There's No Fighting in the War Game!
I don't want to start a nuclear war, but it's for the best. My Brazilian empire is on the verge of uniting a world in awe of my advanced culture, a goal that would be achieved almost instantly just by destroying a couple of Polish cities. Forget ethics, this is a simple math: if I win the war quickly and effectively enough, I win all the spoils, and the world benefits. Morality has been trumped by the cold, hard rules of the game. The game in question is Civilization V, a well-known historical strategy series. In that game, those rules are objective reality. Outside that game? Those rules are as ideological as they are fun, loaded with political meaning.
All games have rules, of course, but not all of them have clear ideologies—the abstract simulation of how a tennis ball behaves after being struck in Wii Sports doesn't reveal much other than what programming shortcuts were taken. But in games that attempt to model real-world history, society, or politics,11 In the seminal book The Mismeasure Of Man, scientist and philosopher Stephen J. Gould explores the concept of “reification.” It's the idea that if humans can define and discuss a concept, then they'll often treat that concept as something real. Gould focuses on “intelligence” and attempts to quantify it via skull-measuring or IQ tests, but it could also be applied to ideals like “justice” ideology makes an appearance.
The genre of game which most commonly and directly attempts to engage with complex real-world situations are strategy games. When I talked about why “violent video games” are so engaging, I theorized that their use of tension across time and space activates players' brains in a fashion rarely accomplished in day-to-day life. Strategy games abstract both time and space to give the player control over dozens of different entities (people, cities, military units, trains, etc). The challenge is not speed or skill, like a racing game or a shooter might have, but instead a certain form of leadership—the ability to see the big picture and respond appropriately.
Three of the most important and popular historical-strategy computer game22 Historical strategy games have almost always appeared on computers instead of video game consoles. It's partially due to tradition, but also pragmatic—a mouse and keyboard allow for faster and more precise control in these kinds of games. series had new releases this past summer: Civilization V: Brave New World, Europa Universalis IV, and Total War: Rome II. These are all “grand” strategy games; you control entire nations over the course of centuries or more. Because all of these games attempt to cover the sweep of history, all of them take shortcuts and reify historical concepts.
Perhaps the simplest way to see what kind of ideology historical-strategy games possess is to see what they reward, what methods “win” the game. Amongst strategy game fans, there's a piece of jargon that encompasses much of the grand strategy games' approach to history. They're called “4X games” for the four conceptual phases of the game: eXplore (uncover the map), eXpand (fill in the map, acquire resources), eXploit (use resources to build wealth and power), and eXterminate (build an army to crush all enemies). Victory has tended to be most commonly associated with military force.
This aligns with the traditional—old-fashioned, really—view of history as a series of famous battles, titanic wars, great men, and territory changing hands. Social and economic histories are more prevalent now, but that hasn't generally manifested in the game series that's supposedly about the entirety of human history.
That's changing. The Civilization series is the most famous historical-strategy series in gaming, and it used to be the model that 4X games followed. But extermination and victory by military force are no longer the game's top priority. The series has always had a technology victory, where a successful trip to Alpha Centauri, possible with scientific progress, lead to a win.33 In Civilization's most successful spinoff, Alpha Centauri, you played one of the surviving factions from that ship on a planet around Alpha Centauri. Same style of game, but with more lasers and surprisingly deep philosophy. Further games in the series added more flavors of victory: winning a vote in the United Nations, or constructing buildings that give you large amounts of culture—like museums or radio stations.
The problem with all of those alternate victories was that they were superficial and one-dimensional compared to battle. When fighting wars, you had to make tactical choices about where to attack and how to counter major enemy armies. You had moments of reinforcing satisfaction, an enemy driven back here and a city captured there. The other victory options tended to consist of simply selecting the next building to construct from a pop-up menu—the map, the game's whole sense of space, was discarded. War was more fun and intelligent than attempting to succeed by other means.
Civilization V: Brave New World4 4 Brave New World is an expansion to the original Civilization V, which was released in 2010. An expansion pack is an addition to an existing game, usually requiring ownership of the original game. Expansions usually don't include major improvements in graphical tech, preferring instead enhancing the game or adding to the story. Each of the past few Civilizations has had two expansions, which—in Civ's case—are treated by fans as essential to the game. Brave New World is the second expansion to Civilization V after last year's Gods And Kings. It's unclear if it will be the last. It is the biggest step the venerable series has taken away from treating war as the dominant focus of human history for the first time in the games nearly two decades in production (the first game was released in 1991). It does this not simply by having alternative ways of winning, but by making those components of the game comparably deep and entertaining as war. First, there's trade. Used to be, a city would simply generate trade income automatically and abstractly. Now, you build trade caravans which are depicted on the map itself, and need to be protected or could be raided in wars. Likewise, the cultural aspect of the game has been enhanced by the creation of a “tourism” mechanic, which allows players to adjust their works of art and music tactically for general benefit, as well as sending archaeologists around the world playing at Indiana Jones, acquiring historical artifacts.
One major reason for Civilization’s slow changes in focus is that other grand strategy games have left a successful blueprint to follow. Chief among them: the Europa Universalis series, which began in 2000 and just saw the release of its fourth installment in August. At a superficial descriptive level, the Europa Universalis games sound a lot like Civ: take control of a nation, and, over the course of centuries, build its military, economy, religion, and the size of its borders, while engaging in diplomacy, warfare, and colonial expansion. But the two games are quite different, starting with the historical timeframe. Where Civilization is about the entirety of human history, Europa Universalis focuses just on the few hundred years of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Napoleonic eras.55 The precise dates are 1444-1820. Previous Europa Universalis games started in 1492 (Columbus) or 1453 (the fall of Constantinople), two years of massive historical import. 1444, on the other hand, seems to demand a trip to Wikipedia. It's also worth noting that you can start a game at any point in EU4's timeframe, so you could jump straight to 1588 or 1776. Europa Universalis is real-time, instead of turn-based—the game is constantly moving (or paused), as opposed to Civilization, where you'll make all the decisions you need to, press a button, wait, and do it again a “year” later. Unlike Civilization with its dominant military tactics, Europa Universalis has to make sure that all parts of the game—building infrastructure, fighting battles, engaging in diplomacy, etc.—carry equal enough weight that that player can maintain interest in all of them.
Because of its format, grand strategic choices reign supreme in Europa Universalis: do I develop my military or my economy in my best province? Do I join a war against my rival or do I wait until I'm stronger? Set my economy to focus on colonial expansion or orient it toward trade? What makes the game excellent is that all these choices are set to be achieve a historical, or history-like result.
One of historical strategy games' greatest strengths is that the understanding of why and how leaders do horrible things. For example, in EU4, as Russia, you're surrounded by small nations that are quite easy to absorb, like the rump descendants of the Mongol Golden Horde. But if you take over those provinces, they'll have a different culture and religion than your own, which will make them more likely to rebel—unless you order their religion and culture changed to your own with a couple easy clicks to start the process. The game suggests you do it, even. It is pragmatically desirable, for the health of the nation, to engage in ethnic cleansing and forced conversions. It becomes impossible to be a good leader while maintaining moral standards.
Europa Universalis IV isn't the only game to use relatively simple mechanics to illustrate complex issues. Its medieval cousin, Crusader Kings II, focuses on the personal politics of the feudal system, and almost serves as a companion piece to Game Of Thrones in illustrating why lords might let their petty ambitions destroy their kingdom and eventually themselves. Another indie strategy game, Expeditions: Conquistador puts the player in charge of Spanish expedition to native American territory, a role filled by some of the most morally repugnant men in history. This game, however, grants the player the option to try to play a kinder, gentler conquistador, going to the New World for diplomatic and scientific purposes—but the game forces the player to make a choice, based on Spanish power, that sets them on the path to war. Finally, there's Fate Of The World, a near-future strategy game which sets you in charge of global anti-climate change efforts. Simply by being ridiculous difficult, Fate Of The World hammers home the crushing scope and systemic interconnectedness of climate change in manner that dozens of depressing articles on the subject couldn't for me.
It's hard to find meaning in a game that stinks, though. A consistent issue faced by games of all kinds in attempting to model real and historical behavior is that the history is so complicated that it has to be compromised in order to create an efficient game, both at a technical level and in terms of accessibility to the player. The third major recent historical strategy game release, Total War: Rome II, shows why this can be such a good problem.
The name “Total War” strongly and accurately implies that this series of games is significantly more focused on military conquest than anything else.66 Rome II is the eighth game in the series, after its immediate predecessor, two Shogun games, two Medieval games, Empire: Total War set in the 18th century, and Napoleon. All are military-focused, although ironically, the historical periods they cover don't fit within the generally understood concept of “total war,” when one nation uses its entire economy and population to attack another nation's economy and population—Sherman's “March To The Sea” is usually considered the start of “total war” as a concept, with World War II its height. On the turn-based strategic map, players buy new units, move armies around, construct new buildings to get more money, and engage in diplomacy. Then, during battles and sieges, the game switches to a detailed real-time battle. At its best, these battles are unparalleled in modern games: you can order lines of infantry to engage one another, send cavalry around to attack flanks, or hide archers in forests to ambush enemies. Unlike Civilization, where the military part of the game seems to take up a huge portion of the game just because it happens to be only tactical part, in Total War, the battles are tense and fun enough to deserve to take that time.
In most previous games in the series, victory was achieved almost entirely through conquest of a large enough number of provinces. Rome II, which covers the rise of the Roman Republic and creation of Roman Empire, offers variety within those boundaries, with cultural and economic victories in addition to conquest.
The devil is in the details, though, and this is where Rome II falls apart. In order to achieve an economic victory, for example, you have to use Rome II's painful diplomacy interface. This involves a constant cycle of clicking to start diplomacy, then waiting to see where you stand, then clicking to check again, then waiting, click, wait, click … wait, and wait some more. It's a game mechanic that gives tremendous rewards to players if they engage in it, but engaging with it is monumentally dull.
The scope of Rome II makes it more accurate and representative of the ancient world than its predecessors, but that same scope renders it borderline unplayable. This is the downside of the use of games as simple, fun mechanisms for understanding history: history is often too complex to be fun, which is why it’s so hard to make a game that makes room for more than war. Great strategy games can still find a way, unfortunately, Rome II isn't great.
I don't think there's a deliberate political component to the shift away from militarism in strategy games. Rather, it's the desire to make historical games more accurate in their depictions of societies and politics, followed by a willingness to make the game systems that depict that complexity be interesting and fun. In doing so the games comment and even shed light on the processes of history. Their increasing success at doing so is making strategy games one of the most interesting and vibrant genres in gaming today.
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