Games imitating reality

Yesterday, I played my 2007 edition of the game Civilization 4. The Civilization series was a landmark in the computer gaming industry when it first came out in 1991. Each player controls a civilization and is in charge of everything from economy, military, culture, diplomacy, civic works to science. While this is just a computer game, it does sometimes offer startling insights into the way the real world works.

Civ01

Diplomacy with other world leaders in the original Civilization

In the game, when the civilization goes to war, it pays to make it a brief, total war as the effects of a prolonged conflict can be crippling for the economy. For those few turns, all production is channeled into the war effort and the military is expanded dramatically in an attempt to overwhelm the enemy as quickly as possible.

Invariably, to be on the safer side, there is over production. Weapons and units are created which are no longer needed by the time they are deployed. Ultimately, if the strategy was successful, you find that much of the army is intact and the production lines are ready for military manufacture as the enemy crumbles. What to do now? As in real life, maintaining a standing army is expensive. Disbanding would seem the sensible idea, but it does seem a waste to terminate such a potent and powerful instrument. By the time one war is finished, you are 80% ready to fight the next one. Now its just a matter of finding an enemy weak enough not to be too difficult and rich enough to make it worthwhile.

If you think this is just an idiosyncrasy of the game, there are some alarming real world cases where something similar was seen. The British Army

In 1961, in his farewell address, President Dwight Eisenhower warned of the “military-industrial complex” which was then new to the American experience and would as he predicted have profound economic, political and spiritual consequences.

Today, the US military which barely existed at the start of the 20th century spans the globe and is the most interventionist in the world.

The bloated organization could turn parasitic. C. Northcote Parkinson described the expansion of the British Navy during World War 2. During that time, no thought was given to what the nation could afford because the one thing everyone understood Britain could not afford was defeat.. After the war, the fighting fleet was reduced, but the bureaucratic machinery to support a vast fleet remained and led to massive waste.

But this tendency is also seen in the civilian sphere. After the 1986 Challenger mission disaster when a Space Shuttle carrying 7 astronauts exploded, there was an in depth investigation into the workings of NASA. The investigating commission found NASA filled with talented engineers stifled by a bloated management structure. On the commission was Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman wrote about this in his book, What Do You Care What Other People Think?. He conjectured how this arose based on his own World War 2 experiences in Los Alamos.

challenger.jpg

Explosion of the Space shuttle Challenger

A large public enterprise like the Apollo Moon Landings required a huge investment of men and capital from NASA’s side. After the mission had succeeded, there was less public interest and willingness to spend. But what about all the people who had worked to make the project a success? It seemed wrong to throw out these people who had given the prime of their life to the organization. Instead, they were accommodated in middle management. Hence the bloated shape.

Sound familiar?

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