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There’s Something About a War

March 26th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Design, Me

More than any other franchise, the Total War games bring out the butcher in me. I would love to say that surrounding and annihilating an army of peasants to the last man is a purely strategic decision in Shogun 2, but mostly I eradicate and eliminate enemy forces just to see if I can – to make those casualty scores at the end of a battle tilt overwhelmingly in my favor.

It’s not just Total War. Though pursuit is not always the wise choice in a wargame, I do it a lot in Operational Art of War and War in the East. I’ll happily let a beaten army escape in Europa Universalis (since at least I always know where a small army is), but in some games I will chase and chase and destroy until the bodies pile up.

As much as I like to talk about how I prefer to act ethically in strategy games, rarely playing the aggressor and avoiding playing certain factions, there is no doubt that strategy games can bring out the vengeful, angry, and murderous side of me. In Victoria 2, I will kill the proletariat as it revolts instead of introducing better wages or political reforms. In EU, I will convert foreign populations; in the first one, I would instigate religious revolts to eradicate entire populations and then settle with colonists. In Rome: Total War, I regularly massacred cities and assassinated enemy leaders. In Civilization 2, I would plant nukes and I will let them fly in other Civs if I “have to”. Nerve stapling in Alpha Centauri? Don’t pretend you never did it.

In short, like many gamers, I play strategy games “like a psychopath.”

In his very interesting essay, Jonathan McCalmont argues that the design of strategy games encourages aggressive behavior that would probably be defined as war crimes. Because, in most cases, the player IS the state, progress is defined entirely in terms of the power and success of the state as a state. Since we never really have to deal with the consequences of behaving like a tyrant, and, in fact, tyrannical behavior can be undertaken no matter what the real form of government you imagine you have, gamers become morally detached. In a way, this is the whole “It’s only a game!” argument – it’s not real people, so we are freed to do things we would never countenance in real life.

McCalmont goes on to tie some of this to the evolution of International Relations Theory after World War 2, especially the work of Kenneth Waltz, though the nuclear conflict research of Hermann Kahn and the game theory work of Thomas Schelling should get some mention here. Nations become unitary actors with interests and nothing more, so anything that helps the nation achieve success is legitimate. The direct connection between Waltz and Meier is pretty thin, but McCalmont argues that reifying the state as Waltz does is no different from what strategy game call on us to do. It’s not a cause and effect thing, but two similar things that, he argues caused diplomats of the 60s and 70s and contemporary strategy gamers to behave as if little things like civilian casualties and human rights didn’t really matter.

It’s an interesting argument, but I think it misses a few things about strategy games and their design. First and foremost, of course, games are generally not cooperative experiences. They are, most of the time, zero sum so the success of one means the failure of another. While the real world is full of cooperative institutions and factors that bring humanity together instead of tearing us apart, games generally have winners and winning means that there must be sides and teams. You could argue that this strategy game is based on flawed understandings of international politics or history, but the assumption of conflict underlies every modern game genre, except for certain types of simulations. Even games that allow you to be awesome and nice, like The Sims, are almost always more enjoyable when there is tension between the actors.

Games turn war into sexy math. When I chase down ashigaru bowmen, it’s not simply so they don’t live another day. It’s because I get rewards and a heroic victory thing and my troops gain experience and buffs for killing lots and lots of people, no matter how helpless they are. It’s not simply that many games detach us from the humanity of conflict – it’s also that many of them pat us on the back for being inhumane. Our scores and progress depend on it. Even games with peaceful winning conditions, like the Civ series, find a way to force you to care about your army. If you are weak, you will preyed upon, so you have to deter attack. The corruption penalty in many version meant that razing or starving a city were not just allowed, but encouraged.

McCalmont’s argument that the problem with strategy games is that they are too abstract misses the fact that many of their mechanics reward the gruesome behavior, not just because it is fun but because it is sensible. Wars are the way forward in many strategy games – the only way to get more resources or more power or to advance whatever passes for a plot. I can probably count the number of totally pacific grand strategy game sessions of my life on my two hands with a couple of fingers left over; I may have won only two of those.

But, I think, there is also something seedier and it is rooted in our long cultural love affair with war.

You march until you’re bleary,
But there’s something about a war.
The company is dreary,
But there’s something about a war.

(from ‘There’s Something About a War’, song cut from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)

You don’t have to be Miles Gloriosus to appreciate the dark and savage beauty of war. Though I wish war on no one, and would love to see it eliminated from the planet forever, our ancestral inheritance of seeing war as a necessary evil continues. We must always support the troops, because they are doing noble things even if the war itself is a bad idea for the country. Acts of great heroism on the battlefield are feted by our national leaders. Movies that show the glories of war generally do better than those that show the horrors.

The Total War games are probably the best at making battle itself a thing of beauty, with the Combat Mission franchise a close second. Just as a formula or equation can be beautiful to a mathematician, seeing a battle plan perfectly executed and then every enemy soldier perfectly executed is a thing of great beauty to a gamer, and even some generals. Cannae, Austerlitz, Tsushima…moments when everything seemed to go to plan and the result was an enemy force overwhelmingly defeated. I chase routing units because I can. I nuke enemy cities because the invasion calls for it. I launch sneak attacks because to hell with laws of war. I have a plan, and part of the plan means no survivors.

Well maybe one. Someone should tell the enemy king what to expect.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • Kalle

    I always knew you were a secret oppressor of the proletariat.

    Other than that, great article.

  • Joe

    I learned a lot about myself from playing Master of Orion at a tender age. If you steal enough of my intellectual property, I will go far, far out of my way to coordinate the erradication of your entire species. I won’t enslave your planets, even though that would help my score more and you could then build me ships. Instead I will arrange for several squads of ships to visit each of your planets on the same turn and simultaneously bomb each planet into nothingness. You won’t even have a chance to grovel for mercy.

    It’s a good thing I don’t run a galactic empire. Somewhere deep in side me is a monster.

  • littlemute

    “there is room on the stage for one beast and one alone. All others are destined for a night that is eternal and without name”

  • MFToast

    Such an amazing subject. Nicely done, sir. All out murder is a poor strategy in real life, but it’s pretty much absolutely necessary against, say, The Believers/The Spartans in Alpha Centauri.

  • cuc


    Ogre Battle is probably the most well-known strategy game that tried to give every action its consequences.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    I wrote about this same topic last year (http://matchstickeyes.wordpress.com/2010/10/30/conquest-plunder-and-tyranny-explaining-dubious-morality-in-strategy-games/), in the wake of the “ethics in wargames” episode of 3MA.

    My culprits were fairly similar to Troy’s – (1) the abstract level of most strategy games, especially 4X games (squad-level games don’t have this problem), (2) their zero-sum nature, and (3) the fact warmongering pays off in most strategy games. (3) ties in with a comment I made about soft culture, in the “French national character” post — most games over-emphasise military power and territorial control and under-emphasise institutions and culture. If real life worked like a strategy game, the Roman Empire would have snowballed to the ends of the earth and I’d be making this post in Latin. I would love to see a game that challenged players to develop their societies in preparation for an Enlightenment and Scientific and Industrial Revolutions (even EU3 seems far too martially oriented to count).

    Troy’s point about the glamour of war is a very good one. Yes, it’s satisfying to build up a town in SimCity or a continent-spanning network in Railroad Tycoon. But they scratch a very different itch to seeing units charged, flanked, annihilated in Total War. The quick brutality of combat appeals to something rather more primal – something very well suited to a genre built around competition and zero-sum outcomes.

  • Republic

    I think the reason for the bloodlust is because in most games there are no consequences. Its the same with a racing game or flight sim, a professional racecar driver or a fighter pilot would never do the things we do because of the consequences should something go wrong.

    The only games that I can recall ever actively trying to avoid war, were the Anno series (1602, 1503, 1701, 1404). After cultivating an economy so long, the idea of my supply chains being broken and my colonies collapsing lead me to do whatever I could to avoid war.

    If a grand strategy game could capture the supply chain dependency of Anno, where there is a real danger of collapse…we would be less likely to go guns blazing.

  • JonathanStrange

    I often, to make a game more interesting to me, try to make decisions similar to what I’d do in real life – though it’s hard to say what I’d do IRL if an ogre attacked me and I knew a “vaporize” spell.

    Probably that’s why in many games, I don’t play the evil side or the side I consider evil. It just doesn’t appeal to me: burning down cities, slaying every troll for the XPs, destroying my allies.

    But that’s often how you win the game.

    And I like to win.

  • Kingdaddy

    Isn’t Master Of Orion the opposite of the “rape, pillage, and burn with no consequences” game? Any 4X strategy in which the general population stops giving you their active support if you pull a Genghis Khan, or in which you lose votes in the Imperial Senate, seems like a game with consequences, not without.

  • Ruskov

    I kind a like how the Medieval 2 mange with that.You do not kill the soldiers on battlefield ,but take them prisoners.Then you can decide to kill,ransom or free and based on that you get traits that can be chivalry or dread ones.So i always end up freeing the people in M2 ,but now in Shogun 2 when the AI always outproduce you the only way is to kill as many as possible and this do not lead to any negatives for the player.This is a bad design.

  • Brian

    It would be interesting to see a strategy game that attempts to include ethics in the victory conditions. You could imagine a variety of bonuses based on good behavior by the player over years, separated into categories like Environment, Human Rights, Peace, Standard of Living, Income Equality, etc. You could even extend this to being a global measure, not just your factions conformance to it’s ethics, but global conformance as well. If you then bake those bonuses into the faction design such that each faction has a different set of ethical rules then you could start to get some really interesting strategic scenarios where one faction is actually interested in getting other factions to behave better.

  • Neil

    In Monopoly, I will charge full rent on my tenants even if it drives them into bankruptcy. In Risk, I will never be satisfied until the entire world is under my thumb. In Chess, I regularly commit regicide. In Go Fish, I don’t catch and release or eat what I catch. In Mille Bornes, I happily drive at greater than fuel efficient speeds, to destinations I have no need or even desire to go to.

    Of course, the closer a game feels to a real-life situation (or, the more the affected in-game persons feel like real people), the more our consciences tell us that we should apply the same ethics.