Growing up, I was fascinated with conquest. My friends and I would always play ‘war’ outside after school, running through the forest in surplus army coats, wooden rifles in our hands. I played computer games where I would build vast empires, and wage massive wars against my computer foes, reducing their cities to ash and rubble. I felt a strange admiration for the columns of Russian soldiers marching across the screen in history class, with their crisp uniforms and bayonets gleaming in the sun. I was awed by the ability of leaders like Sherman, Patton, Rommel, and Nelson to command legions of men in battle and wreak havoc on their enemies.
Today I am the exact opposite.
I admire the works of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and I try and live up to the basic tenets of world religions that call for fairness, humbleness, charity, and hospitality. Thus, it has become increasingly difficult for me to connect with many of the historical events I teach about. The ruthlessness and savagery that humans are capable of has come to baffle me. Specifically, within history class, I find there are many questions that I no longer know the answer to:
What could possibly motivate a leader like Genghis Khan to attempt and rule all of the known world? Why, after the horrors of World War One, did European nations not stand up to the expansionist policies of Germany and Italy? How could Allied leaders give Shandong peninsula (a region in China) to Japan as a concession after World War One? Had they not learned about the dangers and drawbacks of colonization?
I have recently found the answers to many of these questions. Yet I did not find the answers in a textbook or a lecture hall but rather, in a board game!
A few weeks ago my coworkers and I started playing a board game called Diplomacy. The game is similar to Risk, the board is a map of the world and the object of the game is to dominate the map. It is different from Risk because the element of chance is removed, no dice are used. All the military units are of equal value. The only way to capture a territory is by combining your forces or working with other players, hence the name of the game.
The particular game we are playing is an online version of an older board game created by Avalon Hill. The original game was set in Europe on the verge of World War One. Our game is set in the ‘known world’ in the year 901 CE.
Turns take place every 24 hours. Between turns, players find themselves plotting their move by sending emails and text messages to each other, or meeting in a secluded location. Moves are entered into the computer privately, thus it is possible to make a verbal agreement with someone then stab them in the back during the actual game.
This is only the second time I have played this game. The first time I played it, I lasted all of three turns. I was far to nice and trusting. Some of the basic lessons of diplomacy I have taken away are as follows:
1. Players are motivated by self-interest alone, bonds of friendship mean nothing.
2. Players require an incentive to act on behalf of someone else, they will not help out of goodwill.
4. Players never have a sense of complete trust, even when dealing with close friends.
3. Players will take extreme measures to benefit themselves, often at the expense of others.
This may seem obvious, but the game has to be played to experience these phenomenon first hand. To hear your close friend or colleague say “Yeah, that plan sounds fine but, what’s in it for me?” or “I see you are about to get attacked, but there is no incentive for me to help you.” The ugly world of realpolitik.
Tying this back to teaching history, I have gained a new understanding of historical events by experiencing similar phenomena in the game. For example:
Early in the game, I approached ‘Spain’ to form an alliance. The negotiation seemed unlikely for two reasons:
(1) I represent a medieval Christian kingdom and Spain, at the time, was an Islamic caliphate. Historically speaking Christians and Muslims have not been the best of friends. (2) The person playing as ‘Spain’ was someone who I had recently gotten in a fight with and we were not on the best of terms.
The alliance has turned out to be extremely profitable for both of us, and it has stayed in place at least up to this point. I credit this success to numerous factors, which have historical precedent:
(1) China’s preeminent military strategist in classical times, Sun Tzu (孙子), one said, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” I finally understand the meaning of this quote. When two people have historically been at odds with each other, but are forced into a partnership, they have much to prove. Both people are eager to overcome previous wrongs and live up to their end of an agreement. Old friends, however, are much more complacent. They do not share the same eagerness to cooperate, and they take their relationship for granted.
(2) Our two regions were separated by a strip of unoccupied land, a buffer of sorts. By designating this a demilitarized zone, it greatly increased trust between us during the early phases of our agreement. Without this buffer zone, the alliance would have been on very shaky ground. This allowed me to understand why France, after World War One, imposed such harsh sanctions on Germany. One of the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles was to designate the Rhineland, a large swath of territory between Germany and France, as a demilitarized zone.
(3) Some countries did not have this geographic convenience. The people playing as ‘India’ and ‘Indonesia’ also sought to create a nonaggression pact or alliance. However, there was no stretch of unoccupied land separating them, their territory was connected. The result? A large buildup of armies on both sides, to act as a deterrent. These armies were costly to maintain and prevented the players from making progress early in the game. Historical connection? In the years leading up to World War One, European countries embraced the concept of ‘balance of power.’ No one country could become stronger than another, lest they might be tempted to attack. Britain’s Naval Defense Act of 1889 called for a two-power standard. This meant that Britain needed to maintain a fleet that was as strong as their two greatest adversaries combined.
(4) In order to continue benefiting from the alliance, we had to offer incentives to each other. At one point in the game I caught myself saying “I will support your fleet into Sardinia next turn if you help me to take Corsica this turn.” Good God! There I was, carving up the world, with no regard for the territories being discussed or who controlled them. I was only motivated by self interest: offer this island to my ally as a reward for his cooperation > preserve the alliance > continue to expand and conquer other nations of people. A disgusting and savage cycle when you step back and think about it. It did not take long for me to see the parallels to Britain offering Japan a colony in China for their service during the First World War, or Genghis Khan’s unslakable thirst for more land to add to his empire.
I have learned many other valuable diplomatic lessons while playing the game, these are just a few. I can see a connection to real world events within almost every turn of the game. It is a very fascinating experience. I believe if all students played Diplomacy while they were in school, the world would be a better place for numerous reasons. The game draws out basic human nature and can teach players how social relationships are strained during high-stakes situations. Furthermore, it can help students to determine the kind of career path that would best suit them. If they receive gratification from the game and are successful, I would advise that they enter business or politics. If they are successful in the game, but do not enjoy competition, deceit, and treachery (I fall into this camp) then they might want to go into the social studies or humanities. Lastly, if they do not enjoy the game and are not good at it, they should consider careers that do not depend upon competitive advantage or require a complex understanding of human psychology.
For more information, here is the website we are using to host our game. The site has a helpful ‘about’ page. http://vdiplomacy.com/