Games and Imagining History: Europa Universalis IV

The chair of the School for Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, Richard Utz, is an avowed medievalist. I don’t get to talk to him as much as I would like, but in our conversations and his writing I’ve found a deep combination of intellectual curiosity and pragmatism. A recent interview with ARC Humanities Press on the occasion of his latest book (Medievalism: A Manifesto)[1] offered no surprise. Indeed, it clarified what I’ve long felt about medieval studies: we need to be having bold, explicit discussions about our own relationships with the material we study. Even if we attain to the study of medieval literature as situated within its own time (and I do), we need to acknowledge how our studies are also self-studies or autobiographies of interest:

I think it’s an epistemological fallacy to believe that a scholar, the investigating subject, needs to be kept strictly separate from the scholar’s research, the subject under investigation. I believe with Norman Cantor (Inventing the Middle Ages, 1993) that all scholarship is, in the end, a form of autobiography and that the multitude of scholarly endeavors to recuperate the Middle Ages has only resulted in ever so many (subjective) reinventions of that time period. In the end, an amateur (from Latin amare, to love) or a dilettante (from Italian dilettare, to delight) is not so different from a scholar of the Middle Ages, who has simply sublimated his or her love for the medieval past into a formal academic practices like editing, translation, or criticism.

That’s not to say the study of earlier times has no value or credibility. Far from it. It is an admission that we give life to what we study, that sooner or later we build a version of earlier times based on what we know of that time and based on where we are now.

Why rehearse all of this? Well, I’ve been playing a game, Europa Universalis IV. Games commonly appropriate visions of the medieval and early modern past. As a game, I find it fun, but something rankles me about the way it depicts that past. I could say it is inaccurate, but medievalist games and texts are frequently inaccurate. My stakes here are partly political: I think Europa Universalis IV represents a version of the past that is explicitly nationalist and that hard-codes a supremacist vision of early modern Europe.

Representing and Simulating the Nation: Europa Universalis IV

Europa Universalis IV is a grand strategy game that simulates geopolitical developments over about 350 years: from 1444 to 1821. The original game primarily allowed control of only European countries; this one allows control of any area the game deems a “country.” Malacca, the Timurids, Ethiopia, and the Iroquois are all countries; aboriginal Australia is not, though the land remains colonizable to any country that sends a settler and a couple of thousand troops for fighting native uprising.

Controlling England roughly 40 years after the start date.
Controlling England roughly 40 years after the start date.

So EU4 is a country simulator, in the sense that it simulates a broad form of countryhood. For groups deemed worthy of countryhood, they have a generally consistent set of actions to perform. They can control their economic budget, influence trade through ship movements and sending merchants to trade ports, establish advisors, research technologies, appoint generals, reduce the autonomy of various provinces, build key buildings, build alliances with other countries, negotiate for trade benefits or military access, declare war, negotiate peace, mediate between factions of government, spread religion, and on and on.

The range of strategic possibilities is impressive. Through it all, the player’s own country is mostly transparent. Players can know month-to-month what their income will be, what the current risks for uprising are, how many soldiers they could levy in case of war, how long until they can research the next technology.

The game creates the illusion that, with sufficient statistics, total control and efficiency over one’s affairs is possible. Countries may not call these actions the same thing, but the implication is that all countries are capable of actions like these. What should players aim for, then? One implicit goal – as highlighted by the advice on the loading screen below – is to raise money to build armies and navies. Security, control, and expansion form the basis of these early modern states, much like our current postmodern ones.

Many loading screens like this pair advice about creating a successful nation with images of prospective leaders in historical dress.

Some superficial differences come in pre-coded events and administrative systems that players can shift between, sometimes at will and sometimes in response to events like revolutions. A monarchy can engage in royal marriage; a republic cannot. England experiences a set of events that lead early on to the War of the Roses and later on to the English Civil War, at each point allowing dynastic and administrative changes. Japan may also have unique events related to its own situation under a shogunate. The Aztec have an event called “doomsday” that occurs some time after the first colonial power arrives at its shores. Any colonial power will soon receive various events which urge a conflict between mercantilism and free trade, as seen below.

Tariffs on tobacco? Once someone starts colonizing, they go down a whole series of pre-determined events that give limited options. Arguably, colonizing itself is an option players are constrained to; as Spain, the alternative is to lose influence and thus lose player agency.
Tariffs on tobacco? Once someone starts colonizing, they go down a whole series of pre-determined events that give limited options. Arguably, colonizing itself is an option players are constrained to; as Spain, the alternative is to lose influence and thus lose player agency.

These events add a certain predestined cast over the game. From a game perspective, this is one of the most exciting parts of the game, providing an ability to follow a broadly conventional arc of history and deviate at key moments by choosing otherwise. This allows players to perhaps subvert a narrative of European colonialism. In one of my first games, I made Spain a non-colonial land power and intentionally attacked any country that began to pursue colonial policies. Something I realized as I played on: I had substituted European imperialism for European colonialism. I broke one pattern and reinforced another.

There are also limits to this kind of flexibility when I look at some of the game’s simulations. One system in the game involves every country having one or more favored “cultures,” and each province having a particular “culture.” On the one hand, this system encourages taking provinces that would share a common culture or language, producing the possibility of forming nations like Italy or Prussia. On the other hand, it makes much more difficult the possibility of a multicultural country, as provinces with cultures differing from the ruling ones tend to rebel more often. At best, they pose an occasional annoyance to a player. At worst, they repeat the rhetoric often seen in certain white supremacist groups: that multicultural countries are prone to disintegration. That implication leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, since my professional and personal beliefs hold diversity and respect as necessary values in civic life.

What can we do as players when player agency is focused only towards a narrow set of goals that support nationalism as a key ideology? Armies are required to secure borders from military intrusion; closed trade policies are required to preserve trade influence; expansion is required to resist incorporation into other expanding countries; culture is primarily employed as a potential source of division. While playing, I often wonder what implicit values Europa Universalis IV encourages in its players. I think the appeal to the early modern state provides possibilities for thinking about and tweaking established historical formulas (that’s why I play). At the same time, we need to be aware of the potential for games like EU4 to support nostalgia  for an inaccurate alt-history where countries are inevitably and relentlessly monocultural and conflict is a prerogative to being great.

[1] Of course I recommend you buy this book if you find Utz’s thoughts or how we think of the past at all interesting. A $15 book from an academic author is a manifesto in itself, a call to accessible (read: affordable) scholarship.

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