We've been in charge of running a country during a national crisis in Pandemic: American Swine Flu. We've led the nation to world conquest in Mastermind: World Conqueror. But have you ever wondered what goes on during the downtime? In-between the diseases and the hostile takeovers, everyday decisions still need to be made. NationStates is a massively multiplayer online game by author Max Barry that puts you in charge of your own fledgling nation to create and shape how you see fit.
To get started on your path to becoming an imaginary superpower, you'll need to create your nation. You will be prompted to customize different aspects, such as your flag, history, and national animal. These options are superficial only, but the next page will asks you for your opinions concerning various political, social, and economic issues. These will determine the initial status of your nation, although it will change shortly after you start playing.
Changes to your nation come about through issues presented to you every day. You'll be presented with a problem with several options, and whichever one you choose will become national law. You will initially receive one issue per day, but you can bump that up to two in the account settings. As you make choices the various aspects of your country will change and the type of government you run will shift, going anywhere from "anarchy" to "psychotic dictatorship". There are probably some other, reasonable options in between, but I never discovered them. Where would the fun be in that?
You can choose to stay small, influencing just your country, or you can step up to the next level and join with other nations in a group known as a region, where you can make deals or compete for power. You can also join the World Assembly, a thinly-veiled version of the United Nations, to write or vote on resolutions that will affect all participating nations. The forums have as much discussion on current events (in-game and otherwise) as any real-world political site you may find, so if you're up for a good debate, you'll always be able to find one.
Analysis: The real beauty in this game is that it's accessible on so many levels. If you want to be part of the multiplayer aspect, you can join an existing region or create your own. If you'd rather keep to yourself and watch the outcome of the choices you make, that's an option too. Since there is no way to "win", per se, there's freedom in how you run your internal affairs, as well. You can make decisions that reflect your own political views and see which direction that takes the country, or you can be like me and see how difficult you can make life for your citizens. They would probably recommend the former, if I allowed them freedom of speech.
Unfortunately, with a maximum of two issues per day, if you're not participating in world affairs, gameplay will be over fairly quickly. Your decisions can be made in minutes, then you won't have much to do until the next time you log in. That's not to say that the game is any less fun that way; on the contrary, it's very satisfying being able to decide the fate of a nation while having your morning coffee, then be free to go on with the rest of your day. But for people who crave more, the single-player experience might not provide the hours of entertainment you may be looking for. And yes, in my country, it is legal to end your sentences in prepositions.
The philosophical implications of NationStates are staggering. Although they are often humorous and exaggerated, the issues that are addressed are usually real concerns for governments all over the world. The decisions you make may seem like a good idea at the time, but there could be consequences that you never expected. More than once I have made a choice that seemed reasonable, only to rethink my position when I saw the results. I now realize that I am perhaps not the best option to rule the world, after all. Not yet, anyway. Let me play around with NationStates a little more, then we'll see.
It's worth noting that this game is inspired by the novel Jennifer Government by Max Barry. In that sense, it could almost be considered an advergame, as it was created by the author in order to tie in with his book. Still, it doesn't feel like it's trying to promote anything. There are links to the Mr. Barry's website throughout the game, but there is never any real effort to sell you anything. It comes across as more of a companion to the novel. Of course, this could be a marketing scheme on the author's part to make me feel like buying the book was my idea, but if it is, it worked. I will receive my copy in 3-5 business days. Touché, Mr. Barry!
If you're interested in politics and what makes a country run, or if you just want to oppress the lower class, NationStates is right up your alley.