A writer with the name “Poisoned Sponge” has written a long post dealing with a question that I have tackled before many times. Taking the Total War games as his starting point, the writer asks about how far game designers can deal with the moral horrors of the 20th century. Creative Assembly is making an 18th and 19th century game that has no slavery or slave trade; can you make a game from our century that avoids Hitler?
The problems with a Total War game held in the 20th or 21st Century is that instead of one political mine, there are dozens. Maybe hundreds.
The Holocaust. Ethnic Cleansing. Two World Wars. Atrocities in Africa and the Middle East. Those are the biggest four I can think of off the top of my head, and all of them are incredibly divisive issues. There is no way they can avoid the World Wars and still have a game that is any semblance of relation to our world….The Total War series brings you back further, allowing you to parley, trade and declare war. By allowing such a vast political playground to explore, you are, without doubt, creating a set of tools with which to bring about a World War.
And yet, there are lots of games that deal with the World Wars and don’t touch genocide. And I’m talking about Company of Heroes, which Poisoned Sponge rightly notes is a toy army game. Clash of Steel (no relation), Hearts of Iron, Commander: Europe at War…all take a broad view of the immediate war period, with diplomacy and production, and don’t delve into the true darkness of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. The tyrannical governments become ones with different troop dispositions or, in HoI, different limitations on production and diplomacy. In fact, Paradox may ban you from their forums if you go there and advocate the historical inclusion of forced labor, death camps and organized relocation of entire populations.
Does the war they present bear any “semblance of relation to our world”?
Poisoned Sponge (there’s a reason I avoid nicknames…) thinks that the main distinction is time and romance.
Yes, Medieval: Total War had the crusades, but, like everything a few hundred years old, the Crusades have been romanticised by the Knights Templar, Assassin’s Creed and Bernard Cornwell. We now think of glittering knights, dirty Persians and flaming balls of catapult fodder. So you play it with a clear conscience, taking the Holy Land back from the heathens. It’s not a problem for the modern conscience.
It’s folly to assume that World War II has not been romanticized. The actions of America’s so-called Greatest Generation and the gallant Brit standing alone in the blitz have obviously taken on some glamor. Patton and Rommel are this century’s Richard and Saladin, figures of mythic stature. In many corners of the Internet, there is considerably more romance around the dark black SS uniform and “professionalism” of the still white-washed Wehrmacht than there is around the East India Company.
Given the number of World War II games out there, PS is presenting a bit of a false dilemma. And this pattern continues into other 20th century themed games. Combat Mission: Shock Force, though set in a contemporary Middle East, avoids the place of civilians in insurgent warfare. Refugees almost never clog the roads that a tank needs to use. The calculation of the media equation is avoided.
Grand strategy games have always been able to elide some of the messier parts of history. Colonization doesn’t have slaves, though the new version lets you choose it as a civic for your newly freed nation – you get a production bonus but don’t seem to lose your soul. The game has always given you the option to relive the displacement/eradication of the local natives. So, for Firaxis, the latter is a more central fact of the settling of the Americas than the former. By focusing on the work of diplomats and generals in the pre-modern era, grand strategy gamers don’t have to deal with the fact that half the human population is little more than chattel, fit to be married off to produce heirs but little else.
You could, of course, go in circles arguing about whether games are capable of dealing with the ugliness of history in a classy way, and even if we want them to do so. Games are about abstraction, and anything not germane to the design is, arguably, better left out. (In the Total War games, that means those little emissary units that die once they finally get to Constantinople.)
(Spotted at RPS.)