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We can’t afford elections this year: politics and economics in Tropico 4

Image credit: megagames.com
Image credit: megagames.com
Image credit: megagames.com

In an email titled ‘A half-serious, half-joking economic experiment’, I wrote to a friend on New Year’s Eve, informing him that I wished to conduct an amusing political investigation. I would test his capitalist economic ideas with my semi-socialist ones. My medium? Tropico 4, a video game given to me as a gift from another friend.

“In case you are unfamiliar,” I wrote, “the Tropico series puts the player at the helm of a banana republic that can be run in whatever way the player wants. On the island are capitalists, communists, the religious, environmentalists, nationalists, intellectuals and loyalists. I can construct infrastructure like roads and housing, as well as industries, and entertainment things like bars, casinos and clubs.”

Tropico 4, the game of my choosing, is an attractive simulation of a banana republic that would appeal to political enthusiasts such as myself, who wish to mimic the various political systems of dodgy island nations of the recent past. However, exploring different politics was difficult: my experiment was investigating economics as much as politics, because economics seem to be the most vital thing in playing the game successfully.

Political players may approach Tropico 4 with the intention of having plenty of fun. They want to play politics and live out their dreams of achieving their political ideology in its totality. As a socialist you might want to make all housing state-financed, keep wage inequality low and provide social security to the elderly and students; as a nationalist you might want to keep Johnny Foreigner out with strict immigration laws and hire locals only as ministers of government; as an environmentalist, you might want to try and create a Tropico Eden Project and save the trees.

But all this seems impossible without strong economics (perhaps an adequate representation of real life?). All of these casinos, farms, tourist attractions, police stations and military bases cannot be constructed without cash and cannot be manned without labour. The player is recommended by the online gaming community to create a top capitalist as the island’s dictator; once established, this dictator should cut all wages save for his bodyguards, find the nearest mineral reserve and get mining. After a few years (the player’s dictator can rule for a maximum of fifty years), the money should be flowing in. Any labour required can be hired from abroad.

If Tropico 4 is an accurate representation of real life then it looks as though capitalism is the only way to get things done, something that is a bitter drink to swallow for a lot of people. But regardless of accuracy, playing the game with the mindset of anyone but a capitalist makes it a real challenge. Anyone attempting those socialist, intellectual or environmental dreams will have to endure debt-financing for the majority of the game. Your piggy bank is always empty, growth is sluggish and unrest is common; a capitalist takes half the time to finance all his ambitions than anyone else.

One of the hardest things to do is play as a brutal dictator, who dispatches his political enemies, or indeed anyone who is a nuisance, with his military or his secret police – a nasty vision but hardly a historical anomaly. You can imagine an island with plenty of military bases, soldiers and policemen, few rights and heavy censorship. I admit that this is a scenario I want to simulate. So many of history’s dictators have employed these cruel means to ensure their power. Some of them are still alive and kicking, unlike their opponents. Unfortunately for this Tropico dictator, he has to make sure he has his finances in check. Every arrest, military execution and secret police intervention costs a lot of money. In real life I imagine that things were achieved with guns pointed at everyone’s heads, but you can’t do this in Tropico 4 unless you’ve paid your bills. If you want to pretend you are Che Guevara, Idi Amin or someone just as barbaric, you have to settle for a half-capitalist half-tyrant compromise.

Consequently no one can achieve those plans fully unless they play the alternative ‘God mode’, where all finances are magically replenished, there is no political resistance and everyone remains happy – something that is only appealing to people who like to build big empty cities.

That said, there is still plenty of enjoyment to be had when playing Tropico 4. The designers and writers of the game have made sure to include plenty of funny and witty references to the real world and the odd habits of history’s dictators. It’s a smug feeling to see your chances of winning an election skyrocket after deciding that then was the time to give the people higher wages.

So, in my experiment, who won? A government under Augusto Pinochet or Fidel Castro? I never found out. I played out a scenario with Pinochet in charge in January; but turning my old computer on today, Tropico 4  doesn’t seem to want to play anymore.