How Strategy Games are Changing the Way We Think of History

It’s common for a work of popular media, like a period film, a documentary, or a book, to encourage us to rethink a particular historical figure or event. It is far less frequent for narratives of any kind to challenge our entire idea of what history is and how it works, and yet, with ever-growing success and popularity, this is exactly what a special genre of historical videogames have been doing.

Before I tackle the question of how games are changing our idea of history, of course, I need to establish what that ‘idea’ actually looks like. So, as briefly as possible, let me sketch an answer to this question: what do we mean when we say the word history in the year 2020?

Modern history is primarily an academic discipline, and has been since it was professionalised in the early 19th Century (the Napoleonic age of radical social reform, which very much refashioned academia). Strict methodological criteria were first set down by German academic Leopold von Ranke, then adopted (not without debate) by a new generation of thoroughly trained historians in France, Britain, Italy and eventually the USA.

Historical ideas have since then been organised largely around three cardinal questions, and the responses to these questions have defined a variety of philosophical schools. The first one was that of causality, meaning what moves events to happen and how. Hegelians and Romantics privileged abstract, ideal forces (sometimes theological in nature) over concrete manifestations; Marxists proposed ‘historical materialism’ as the doctrine that ideas and cultural trends are determined by the material conditions of economic classes; Nietzscheans and Futurists emphasized personal agency and a radical form of individualism.

The second cardinal question is selectivity, meaning which events (or what kind of events) constitute ‘history’ and what are the criteria by which historians select them out of the formless past. The matter was scrutinised in depth by Max Weber and later became the fulcrum of structuralist criticism: the French Annales journal, followed in Europe by a host of similar publications, attacked ideas of history that overemphasised the role of politics and the state at the expense of factors like geography, economics and social mores. More recently, feminist and ethnic history renewed the discipline on the basis of a comparable but differently-oriented criticism.

Finally, the last important question is temporality, meaning how time itself is represented and understood. Breaking a continuity that went as far back as the Classical Age, modern and especially postmodern trends have questioned the traditional, diachronic representation of history as a sequence of successive events occurring on a single timeline. Instead, writers like Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre pioneered the idea that different timelines had to be conceptualised separately in order to produce coherent accounts of the past, leading to the (variously interpreted) theory of multiple histories. Postmodern writers — Hayden White, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard — would then radicalise these positions and claim that the past is merely a construct of the present, leading to the conclusion that history is indistinguishable from fiction.

This roughly summarises the key questions that any contemporary philosopher of history has to engage with. Now, what do games bring to the equation?

i.) Playing with the past: how games stimulate, expand and provoke

Unlike films and books, games don’t really have an established genre for period drama; titles that are simply set in a particular historical period, like the Assassins Creed series, the early Call of Duty titles, or the recent A Plague Tale: Innocence, are seldom categorised together, nor are they the object of this article.

Instead, the sort of titles that I am interested in are those which aspire to represent and to an extent even simulate historical periods and/or forces. These games fall almost without exception under the larger umbrella of strategy games. How do they work? Typically, a game will give players control not of a character but of a faction: this may be a family, a tribe, a city, a kingdom, a nation-state, a culture, or a civilisation. The faction is then placed in a spatially delimited arena alongside a number of other factions and expected to prevail by competing over resources, physically destroying their rivals, attaining certain objectives, or in other ways — the victory conditions vary considerably depending on the game. Players can interact with the environment and with their competitors through multiple virtual agents (armies, heroes, buildings, settlements), which also provide the ability to spawn other agents and expand the player’s options for interaction.

An important distinction: for all of their remarkable variety, these games are always either abstract or concrete representations of history. Abstract products are characterised by randomly generated maps containing relatively sparse objects which represent cities and armies symbolically. Examples include the Age of Empires and Civilization series. Developers will draw from historical periods to furnish a competitive ludic structure, but the structure itself does not attempt to reproduce real societies from the past. They are therefore less a representation of historical periods than of the forces that are understood to be at work in defining said period: types of military confrontation, technological ages, modes of economic production.

Historical games whose representation is concrete, on the other hand, will draw their maps from the real world and generally do their best to realistically represent how certain parts of a society worked. I say ‘certain parts’ because these games usually have a theme, which designers consciously develop at the expense of other parts of their representation. Thus, the Patrician series is entirely about trade and economics in the Hanseatic League, and does not allow players to recruit an army, while the Total War series centres its mechanics on the military aspects of history, with only a fairly rudimentary economic system.

There is no doubt an interesting debate to be had on whether abstract historical games qualify as historical representations at all, or whether they should be seen as ordinary strategy games with no more than a historical flavour. I would argue that they do qualify, and that the very uncertainty surrounding this question is indicative of how games are reshaping old ideas about history.

To elaborate on the above: the specific paradigm that abstract games clash against is that historical events are by definition utterly individual, unique, even monistic. Indeed the fact that objects and phenomena in this academic discipline could never be replicated was the basis on which the emerging academic schools of the 19th Century separated history from the natural sciences, in spite of the former’s precise methodology and strict, empirical criteria. Yet an abstract historical game forces our imagination to consider history stripped of the notion of individuality: historical constants remain, but events and contingencies, down to the very shape of the world in which these civilisations interact, are randomly generated.

The implications are not entirely without precedent. Marxism, along with several pre-modern traditions, was characterised by a fascination with the idea of historical laws, and to a great extent this is what these games are all about. A title like Civilization VI proposes that history is infinite randomness contained within finite parameters, and these parameters are largely defined by the resources available or the sequentiality of certain developments (the press cannot be invented if writing has not been discovered). The representation of Civilization VI is in certain ways a bridge between Marxist historical materialism and mathematical chaos theory.

Concrete historical games are much more obviously historical representations, although their degree of reliability does vary. The studio Paradox Interactive is famous for producing some of the most sophisticated and punctilious simulations of past eras. I describe them as historical simulations very self-consciously, and aware that the developers themselves may resist the definition (or rather, its heady implications). Yet games like Europa Universalis IV or Crusader Kings II are not only among the most complex videogames ever made, they are specially designed to constrain the player’s decision-making to historically plausible options. Declaring war, for example, is only permitted when a list of special conditions have been met which mirror the way past polities actually used to interact (you will need a claim on the land, a casus belli, and the appropriate diplomatic relations); absent these conditions, the player’s hands are tied.

I labour the point because the idea that historical periods and events can be simulated is completely new, and its consequences are portentous. We discussed causality as a cardinal question in modern historiography; simulation implies not only a new emphasis on but an unprecedented systematisation of the concept of cause and effect. Training the current generation to think in these terms might very well be the single most important contribution of gaming to a future philosophy of history. The idea is not far-fetched; note that mathematical simulations are already being employed in efforts to solve historical problems, if only quite timidly and occasionally.

Also new, and common to both abstract and concrete games, is the representation of temporality. Theorists of the historical discipline — Arthur C. Danto and Jerzy Topolski — have been categorical that a necessary quality of all historical representation is that it must take place from an external temporal locus. The historian is always a narrator, and as such removed from the time that s/he describes. But this is patently not the case for historical games. Not only is there no narrator (not even an implicit one, as the narrative of each game is not scripted), but there is synchronicity between the years and centuries that make up a historical period in a game and the few hours of a player’s experienced time.

One may be tempted to go with Danto and Topolski here and just dismiss the games: if they do not separate the times of the narrator and the narrative, then they simply aren’t historical representations. This may come down to personal preference, but it seems to me that what I said about abstract games is true also for concrete ones. The controversy says less about the quality of the medium than it does about its novelty.

The engagement of these games with history and its conceptual problems is undeniable, at least for products akin to those by Paradox. The fact that we do not yet have a critical apparatus equipped to respond to the new questions they raise should be a reason to draw them into the discussion, and certainly not to brush them aside.

ii.) Messing with the past: how games mislead, misrepresent and misunderstand

As much as historical videogames stimulate us to explore new avenues of thought, they also come loaded with their own unique drawbacks. I will explore a few of them in this part of the article.

For a start, the novelty that players possess agency within historical representation poses a wealth of ethical challenges which the industry has been reluctant to address. The sexual abuse of women in warfare and the slave trade are but two very obvious examples. A developer wishing to recreate the economy of ancient Rome, or one who gives players the option to loot a settlement, must either not include these systems of abuse (which is tantamount to pretending they never happened) or else offer the player the option of perpetrating them, potentially even being ‘rewarded’. Neither alternative is ethically satisfying.

Furthermore, as good as modern games are at expanding our horizons on causality and temporality, their approach to the question of selectivity is glaringly regressive. Historical games not only suffer from selective bias, they couch their bias in several layers of representation, each of which cloaks the next. The fact that these titles foreground the importance of geography (the basic interface is a map) exemplifies the point: on the surface, this seems like a correct application of the Annales lesson, according to which history is inextricably tied to geography (as well as to the other social sciences). In reality, players are more likely to be lulled into a false belief that the matter of geography has been accounted for without questioning the selective bias that went into said geographic representation (how, if at all, does the map in the interface account for terrain, weather, resources, fertility, flora and fauna, and so on?).

I will illustrate how serious the problem of selectivity is by looking at one game in greater detail, Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War (2004). As the title suggests, it sets out to represent the age of ancient Rome, with a heavy emphasis on the military side of things. This already reflects a selection performed by the developers, one that is of course very transparent.

If this first layer of selection is mostly harmless for being so clearly stated, the second is decidedly more subtle. As the game places all factions (Romans, Gauls, Greeks, etc.) on the same map and has them compete on the same terms, they appear to be ‘equal’ but for the few military units and buildings that distinguish them. However, having different groups all playing by the same rules means that the game fails to account for the theory of ‘multiple histories’, and risks misleading players into thinking that the ancient Britons can be understood within the same conceptual framework as the ancient Egyptians.

This, in turn, leads us to the third layer of selection: not only does Rome: Total War shoehorn all factions into a conceptual framework which is unfit to sustain them, it then reorients that framework to reflect a specifically Roman understanding of the world. Thus, the groups making up the Greek civilisation are aptly split into the ‘Greek cities’, ‘Macedon’, and ‘Pontus’, reflecting the close relationship that the Hellenic world enjoyed with Rome. But the tribes on the Iberian peninsula are aggregated into a single faction called ‘Spain’ (from the Latin term Hispania), which radically falsifies the plurality of the original inhabitants of the territory. The Basques, the Turdetanians, the Lusitanians and the Celtiberians did not belong to a single civilisation like the Greeks, and yet Rome: Total War represents them that way (and names them after a term that was never theirs) while awarding far greater internal differentiation to the Greeks. This is simply inaccurate.

Some of the problems I described are inherent to the medium of gaming: however hard one may work to distinguish historical groups (and I want to make it clear that some developers do work very hard on that issue), the final representation must always run on a single game engine, so ‘multiple histories’ will never really be an applicable concept. Other problems have to do with the fundamentally commercial nature of the videogame industry: products as sophisticated and expensive as modern strategy games must privilege topics that will appeal to the interest of consumers and provide an experience that caters to their demands. Clearly it is not enough for them to be historically accurate, they must also be ‘fun’ (a term that remains among the most hotly-disputed and controversial in game criticism, but let us gloss).

It’s important to note that the commercial interests behind games are, in a sense, an expression of a problem that academics have long since recognised: there can be no such thing as neutral, interest-free history. But this agenda is also noteworthy because it separates games from the strict methodological criteria that define history in academia. The most likely grounds on which someone may reject these games as valid forms of historical representation lies precisely in their divorce from the professionalism which has characterised the discipline since Ranke.

At the cost of stating the obvious, a characteristic of historical games is that they do not take themselves (and therefore history) completely seriously. Arguably the single oldest constant in the discipline, one which stretches all the way back to Thucydides, is the need to separate truth from myth. This is hardly a preoccupation for videogame developers: the Age of Empires historical games expanded their series with a title called Age of Mythology that introduced gods and heroes, while the upcoming Total War instalment will be set in the period of the Trojan War and draw abundantly from the Homeric epics. Historical games do not often shift from history to myth, but when they do, the transition is remarkably casual.

And therein lies the strength of these games as well as their weakness. The same freedom that allows games to blaze paths towards new philosophies of history also riddles them with unique conceptual shortcomings that could further misunderstanding and prejudice. Any study of this new medium must take into account this dualism or fall victim of its own selective bias.

iii.) Conclusion: the phenomenology of history and games

In looking at causality, selectivity and temporality, I have of course simplified the very complex field of modern historiography. Among the most important issues that I overlooked was that along with the idea of history, we must also consider the locus where such an idea is being deployed.

In other words, there is a difference between the practice of history and the philosophy of history. The two things do not necessarily go hand in hand, nor do they conceive of their common object in the same way. There is a distinct academic divide between figures like Georg Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jacques Derrida on the one hand, and Leopold von Ranke, Jules Michelet and Fernand Braudel on the other. As well, we should be wary of assuming that because an argument became popular on one side of the barricade, that it was automatically accepted on the other (the postmodern equivalence between history and fiction, for example, never gained much traction among practising historians).

Yet one thing that binds the philosophy and the practice of history is that both disciplines were ‘professionalised’ in the age of academic reform that we discussed at the outset. Thus, they share a common distance with a looser popular experience of history, which in its various forms is the result of an incredibly complex combination of cultural confounders: statues and monuments, sites and museums, political and religious discourse, films and books, down to idiomatic expressions embedded in the very language we use.

The point I’m driving at is that understanding the phenomenology of historical discourse is key to understanding what an ‘idea of history’ is and how it works. In this sense, perhaps no recent phenomenon has been as significant as the emergence of an online historical discourse that is neither professionally organised, like philosophy and practical history, nor scattered and formless, like most of its popular manifestations are. Vibrant communities with no academic backing coalesce around forums on Reddit, channels on YouTube, groups on Facebook and Twitter, and projects on Patreon in which everyone shares a deep interest in the study of the past. The frequent overlap between these different groups forms an intangible historical network that involves hundreds of thousands of people and which has neither institutional nor popular equivalent.

What makes historical games so important is that they are perhaps the single most powerful constant traversing this entire network. Not only do all of these online groups link and interact with each other through games, the gaming industry itself reaches back out to them: when the studio Creative Assembly finished work on their title Rome II: Total War, they sponsored Extra History (a YouTube series that, incidentally, branched out from a gaming channel) to produce an episode on the Punic Wars. The aim was publicity, clearly, but it is striking just how oblique CA’s marketing strategy was: they promoted their game by promoting the historical period in which it is set.

This highlights the fact that historical games are not a pastime for a niche or an elite, but a new medium that is embedded in a vast, novel form of historical discourse which involves far too many people to be ignored. Furthermore, as we have seen, these games are so radically innovative in their format that they leave us no option but to rethink several of the old paradigms. Any future critical apparatus that fails to accommodate videogames therefore runs the risk of rapidly becoming obsolete. And history, this much we know for certain, is seldom kind to the obsolete.

Writer, Berlin-based.

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