The Casual Fascism of Strategy Games
Unleashing the inner Führer for fun and victory!
By MARTIN REZNY
Whether they’re real-time or turn based, realistic or speculative, most popular strategy games share something in common, and I’m quite sure it has very little to do with some sort of thought or intention. While I don’t subscribe to the “games ruin our children” camp, looking at strategy games as a political scientist does get a bit scary, and maybe there’s room for some rethinking.
I like playing strategy games, I really do. I don’t even know how many hours I have dumped into StarCraft, Heroes of Might and Magic, or Master of Orion, and many more famous series or standalone examples. But lately, there’s a critique I’ve been sitting on for a while that no one seems to be noticing, so I suppose this will be another of my explorations of outer limits of game design.
First, what I mean by fascism. In the political science circles there’s a bit of a controversy surrounding the precise definition of the term, which I have experienced firsthand when instead of answering a question on a rigged test, I have called my teacher a cryptofascist, along with the rest of the academic establishment of my faculty department. And I still don’t think I was wrong.
However, multiple different definitions and their interpretations can be valid simultaneously, so here’s a broad basic list of some of the elements that one may associate with fascism as either an established political regime, or a set of ideas about how to organize a society or ascribe values to things:
- CHARISMATIC ALL-POWERFUL LEADER (Führer)
- TOTAL SOCIAL CONTROL (Totality)
- XENOPHOBIA/SUPERIORITY COMPLEX (Racism)
- EXPANSIONISTIC IMPERIALISM (Lebensraum)
- ELITISM AND FUTURISM (Progress)
Can you see the problem right away? If not, let’s start from a different question: Do you think or feel that most of these are good things? If yes, well, I hope you’re not planning on getting elected, own a gun license, or live near me. If not, then let me ask you another question, and try thinking about it: Is there a way in which you can say that strategy games aren’t based on this ideology?
The list above is by no means complete, but I assure you it is not cherrypicked, it is representative. Starting from the top, the figure of an absolute leader who is the paragon of an entire race or supposedly god-like, having total control over every aspect of the regime that he or she can manage to micromanage, is the fundamental pillar of precisely this specific form of political organization.
This one I suppose is the most understandable from a gaming perspective, much like the predominance of violence in most types of popular games. The big hook of games as opposed to other media is first-person fulfillment of a power fantasy, having one’s choices directly affect the outcome of a story or control a situation. In the real world, that kind of behavior would be violence.
Why? Because in order to show to yourself that you have power, you generally have to do it against some sort of opposition, whether it’s nature, a rival, or a whole group of people or creatures. Unless you cooperate, arrive at some sort of compromise, or accomplish your goals by persuasion, whatever you have done was a form of violence, forcing your will upon an other. Heck, some thinkers consider even persuasion a form of violence.
It’s much simpler and more straightforward to design a game that way, too, particularly in the strategy genre. If your orders weren’t always obeyed, if you had important aspects of your war machine or industry have a mind of their own, if your own people could depose you fairly easily, or if you had to play from multiple perspectives at the same time, it would complicate things.
The only kind of strategy games that I have seen to seriously address the realistic complications of executive power were political simulators, such as the Democracy series, but those seem far removed from fantasy or science fiction settings. One solution taken from similar games could work though, treating political will (ability to make executive decisions) as a resource.
Much like in the case of mana, it could be a certain reservoir of points that regenerate in time (or through specific actions or accomplishments), which allow the leader to issue orders that will be obeyed (at least mostly or with a good chance of success), much like a spellcaster would cast spells. This way, being an effective leader would serve as means for attaining more power.
But that addresses only the core fascist concept, with many more still left intact. Perhaps even more fundamentally in sci-fi and fantasy games than in realistic simulators, totality of society combined with racist (or speciesist) attitude wrongly normalize the idea that groups of beings are naturally entirely homogeneous. Even in terms of writing, this is dumb one-dimensionality.
Again, this is just easy and convenient in terms of writing and game design, which explains why it’s common, and some inspiration on how to fix it can be found in the political simulator strategies. One mechanic that can be used to address this are issues and focus groups. Every time you make a decision, it affects different segments of your population differently along many lines.
Some policies affect gender the most, some affect more different age groups, or like in the case of outright racist policies, groups based on something as superficial as appearance. It is feasible to design a strategy game in such a way that you may affect availability of units or functioning of your economy through trade-off decisions that will make you a socially conscious ruler.
If you look beyond your own little Reich, then there’s the issue of dealing with others. I’m a little ashamed to say that my favorite genre of strategy games is the turn based 4X, and in case you’re wondering, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate are the final three Xs, with the only un-fascist step being the initial eXploration. Let’s look at what these offer in diplomacy.
As many gamers and game reviewers have undoubtedly joked before, the (in)famous non-aggression treaties never last. Given that the victory objectives are usually predicated on achieving some form of supremacy over others, peace treaties of any kind generally serve only to delay the inevitable military conquest, or at least violent confrontation over access to resources.
From the games that I’ve played extensively, the shining example of making the classical 4X competitive game have a peaceful solution would be Master of Orion II, where you can decide to play toward a victory in galactic elections. For that to happen, you need not only to maintain peaceful relations by not even appearing to be expansionist, but also numerous cooperation treaties.
And I believe that cooperative game modes would be exactly what doctor ordered, more win-win game aspects instead of everything being resource driven zero-sum competition. Winning objectives can also reflect achieving mastery of any number of things where the competition is indirect, like in Endless Space where you can win simply by accomplishing transcension (look it up).
But even there, the creative pursuit of a race is made competitive by the resource requirement, which means that everything is driven in such strategy games by what Hitler constantly talked about, the acquisition of Lebensraum, the living space, which would be planets in sci-fi games or mines in fantasy games, or any form of loot/gear, really. Or, well, craven dumb materialism.
Which brings me to those cultural overtones of fascism that along with materialism do not automatically raise any red flags in our society, the elitism (geniuses, heroes, and other Führers make the world go round) and the futurism (the notion that we can construct better futures). Strategy games love these tropes, it’s all heroes and linear predetermined tech trees.
I personally think that we have the World War II to thank for our strategy game model. Not only was it mainly driven by fascists, it was the first time in the history of humanity when an organized military power truly understood the impact of technological innovation on warfare, and forced even its opponents to engage in war of innovation as well as conventional combat.
But even then, it’s important to note that there was no linear, pre-determined tech tree. Nobody knew what would really be effective, and I’m pretty sure that almost every idea would have been effective under some circumstances. While this can be addressed by a more branching and non-linear or even randomized tech tree which some games have attempted, it’s all illusionary.
The intentional control is the illusion. Once again, I can see how that may be a bit of a bummer game-wise, but if a strategy game were to be less fascist, it would be more about creating conditions for spontaneous organic emergence of shifts in the nature of the conflict, and the game would be more about responding, the creative adaptation, with the game itself being more meta.
In reality, you think you’re playing one game, and then the game changes on you, making all your linear progress in a singular direction potentially the instrument of your total undoing. This too could be done, if a game was in fact a number of different games using same objects, periodically or conditionally switching the rules: The relations between the objects and winning objectives.
Hm, I think that’s enough mind blowing for now. I guess what I’m trying to say is not that strategy games are evil, just that there’s a lot of unlocked potential that’s not being tapped, simply because nobody seems to have noticed how single minded strategy games have been for pretty much their whole existence. Until that changes, we can only play at being fascists.
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