Gaming History

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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 Catangrand 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.[5]

The most well-known and longest lasting example of such games is the Civilization series. The Civ games, however, make no claim towards historical accuracy.[6] The games developed by Paradox Interactive do—sometimes in an almost over the top sort of way—and this is where questions of historical agency become most interesting.

Crusader Kings II (CK2) allows a player to take control of the ruling patriarch or matriarch of one of the reigning dynasties of the Mediterranean basin during the medieval period, roughly from 867 to 1453.[7] All characters in CK2, taking a cue from roleplaying games, have traits, from “zealous” and “brave” to “envious” and “lustful,” which provide key bonus and penalties. The core gameplay revolves around gaining and managing positive traits and avoiding negative ones. These traits impact virtually every other aspect of the simulation—one’s economy, how much territory a ruler can personally control, how much other characters within the game approve of one another, etc.[8] Virtually all aspects of human experience within CK2 are reliant on this system.[9]

The vision of historical agency presented by Crusader Kings 2 is deeply personal, a simulated “great man” history that most modern historians will find distasteful. Great kingdoms and empires rise and fall, largely, on the character of their ruler. Have a queen who is “brave,” “diligent,” or, above all, a “genius?” Then you’re golden but, if your ruler’s son lacks those traits, prepare to watch your foolishly spent thirty-plus hours of “work” vanish into tears and pixelated agony. The central causal agent of history, then, is the individual. Political, economic, or social forces may impact the agent but, in the end, history is in his or her hands.

This is somewhat complicated by how CK2 models religion and gender. It is through religion that the game comes to include non-elites.[10] Common people will rebel against rulers who do not share their faith or appear to be in favor of their particular religious variant. Managing these possible outcomes is an ongoing concern but one that remains individualized. The specific choices of the player’s dynast are the central crux by which the religious systems within the game work.

Crusader Kings II is most interesting in that it chooses to actually work patriarchy into the core of gameplay and make it the central factor in the simulated lives of its female characters.[11]Dynasties with female heads will find themselves facing discrimination from male monarchs and men at court. To acknowledge the key role of marriage alliances in medieval politics, rulers gain benefits (and penalties) from their spouse. Female members of the court are central to the game’s “plot” mechanic—which allows the player to assassinate rivals, seize property from vassals, and other dastardly things. All this, however, remains focused on the level of individual action.

The historical agent, then, in Crusader Kings 2 is above and beyond all else the individual.  The “great man.”

On the surface the vision of historical agency presented by Europa Universalis IV (EU4) is much more palpable for most modern historians. EU4 focuses on the early modern period, between 1453 and 1823 and the simulation’s modus operandi is for the player to manage political economy and diplomacy of a particular society—from international trade, central banking, alliance systems, and the slave trade.[12] The individual ruler and dynasty is traded for the nation-state as the unit of player control. Things, above all the economy, that were pushed into the background in CK2 are brought to the fore here. At the same time, however, the player has less direct control over all of these forces than in CK2.

This is best seen in how EU4 treats religion. Spiritual conflicts, like in Crusader Kings 2, play a key role in the game’s simulation. The way EU4 models religion, however, is much more complex and outside of the player’s direct control. The religious turmoil of the early modern period, such as the Protestant Reformation, is on full display and the subsequent political and social turmoil is fully modeled. One of the central dilemmas of EU4 is how to manage this—should your nation-state move toward religious tolerance or toward cultural and spiritual conformity? Yet full mastery of these systems remains out of the total control of the player. Put another way, in Europa Universalis IV, the Reformation is coming for you and there’s only so much you can do about it.

The same can be said for the game’s other mechanics—from the international economy to military affairs. Like in all simulations, aspects of the complexities of human civilization are simplified and abstracted. In Crusader Kings II this is done to put personal agency front and center. That game’s dynasts are the masters of their particular corner of the universe. That is not the case with how historical agency is handled within Europa Universalis IV. A player, instead, often feels like they are riding in a vehicle that they can’t entirely control. Sure you might be able to steer some or maybe slow the damnable thing down in the margins but in the end its final destination isn’t entirely under your control. Historical agency in CK2 is abstracted to show how the player’s choices influence the historical simulation. The opposite is true in EU4. The game is designed show how the constraints of historical simulation limit the player.

The sheer Eurocentrism of EU4’s vision of historical agency, however, is something most modern historians will find deeply troubling. That particular facet is baked in the game’s very title. The central historical actors of the simulated drama presented by Europa Universalis IV are Europeans; there is no way around this. The game nominally allows you to play as most states or societies of the period, from the Powhatans of Virginia to the Ashikaga shogunate of Japan. Cultures and polities outside of the Mediterranean basin, however, are modeled in much less depth and offer much less to a player than their European counterparts.[13] This extends even to China, an inarguable early modern political, cultural, and economic heavyweight. [14]

Colonization, along with religion, is one of the key themes of Europa Universalis IV and it is within the colonization system that the game’s Eurocentrism is cast into sharp relief.[15] Native peoples are reduced to two variables: “aggressiveness” and “ferocity.” This does not even begin to model the complexities of the interaction between aboriginal peoples and would-be European colonizers. For a game which simulates the intricacies of the European politics, trade, and military scene so well this is a particularly awful disappointment.[16]

As I see it, then, the visions of historical agency presented by Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV are deeply flawed. CK2 presents history as the story of great men and their families, which modern scholarship long ago revealed to be hollow, and sidelines much of the complexity of the medieval world in service of that design decision to put individual agency front and center. Europa Universalis IV avoids this trap and produces a vision of historical agency that is multipolar and much more interesting—players’ decisions are much more both shaped and shaping the historical simulation than in Crusader Kings II. EU4 does, however, have a troubling Eurocentric vision of whose historical agency is most important to model.

As strategy games both are great successes. They present themselves as more than just games, however. [17]  As historical simulations both Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV seek to capture (at least some) of the nuances of both the medieval and early modern periods. Each game tries, and often succeeds, at treating its historical settings as more than just window dressing. That is what makes their visions of historical agency both so fascinating and troubling to me. Each reproduces a flawed and outdated vision of what historical actors and forces matter.

This is not a matter of research or detail. In many ways both games are as researched and detailed as one could ask.[18]  My concerns are a matter of interpretation. How should the able research by Paradox Interactive’s designers be deployed? How do conceptions of whom and what historical actors are fit within game design?  How can the current scholarly consensus on these questions inform the decisions made by game designers?

These are open questions. While I do believe that the answers provided by Paradox Interactive’s latest offerings are flawed, there is an interesting discussion of how history can best be represented in gaming—strategy or otherwise—out there waiting to happen.[19] I hope that this, and the several previous posts the Junto covering relating issues, might just spark such a dialogue between designers, gamers, and historians.

[1] We are living, in some ways, during the golden age for the pop-cultural cache of history and, particularly, “alternate history.” From the AC series, the continuing grow of “historical fiction” as a publishing genre, the faux-Medieval trappings of Game of Thrones, the campy playfulness of Sleepy Hollow, and the upcoming show on AMC about the American Revolution, historical settings are more and more being put to use in our popular fictions. Such works allow us to ask key historiographical questions, such as, what if George Washington was part of a vast network battling cosmic evil and what if the War of the Roses involved dragons and snow-zombies?

[2] And space aliens. The secret societies of the AC series can stand in for competing ideologies. The historical vision presented by the series is very dualistic.

[4] For an example, see: Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (Fall 2003): 113–124.

[5] As anyone who has ever played a complex board game, even a more accessible one like Axis & Allies, knows setting up such games often takes longer than the playing them.

[6] Most versions of Civilization begin the game with a “randomized” world whose terrain and climate do not match that of our planet. You can, of course, play the game on “Earth-like” maps.

[7] An upcoming expansion will allow the game to include medieval India as well.

[8] Successful playthroughs, then, require the player to launch an aggressive royal eugenics program.

[9] Economic management, for example, largely just consists of making sure ones “stewardship” trait is high and constructing economic buildings. And conquering things, of course.

[10] CK2 simulates the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) with a great deal of success and non-monotheisms with much less success.

[11] The presence of patriarchy is actually, and strangely, refreshing because CK2 actually tries to model its impact on female characters. Most video games, when they include female characters at all, try and sidestep patriarchy in ways that end up reinforcing patriarchal norms more than trying to tackle the issue head on.

[12] The slave trade can also be ended by the player. This raises all kinds of questions about agency.

[13] There is also discrimination within European societies. “Lucky” states such as France, Portugal, Spain, and Britain get useful bonuses that give them a leg up. This feature can be disabled, however.

[14] You suffer a steep technology penalty when playing non-European societies. African and indigenous American societies have the worst penalties, while the Ottoman Empire and Chinese have the more manageable ones.

[15] The first expansion to EU4 revamps many of these systems and promises to add more depth to both the colonization system and the ability to play as Native Americas. I have not had the ability to play EU4: Conquest of Paradise but if readers are interested I will gladly discuss the expansion in a future post.

[16] The colonization system also fails a game mechanic. The whole process is extremely boring.

[17] In total hours I have spent somewhere in the upper range of two or three weeks playing both games. So, yeah, I think they are great successes as games.

[18] This is particular true of the genealogies of historical characters in Crusader Kings 2 which are about as detailed as one could possible ask.

[19] Considering, as I note above, we are living in history’s popular culture moment if such a discussion is ever going to happen it has to happen now.

16 responses

  1. I’ve only played a few hours’ worth of the CK2 demo, so I could be very wrong here, but my feeling was that the interesting thing about it is the *lack* of power granted to the player/”great man”. In games like Civilization or Age of Empires, the player has a god-like power to control everything about his/her empire (Jacobin published an interesting meditation on that effect quite recently: But in CK2 everything “you” can do, it seems to me, is bound up with the personal relationships you have with relatives, subordinates, and superiors in the feudal hierarchy. This might just be because I’m rubbish at it, but when I was playing it I had a surprising sense of vulnerability and impotence–most of the progress of history was just out of my control. That seemed like a more realistic experience of being a medieval ruler than what you get in Civ, AoE, or other excellent games like Medieval: Total War.

    • Thanks for the comment, Tom!

      You are right that the vision of agency in CK2 is much more constrained than in most such games – Civ, AoE, et al. The difference, I think, is that none of those games (save the Total War series) really claim to be historical simulations or have any aim towards historical “accuracy.” The historical trappings of those games are just that.

      The exception is the Total War series. Which perhaps deserves its own post. Total War: Empire, in particular.

      The more and more I play CK2 (which I have for an unholy number of hours) the more and more I’m struck just how much the game boils down to shaping a “great man” and his rule. So much of the games’ mechanics are tied into your ruler’s stats that it one’s entire success can largely be attributed to your dynast’s character. As much as the player’s agency is often constrained (which does add to the realism and makes the game much more fun) the whole game sometimes boils down to a morality play of the sort that would make many a 19th century historian or Presidential biographer swoon. The structuralist in me rages against this.

      Thanks again for the comment (and the link to the Jacobin piece… it link very interesting & I’ve got it queued up to read soon).

  2. Roy, what about when you add the DLC (Downloadable Content) to the mix?

    For the non-gamers out there, offering DLC is a business model whereby game developers can help sustain interest by tweaking the basic premises of the game itself.

    I think the DLC (especially Conquest of Paradise) does an adequate job adding depth to the game’s treatment of Native Americans. It’s quite fun to create a Pequot Empire in New England. Furthermore, the game designers did an excellent job with the map of the new world – territories are based off of the names of local tribes (for example: Narragansett instead of Rhode Island) instead of names given by European conquerors.

    As an aside, I think the game does a relatively poor job simulating the military revolution and keeping pace with historical developments. For example, EU 4 begins in 1444, right at the beginning of the Franco-Burgundian introduction of lighter, more mobile cannon. However, it takes decades (of game time) to research the military technology necessary just to get Medieval-style bombards. Furthermore, countries (*cough* England *cough*) do not even start with Longbow technology. Thus, every technological advance is a game of catch-up in comparison to actual historical developments.

    • Andrew, thanks for the comment!

      I have yet to play the latest EUIV expansion. I have tried to be “good” and not buy it until I have at least cleared some of my gaming backlog. I won’t bore you with the details but I spent too much of spare incoming indulging my gaming habit.* From what I’ve read about “Conquest of Paradise,” you’re very correct. It simulates the colonial experience much more accurately. You are also right about the map of North America. I do fight the province names very refreshing from most games.

      Technological development in EU4 is very weird, as you note. None of the Paradox games simulation this aspect of historical change well at all. The system in EU4 is certainly better than the oblique one in CK2 but none the less does not really model technological change very well.

      Thinking about it now, does any video game do this well? My instincts tell me that technological shifts are so complex it would very different for designers to come up with a model that is both fun and anywhere near historically accurate.

      *this is another way of saying I will buy the expansion during the Steam spring sale.

  3. Great post, Roy. I’ve fiddled with CKII a bit, but this motivates me to try the new Europa. I think you did a nice job of comparing these games to Civ. I think this line really sums up what it is like to play Paradox games: “A player, instead, often feels like they are riding in a vehicle that they can’t entirely control.”

    I share your hope about encouraging better connections between developers and historians. I hope that essays like this one help to build those connections. In the contact that I’ve had with gamers and developers through History Respawned, I’ve been really encouraged by the amount that these groups want more history in their games – especially in traditional history games like Civ and CK/Europa.

    • Thanks for the comment, “Footman.”

      I actually haven’t played much of Victoria II. I bought it ages ago during a Steam sale but haven’t really dug into the game. Your comment (and another on our Facebook page) are making reconsider that choice!

      Thanks again for commenting!

  4. My own involvement in historical gaming was mostly back in the 1970s, when historical war games that, as you say, took up more time to set up than to play, were in vogue. Although they became increasingly ambitious and complex, modeling political, economic, and social forces as well as military ones, they remained abstractions, and hence offered only limited lessons about history. For a historian’s perspective, often the most valuable part of these games were the designer’s notes explaining the reasons for the historical structure used.

    I think the broader issue is that it is difficult to map agency in history into agency in games. The game player by design usually has clear goals and knowledge of the system, and is presumably not stupid or irrational, while partaking of contemporary values. Imposing THAT on a historical situation and agents leads to all sorts of problems. You yourself allude to one: what if the game agent chooses a course that did not occur in history? How much should a game be designed to make that difficult? Can we model what happens afterwards realistically?

    • Thanks for the comment, Brian!

      You raise a lot of interesting questions about relationship between history as historians conceive it and how history can be modeled with a game (virtual or here in meatspace). It is really hard to model historical agency with in a game, something that became increasingly obvious to me as I plotted out this post. I hope our work here on the Junto can help begin a dialogue on these sort of questions.

      Another wrinkle here is that half of the appeal of these sorts of games is the ability to “break” history – to create your own alternate timeline. To say, fully restore the Roman Empire as the Byzantines. (You raise this a bit yourself) Game designers must be able to accommodate this as well as trying to model actual historical developments. Which leads to more complications.

      Again, thanks for the comment!

  5. Hello, great article !
    Well in your situation, I would really advise you to play Victoria 2 (with both expansions, they really are mandatory and the New Nations Mod that adds a lot of interesting mechanics).
    It’s my favorite PDS game for the simple reason that I find it a lot more historically realistic, or at least accurate, than CK2 or EU4.
    Not that much because of the original setting but because of the way the changes of the game’s time period (1836-1936, so mostly colonization, industrialization and revolutions) are modeled in game. An exemple : instead of having one set religion and one set culture for each province, every individual, with his culture, religion, profession, political ideology … etc is represented by the POP system (basically every person on earth is indirectly represented).
    You couldn’t say the game is euro-centric (countries such as China, Japan or Brazil are quite polished and very interesting to play) neither that it focuses too much on ‘Great Men’ (there are in fact no characters in the game apart from military leaders).
    The only flaw it could have is the lack of true in-depth diplomacy, a few inaccuracies and a trouble for the game engine to really model well the last period of the game (i.e. modern warfare and ideologies in the 1920’s and 1930’s).

    Try it out and compare it to the others !

    (Hearts of Iron 3 is also good, but less a nation-building game than a plain in-depth wargame)

    • Thanks for the comment, VicAceR.

      All of these suggests that I play Victoria II are well-taken. Soon I will try and find the time to dive into the game in depth and report back.

      Thanks again for the suggest & the comment!

  6. EU4: Conquest of Paradise doesn’t really change natives that much. They get additional mechanics so it’s more interesting to play as them, but it’s not much easier. What I mean that while Europeans get new technologies and national ideas American Natives build cheap special buildings, create federations and get their own sort-of-national-ideas. They still have no chance of developing without Europeans, they just have more things to do and their own little world for some time.

    Also, you seem to be wrong about the China and Japan representation. They have more flavour than most European countries, their own special game mechanic and can be on par with Europeans by the end even in hands of an average player.

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