Call for Comments: Gaming an Empire

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.

Civilization VI

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?

9 Comments and 1 Webmention for “Call for Comments: Gaming an Empire”

  1. I have a ridiculous number of things I can say on this topic, but I am going to start with the obvious starting place: Civilization.

    Looking at the Civ series, I would agree that the original games pretty much focused on military conquest. But, I believe that was primarily due to the limitations of the software at the time. In the original game, both a science victory and World Congress victory were technically possible, but there was no meaningful way to complete either without near total world domination. And at the highest difficulties, pure military strategies were the only option for winning.

    As sequels were released, though, technology permitted more options and military, while always possible, became less of a focus. In Civ VI you can legitimate win with a cultural, science, military, or diplomatic victory (I think I missed one). Each culture excels in specific category and there are many legitimate strategies (depending on culture) that involve minimal military might and minimal expansion.

    I truly believe that the current incarnation of Civilization is the game that Sid Meier wanted to make when he first created the game. I don’t think it is an accident that world conquest has been constantly de-emphasized in every sequel and that every board game adaption has also de-emphasized world conquest with each iteration.

    1. Building on that, the OP mentions board games like Risk and Axis & Allies and the video game Command and Conquer. One of the things that all of these games have in common is that they are all at least 2 decades old (the board games are both 3+ decades old).

      On this topic, I think age matters… a lot. Older board games and older video games had less technology available. The renaissance of board games was only about 15 years ago and 20 year old video games were still pretty basic.

      I say this because I think it is a lot harder to find examples of either modern board game or video games that purely focus on world (or solar system or universe) conquest. Most modern games have diverse win conditions where total conquest is only one of many options, and often the least preferable.

      The main example I would point to is Stellaris. It is a sandbox style 4X that has an almost innumerable number of “win conditions.” Exploration and empire building is much more important than conquest. And in my gaming experience that tends to be true for most modern video / board games of this style.

  2. On your final point, I will point to another series: Sid Meier’s Colonization.

    This is also an older series, so it is also somewhat limited by software and hardware constraints. Despite that, within the limitations of the time, it does a good job of addressing the sociopolitical ramifications of conquest.

    In the game you are colonizing the new world, playing as one of four colonization nations (England, Netherlands, Italy, or Spain, I think). While colonizing, you interact with native populations and you must make decisions about how to treat them. You can trade fairly with them, convert them to your religion, or enslave them (I think there are other options, too). Similarly, you must make choices on whether to import slaves both to and from the new world at points.

    The sociopolitical gameplay is emphasized much more than combat and the player gets real moral insights into the empire they are controlling.

  3. I love Civilization… And it is interesting that the game has moved away from just being about military conquest. In fact, I believe the expansion/DLC? Rise and Fall, had moved further away from military qualification of victory. There is a way, I think, to “win” but never fight others.

  4. IIRC at least one of the nations depicted in Civ (the Shoshone?) specifically said “We don’t approve of this because we don’t want our nation to be represented in a game about conquering others.”

    1. Hannah Rogers huh! I’d swear I heard it was the Shoshone, but my googles suggest the thing I’m thinking of was Firaxis WANTED to use the Pueblo in Civ V, and got as far as looking for native speakers to translate and record dialogue when the Pueblo Nation was like “Uh, actually we’re extremely not okay with our language being used in a commercial product?”

    2. “I knew that I was going to do a western North American tribe, and one of the things I wanted to stay away from was overlapping with the Zulu, who were … perceived as natives, aggressive natives,” says Lewis. “The Sioux fall into that same bucket. That’s why, initially … I wanted to have another civ that was sort of like a native that was more peaceful, which is where the Pueblo fit in very well. Here are the natives, but they interact with you very differently. The Pueblo would be a more spiritual, religious Western civ. When that got axed, we moved on to the Shoshone, and it was like … We wanted them to be strong and proud, but we didn’t want them to be just guys with spears.”


  5. Looking forward to this particular episode. I love board games, but every time I’m in a good game shop, I spend hours looking over all the many many different titles (usually while waiting for my offspring to finish their Magic play) and almost always I leave thinking that every single one is exactly the same game of conquest and empire. Ho-hum.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.