This piece originally appeared at Fanbyte in April 2022.
It was in my senior year of high school that NationStates swept my friend group. A simple browser game where you make decisions that contribute to the political and social contours of a fictional country, it was a fun diversion for a few weeks until something else online caught our attention and everyone fell off of it. Everyone, that is, except me. NationStates somehow became a part of my online rounds, the sites I’d check during my quick daily log-in, after email, Facebook, webcomics and forums I followed. I’m not on Facebook anymore and I don’t read those webcomics anymore, but I still play NationStates.
Maybe “play” is a bit strong of a word. For me, playing NationStates simply involves hitting the site to check my daily issues. These issues are the primary mechanic — players are presented with a situation with multiple possible resolutions and asked to choose one, which will influence the state of their country going forward. Submitted by players themselves, the issues range from the mundane (public transit, pollution, privacy concerns) to the fantastical (James Bond-esque spy drama, mutant animals, space lasers).
Each choice affects one or more of your country’s stats, like Civil Rights, Economy, and Political Freedom. The results of your decisions over time accumulate to shape your nation’s profile. For instance, the game describes my country as “a gargantuan, orderly nation, ruled by The Leader with an iron fist, and notable for its keen interest in outer space, frequent executions, and aversion to nipples.” I should say, it’s not a good place — when I started it in high school, it was with the express intention of making the worst possible place to live.
I’ve stuck it out with that mission ever since I started playing NationStates in the mid-2000s, and in many ways my country is a time capsule of my interests and pop culture at the time. Its name, “Euraustralasamerica,” is a riff on 1984, which I had recently read and was obsessed with. The capital is called “Chi-Town,” which of course is a nickname for Chicago but which I got from the tabletop RPG Rifts. The head of state is The Leader, after the episode of The Simpsons in which the family joins a cult. And the national motto, “yvan eht nioj,” is also a Simpsons reference, from the episode in which Bart is cast in a boy band that’s secretly a recruitment tool for the US Navy.
There’s more to NationStates than just making daily choices — since its outset, roleplay using the site’s forums have been a major part of the experience. And the game’s creator, novelist Max Berry, has gone on to add features like seasonal storylines, trading cards, regional and world assemblies where nations can make joint policy decisions, and more. I’m sure those features are all very fun and cool, but I’ve never really interacted with any of them. For me, NationStates is just a thing I do everyday.
Sometimes I’ll forget it for a couple of weeks, at which point the site sends me an email warning that my nation will be deleted if I continue to be inactive. Maybe one day I’ll let that happen, but for now I’m content to just have it be a minor, ongoing part of my life. And at this point, I’ve been playing it so long that I rank 43rd in cheese exports among all players (almost 8 million), and you don’t just throw that away. Will I be playing Wordle in five years? Maybe. Will I be playing NationStates? Almost certainly. And Euraustralasamerica will still be a terrible, terrible place to live for the nearly 40 billion fictional people unlucky enough to be born there.