Historical trappings are extremely popular with video game designers. The Assassin’s Creed (AC) series, for example, has made a great success of combining beautiful recreations of historical scenery with the sort of conspiracy fueled story lines that propel Dan Brown novels and the Nicolas Cage headed National Treasure series to the heights of popularity. The Assassin’s Creed games present a fascinating vision of historical agency, where historical change is explained through a hybrid of extreme individual agency—in the form of the game’s protagonist(s)—and the unending trans-historical battle between competing secret societies. This is a very cyclical vision of history. We (through the player character, Desmond Miles and his ancestors) can battle Evil but the struggle will repeat itself time after time.
As a historian and life-long gamer I find these aspects of my beloved hobby in turns fascinating, endearing, and befuddling. The question of agency—whom or what produces historical continuity and change—is one of the most contested and controversial philosophical and historiographical problems in my profession. Entire fields, such as the history of American slavery and abolition, have been riven by big-stakes arguments over such questions. Few things are better at sparking heated debate (and more than a few eye-rolls) than bringing up the “agency question” in a seminar room or at a conference.
Video game designers and writers wade into this intellectual battlefield in ways that will likely surprise and frustrate most historians. I want to explore how historical agency is represented in modern gaming by looking at two recent games from Paradox Interactive—Europa Universalis IV (2013) and Crusader Kings II (2012). Both are “grand strategy games,” a genre very different from Assassin’s Creed. Born out of war and strategy board games—from the old stand-by Risk to much more complex games like Settlers of Catan—grand strategy games allow the player to take control of a nation-state, cultural group, or civilization and shape its future. To make matters more interesting, a video game allows many more facets of the human experience to be modeled than a board game does. Continue reading