From Katya: Previously, we’ve have gaming episodes on direct violence in video games (I stab/shoot/punch/explode/magic the enemy.) This time we want to turn to another common theme in gaming: empire.
Risk, Command and Conquer, Axis and Allies and other strategy games— analog and digital — allow players to command armies waging war, claiming/reclaiming territory, to, explicitly or implicitly, colonize the globe. Most emphasize martial power over political events (how big is your army and how good is your strategy, and the legitimacy of the player’s crusade typically goes unquestioned.) Even in games where civilization building is less central the control of land is often of a theme of of video games.
On previous episodes we’ve talked about the idea that games teach through interactive learning and procedural rhetoric. To recap briefly, playing a game requires learning a system of rules and procedures. These rules— and strategies developed in response to them— become part of the player’s body of knowledge and may influence how they view aspects of their life outside of the game. Following that logic, playing games where we direct vast armies and build empires influences how we think of empires themselves and their legitimacy. Games that give us positive associations— like the pleasure of power or control— may suggest to players that colonization itself is positive. These pleasures also replicate many of the reasons why colonization and empire was practiced in the first place. Could, then, games of empire in a contemporary context be a source of critical commentary? Or does it just normalize empire again?
Below, Hannah has an example of why representations of empire in gaming can be challenging to create responsibly. We’ll get more into it in the show but for now, why do gamers find playing at empire (broadly construed, I’d argue that The Sims has much of the same appeal of control albeit in a vastly different context) entertaining? Are their consequences— positive or negative— to simulations of empire and colonization? Why does Katya remember the Tesla coils of Red Alert so fondly and what does that say about her inner psyche?
From Hannah: Because I study the nineteenth century, when I think of “empire” I think of the British empire. When we think of the nineteenth century, we may tend to imagine life in England as if we were in a Jane Austen BBC mini-series (or Dickens, if we move to the city). I suspect those who have dreamed of living in this era (I am not one) do so because of sweeping romances against the landscape of sprawling country estates and polite teas. What may be forgotten (and has too often been ignored by critics) is the violence of empire that shaped the nineteenth century. As Nathan Hensley has said of the Victorian period in his relatively recent book Forms of Empire, “There were at least 228 separate conflicts at least one every year during Queen Victoria’s reign; usually more.” These included declared wars, as well as “asymmetrical conflicts, punitive campaigns, rebellions put down by sword and musket…”
As we discussed in episode fifty-two, even games that are not directly about building empire like Civilization are still reinforce its values. Historical games like the Jane Austen Regency RPG Good Society ask you to play as the very people who benefited from the erasure of culture, the forcible taking of land, the destruction of national economies — among other forms of violence. Empire is inherently violent, and yet it’s the very that allows you, as a Regency player, to go to balls, conduct your tea parties, and maintain your vast estates. The game ignores empire (at least in its original form), but ignoring it is not any better than directly addressing it like the other examples we’ve given do. The aftershocks of the British empire are still felt today, so in separating the violence from the romance in our gameplay, we’re merely repeating imperial logic that allowed Austen’s society to function.
If most games about empire are about recreating the militaristic conditions required to create them or, like Good Society, they choose to ignore the ethical-political implications of empire, what do we have left? Are there games that have found different ways to explore empire that push back on these types of narratives? Given that empire isn’t even considered a “bad” thing — a large percentage of Britons view it positively — (it definitely is, to be clear) for many people in the west, what does that mean for these games?