Board Games and Political Theory- Part 1

Before I begin to analyze popular board games for their relationship with International Relations (IR) theory, I needed to create a comprehensive pool of all IR theory since one did not previously exist. Having a single source for all of my reference work when conducting analysis of board games will reduce any errors resulting from cognitive bias (forgetting, lack of understanding, etc..) It will also help to delineate the ‘edges’ of my project. Creating a single source to reference before conducting analysis will eliminate the temptation to cherry-pick theories from the sprawling IR-literature.

I have organized the numerous IR theories and concepts in a thought diagram resembling a cladogram. This format was chosen to highlight the connections between theories – both within and between paradigms – and the differences between sub-theories (ex: classical realism vs. neorealism). I began my research with the intention of using the Oxford Handbook of International Relations as my sole reference, but quickly realized that I needed to broaden my scope somewhat to produce complete summaries of every concept. Between the Handbook, and International Relations (a textbook from Intro. International Relations GOVT 204) I have been able to construct a meaningful and useful amalgamation of IR theory.

While compiling the concept diagram, I reinforced my belief that IR theory is inherently multidisciplinary. While differences certainly exist, there are dozens of direct connections between all of the sub-fields I analyzed, and the borders between the paradigms only blur as one moves away from theory and towards application.

I noticed that while realist theory came naturally to me, I had considerably more difficulty understanding the fundamental assumptions behind liberal, constructivist, and English School theory. This might be due to the apparent ‘Masculinity of Realism’ (a concept I summarized in my concept diagram), but I think there may be a connection with the games I played growing up. Most games have a single winner, so all interactions between players have an inherently conflictual quality, and since all games end after a relatively short amount of time players do not usually have time to develop complex systems of behavioral norms. This fits in nicely with realist theory, which generally sees international relations as a zero-sum game, and plays down the potential for cooperation. I am interested to see if this plays out in the next phase of my research when I analyze board games themselves.


  1. zrschiffman says:

    Very smart to compile all the different resources as opposed to relying on a single source. This catalog that you’re developing, do you see a major use for it outside of your board game analysis project?

  2. kparmstrong says:

    I look forward to seeing the connections that you draw between international relations theory and board games. I find it interesting that you attribute your affinity for realism to playing games growing up. I, too, grew up playing strategy games, placing as much focus on cooperation as on competition. Coincidentally, I also find liberalism and constructivism more satisfying than realism. For this reason, I would suggest that perhaps the difference between our approaches has other roots.

    Will you be sharing the thought diagram you created? I would love to see it.

  3. zrschiffman,

    Thanks for the comment! On a very practical note, I wish that I had had the catalog while studying for tests in Intro International Politics, and it certainly would have been useful as a reference in later more advanced classes. Its strength comes from visualizing the groupings and connections between theories and concepts and is inherently suited to synthesis and analysis.

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