Empire management games, or “Grand Strategy” games as they are known, are notoriously impenetrable and cold. Most commonly, the player is given a large, top-down view, and from that high, it can become difficult to imagine all of those little, digital lives. Concepts such as war and conflicting cultures are often left as abstract representations whose ethical repercussions may be comfortably ignored or minimized, and when they are engaged, it is at the will of the player's imagination and heavy interpretation; there is a reason that Grand Strategy gamers have a reputation for being despotic hegemonists while gaming. This isn't an indictment—games can offer a safe space for people to examine new modes of thinking, and players often come away from their Grand Strategy experiences with a healthier understanding of the temptations of dictatorial power.
However, this trend is not a mandate, and clever design can create a lasting impact for players. Grand Strategy games have a difficult time with this, since the in-game response to player action is often as abstract as the action itself (such as the loss of life in war being delivered numerically), but this can and has been surmounted in a surprising way: through the user interface itself.
Stellaris is a space-themed Grand Strategy game released a bit over a year ago by Paradox Studios, whose Grand Strategy games are numerous and well-reviewed. This game allows the player to construct their own empire, placing special emphasis on its governing ethics, such as materialism, pacifism, and xenophobia, and when the player decides to play as a more morally ambiguous empire, the user interface begins challenging them. For example, each population, or “pop,” of approximately 1.5 billion people is not represented with a number, but with a single intricately illustrated and animated portrait of one of the species. Similarly, when managing an entire species—such as committing genocide, enacting slavery, or setting citizenship—the player is presented with a single member of the population. This representation personifies them, potentially invoking stronger empathy.
The text of the game also challenges the player. For example, if refugees from other empires are allowed, the policy reads “Refugees Welcome” with accompanying flavor text, while oppressive policies utilize a similar biased rhetoric. In this way, every policy decision becomes an ethical challenge for the player. These policies are locked for ten in-game years, adding a sense of finality to the decision.