How historical games neglect the stories they tell.
The strategy game. Not as glamorous and easy to digest as a shooter, or as full of mass-market appeal as a sports game, yet for a large amount of people when recalling their early days playing digital games it is images of StarCraft (1998) that float to the surface, whilst many others still cling to the memories of Age of Empires 2 (1999) on old CRT monitors (among others). Personally, the Civilization series by Sid Meier (2K Games) and the entire catalogue produced by Paradox Studios, typical examples of the 4X genre, resonate strongly. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the 4X game, here is a quick explanation thanks to TV-Tropes, but the basic principle of each game is the same. Explore the world, then expand your empire, exploit the world’s resources, and exterminate your opponents. Games inside the genre differ greatly, yet all share a lack of variety in one key area: how they depict society.
Humanity has only come together as a global society in modern times and before this we existed as many disparate groups who had little knowledge of one-another. Historically each differing society organised itself in quite different ways, from Medieval Europe through Caliphate Arabia and Imperial China to Shogunate Japan the people living in these times and places had different lifestyles in so many ways. However almost all historically set 4X games have done an abysmal job representing society as anything other than the Euro-centric, westernised ideal that is one of the traditional ‘great powers’ of the world — England, France, the USA, or Russia even. We have seen little attempt at representing society as it was for many people of the world; Native Americans, Indigenous Australians, the Steppe Nomads of Western Asia; peoples with vastly different ways of organising themselves. The representation of these people in games to date has seen the lacklustre molding of a ‘unique’ ability onto a bog-standard, centralised society focused around a city, far more applicable to a euro-centric description of humankind throughout history.
Looking at the big prominent pillars of historical strategy games, let us dive a little deeper into where these games go wrong and right.
Sid Meier’s Civilization is one of the most discussed game series in terms of its representation of society. The video above examines which peoples in our history count as a civilization in the games’ eyes, and PCGamer recently published an article about the inclusion of the Cree Native Americans as a Civilization. Let us however focus on the way in which societies are depicted in the games’ designs, for better or worse.
Since Civilization (1991) came out, the core gameplay of the series has not fundamentally changed. Some iterations have changed the map from squares to hexagons but throughout the journey from 1991 to Civilization VI (2016) the series has always revolved around a centralised state, consolidated in a modernistic city-like representation. Grow your city, produce military units, send settlers to found new cities, improve and work the land, and eventually research technology to build rockets and fly into the stars. The games are linear marches from primitive savagery to the technological marvel of civilised society. There are different peoples represented; Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Mongolians, Australians, Americans, but they all play the same.
Over time differences between the civilizations selectable in the series have developed. In the original game, the only differences were each nation’s visual design. Civilization III (2001) introduced modifiers for each nation, based around their perceived specialities — Rome, for example, was Militaristic & Commercial — allowing each nation to specialise into an area of the game’s mechanics. Civilization IV (2005) developed this into leader-specific unique traits and unique units such as the Samurai for Japan or Marines for the USA. Yet none of these changes made any nation drastically different from one another. Perhaps the closest the franchise has come was the much maligned iteration of Venice in Civilization V (2009), which restricted the player to one city — emulating how Venice was a powerful city-state that controlled the Eastern Mediterranean trade in the 12th to 17th centuries. This altered how players would approach the game and shifted gameplay away from expansion, yet the game still only had win states around military, technological, and cultural dominance, when Venice historically won-out over others economically.
This video below, by Adam Millard, describes in-depth how the racial and national choices in the 4X games Civilization, Stellaris (2016), and Endless Legend (2014) effect gameplay. Millard places Civilization into a niche as an “entry level” 4X game, and claims its lack of variety suits new players to the genre. He also touts the benefits of the other title’s systems, where Stellaris allows for fully-custom player-created races and Endless Legend has thoroughly fleshed out pre-written races; Millard proposes that both allow for more interesting and meaningfully different gameplay than Civilization.
Stellaris is one of Paradox Development Studio’s games, but they have a historical catalogue too. Crusader Kings II (2012) is a grand strategy 4X game, and follows on from the original which was released in 2004. It spans the period from approximately 700 CE to 1400 CE, a time of many different societies and peoples. However the main mechanical differences between different religions or cultures in the game are how the player’s character and demense relate to others, and what improvements you can make to your lands. Every realm has some sort of vassalage system, and all people are assumed to be sedentary, which is unfaithful to the nomadic lives of groups represented like the Seljuk Turks. The Mongol Invasion is represented by the arrival of a feudalistic nation with combat bonuses, not an accurate version of a large body of men on horseback destroying and pillaging all in their path.
Although strictly speaking no win state exists for Crusader Kings II, a common measurement of how well a player has done is by working out how much of the map they have ‘painted’ their country’s colour, as seen below. As a goal, this doesn’t represent the actual aims or ideals of almost any of the people that lived in this time period.
There were so many intriguing and different nations and peoples that existed throughout the periods spanned by Crusader Kings II and Civilization that don’t have appropriately different representations. In game terms, there are nations with different religions and cultures, which provide numeric penalties and modifiers in game but do not capture the nuance of how different these societies were.
These games do not go far enough in the gameplay changes they bring to the table. If we really examine how different groups of people organised themselves in history, it emerges that a centralised city-oriented state just doesn’t work as an interesting and appropriate representation of these people. Tribal societies like the Innu native people of Canada had councils of women who made decisions as to where the tribe would forage, travel, and interact with other groups of people. Nomadic groups such as the Papuans of New Guinea roamed around their lands, following the fauna as the moved. Theocracies such as the Papal States in medieval and early-modern Italy based their whole society about the furtherance of theological motives. Games should seek to represent these people in meaningful ways; gameplay should shift and demonstrate the differences each of these lifestyles had for the people who lived them.
Does this apply to only historical games? Well, no — these problems are prevalent in sci-fi and fantasy games in the genre too. Earlier videos have demonstrated how the Endless series by Amplitude Studios have provided a slightly better version of meaningful gameplay differences, but for the other end of successful execution in sci-fi we have a great example:
Spore (2008) by Maxis was meant to be the most revolutionary game in the 4X genre — in that it was a game of many genres and 4X was only one of them. Many other articles exist detailing exactly what Spore did wrong, but generally it tried to be many things at once and was very bad at most of them. For our concerns, I wish to examine the method Spore used to show how any and all creatures evolved: Each species in Spore evolved in a strictly linear progression from cell, to creature, to tribe, to city-state, to nation, to space-faring empire.
Left to right, Spore insisted that any and every possible path for one of the infinite beings you could create in its much-touted character customiser followed the same path. Sure, there was some minor variation between peaceful and militaristic beings but to say that of all the possible creatures to ever exist would develop in such a similar way was and is not only insulting to player’s intelligence, it’s hurtful to the intricate and fascinating development of the multitudes of different groups of humans in our history. Just because games are sci-fi or fantasy does not give them a free pass on variety, as these genres derive from historical examples.
Returning to Civilization as a yardstick, for this is the position it occupies for much of our industry, we need to understand why this representational issue exists. A clear path here are the origins of the game, and direct inspirations cited by Sid Meier himself. The board game Risk (1959) by Parker Brothers and Empire (1977) by Walter Bright are two key inspirations and explain a lot of the current structure behind Civilization.
Coming from the tabletop gaming tradition, Risk is all about very abstract states fighting one another, expanding their territory, and struggling to dominate the world. It does not place itself in any clear era of history, however many different fantastical and temporal variations do exist. The objective for Risk is to be the player controlling the most territory on the board, and this feeds quite clearly into the mechanical basis for Civilization and all 4X games. There is no differentiation between peoples or cultures on the earth in Risk and this comes off poorly when Civilization tries to implement a version of cultural simulation on top of Risk’s baseline colonial and expansionist objectives. Empire drew from Risk and expanded upon it, as it included different units and terrain on each play-through. However, Empire was fundamentally still the same war-game: players mobilise state-mandated forces to defeat other states, grow the biggest, and enforce their rule on the world.
Although being the forerunner for the 4X genre and a leader amongst strategy games, Civilization does not do everything perfectly. The way it represents many different factors of humankind’s history, as discussed very eloquently in Gaming History: A Framework for What Video Games Teach About the Past by Metzger and Paxton is better than no historical discussion and representation. Certainly critics believe the attempts at inclusivity the franchise makes are good, but they could be so much better in representing just how diverse humans have been in the past. Other games have taken steps in the right direction, but could push themselves even further. Summarised nicely by Eva Vrtačič in her paper The Grand Narratives of Video Games: Sid Meier’s Civilization, is this parting thought:
“[Civilization] reinforces enlightened ideals that celebrate reason and logic, presents the notion of progress as universal and unilineal, and portrays others as savages.”