Videogames have made me a better person, no doubt about it. I’ve lost weight, made money, gotten smarter and improved my aim by playing videogames. Games have made me happier and games have taught me about the human condition.
Consider Tropico. Now in its fourth iteration, the tropical-island simulation allows me to experience how geographic, economic, social and political factors actually affect a civilization. In the Tropico games, each citizen is tracked. They belong to families and factions, and they have their own distinct loyalties. Let a rebel talk too long, and he’ll make more rebels. Give an old lady social security, and her whole family will be happier. Don’t expect a farmer to be a good banker, and don’t assume that an immigrant is loyal to his new home. Everyone has a history, a job, a lifestyle and a dream. Making a world that interacts with so many individuals has been a fascinating education.
From the Tropico games, I have learned that in order to be happy, people want access to clinics, cathedrals and shopping malls. I’ve discovered that “religious freedom” is another way of saying “controlled by the churches.” I’ve learned that if I please the United States, some other superpower will become upset. I’ve found out that people the Chinese call “enemies of progress” are actually quite progressive, useful citizens. Prisons can be profitable, especially if you lease them secretly to the US. And oil spills are not total disasters — there’s always room for good publicity somewhere on the global stage.
THE GOOD: Tropico 4 is more ambitious than its predecessors, which pretty much confined their attentions to a single island. Now, my tropical island is influenced by the global economy. Squabbles between the Middle East and the rest of the world can end up playing themselves out amongst my population. And while nobody can control the weather (and Tropico 4 features more tropical storms than ever before), a deft political hand can sway the amount of relief funds coming my way. Tropico 4 has gained a global perspective without losing any of its local focus. It is an ambitious and enlightening thing for a game to do — thinking bigger instead of dumbing down.
THE BAD: From a technical standpoint, Tropico 4 is buggy and unfinished. I once sat down to resume my progression through the game’s campaign, only to discover that everything from my previous play session (which had lasted all afternoon) was gone. I was forced to restart an island I had already conquered. But I was perhaps more frequently annoyed by the game’s inability to let me lay down lengths of road without taking control of the camera and sloooowly dragging it across the island. And the game’s ambitious scope could use some sprucing up. Too many foreign affairs were relegated to optional tasks, allowing me to somehow bypass the politics of the global stage. If Tropico 4 spent some time fine-tuning its code and filling in the gaps of its gameplay, it could be one of the greatest strategy games ever devised. Right now, it’s a good blueprint.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Like a developing nation, Tropico 4 is ambitious but unfinished.