 3%

Poland 26%

Switzerland 9%

Turkey 35%

Brazil 23%

At first look, these seem reasonable. Switzerland is famous for its neutrality. Poland is naturally (given its history) more jittery. Ireland… well I cant remember having ever heard of the Irish military at all. Turkey, given its location, probably thinks it can justify quite a strong military.

You might think this is a paper-thin approximation. You are right. I’m sure multiple people have phds in studying the relative military spending of countries around the world. Sadly, I’m just a video game designer and do not have that time, but I do what I can to get sensible numbers where possible, and have to keep in mind that the first priority of any game is to be fun, not accurate.

Still a lot of stats juggling to go!


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