The Sims: Political Science Edition

Recently, I’ve been considering whether it might not be possible to combine the two areas I am intensely interested in, video games and political science, in a way that won’t get me kicked out of graduate school and might even result in an academic position at some point (or at least won’t totally foreclose the possibility)!

To be sure, political science has become a lot more receptive to advanced computational modeling in recent years, following developments in the natural sciences and more recently in economics. Yes indeed! Some of the more freewheeling practitioners of the dismal science are now writing papers about currency farming and auction house behavior in World of Warcraft.

And, on the flip side of the virtual coin, there are a goodly number of academic refugees now employed in Silicon Valley as big data miners, virtual behaviorists, and the like. The demand has become particularly fierce on the new frontier of video gaming, which lives on the Internet and is fueled largely by “social graphing” and “in-app purchasing.” Zynga, an online games company that makes millions of dollars operating virtual fiefdoms, is hiring data analysts like crazy.

Video games are now computational models that are designed to produce fun and mineable data.

But I digress. A professor of international relations I very much respect, Art Stein, likes to say that the cutting edge in political science methodology runs about a decade behind economics, which in turn runs a decade behind physics and biology. That means that if I finish my PhD around 2016, I might be in very good shape!

The potential applications of game-based simulation methods in political science are endless. This is particularly true in international relations, where direct experimentation is effectively impossible; for instance, we’re not likely to randomly distribute nuclear weapons to countries throughout the world anytime soon. But we can certainly build a model of nuclear crisis and run it tens of thousands of times on the internet, twiddling the knobs to see what comes out.

Is external validity a problem for this kind of experiment? Most definitely. But there are many well-documented issues with scientific inference from observational data (selection bias, anyone? how about endogeneity?), and formal modeling, while appealingly parsimonious, is even more abstract and much less able to deal with the complexity that characterizes the real world. The analytical solution space to N-person cooperation games melts down pretty fast above a handful of players.


3 thoughts on “The Sims: Political Science Edition

  1. Interesting idea! To put it more simply, societies seem to learn lessons best from repeated failure, and since that is not really an option for global war scenarios, might as well throw the idea at enough people to uncover what decisions people would really make when they can be anonymous

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