For University of Minnesota student Alex Winchell, nation-building doesn’t require bricks or mortar — a click will suffice.
The economics and computer science sophomore developed a massive multiplayer online game called Politics and War that tasks players with creating and managing their own nations.
Winchell designed the game as a high school junior. Now, nearly three years later, the game has amassed a total of 44,000 users and averages 500 newly created nations each week.
Politics and War is similar to other nation-simulation games like Civilization V, Nation States and Cyber Nations. But because Winchell’s game is played in real-time, it’s larger than others, he said.
As players traverse the game, their nations gradually progress through different eras and technologies. An interactive stock market is affected by variables such as war, crime and the spread of disease.
Winchell describes managing the game as a hobby and credits games from his childhood — such as Cyber Nations — as a source of inspiration.
“I played that when I was really young, but I got banned [from playing it]. … So I said, ‘Oh screw you guys, I’m going to go make my own game,’” Winchell said. And he did.
Before his current 44,000-player venture, Winchell designed two other games. The first, Pixel Nations, was developed when he was a high school freshman.
He later sold the game for $1,200. The second, Martian Empires, was scrapped after players disapproved of the theme.
According to Winchell — who lived in Montana before moving to Minneapolis to study at the University — there weren’t many opportunities for him to learn coding in his hometown.
“I just kind of taught myself how to do it over four or five years,” Winchell said. “I had a lot of projects that I started and failed and gave up on. [They] turned out to be awful in coding and design. But this one turned out pretty well.”
Umar Templeton, a junior studying accounting at Montana State University, said playing Politics and War serves as a catalyst for meeting people.
“It’s not really like most games,” Templeton said. “I’m in a pact, or an alliance, and all of us have become friends. … We have a mobile app that we communicate on. Some of us even have each other on Facebook.”
For Templeton, the game’s interest lies in its simulation of real-life geopolitical dynamics.
“There’s always ulterior motives that will play out. Everyone is all about real politics; they’ll manipulate and work in half-truths to kind of get what they want. That’s another reason I think people are so drawn to the game.”
Some, however, are critical of the value game-based education can provide.
Dave Schaller, founder of eduweb — an organization that specializes in the intersection of learning, digital media and education — said, “The classic scenario is the game ‘Sim City.’ I asked a kid once what she learned from playing that game and she said, ‘I learned that when you raise taxes, people riot.’”
Schaller added that the logic of some online games is complicated when the variables the developer chooses are based on assumptions of how the world works.
“I definitely think it’s educational,” said Schaller. “But it’s interesting when people have to simplify something from the real world so tremendously. What do we end up with? And what are people going to be discovering when they play the game?”
Winchell said the game wasn’t intentionally educational, but he’s glad some people have found value in playing.
The idea to build Politics and War came after a short stint washing dishes at a local restaurant, during which he said he realized he wanted a more “hands-off” approach to moneymaking.
For him, such an approach paid off. Winchell said his game provides enough funds to pay for his college expenses.
Winchell said he’d like to continue managing Politics and War as long as it pays for his bills.
Perhaps he’ll try his hand at some real-life nation-building of his own. “Ideally I’d like to move back home after college...I’d like to buy up some old houses, fix them up and rent them out,” he said.