If Civilization has an iconic image that everyone has seen (and, let’s face it, it has many) it is the sneering face of Gandhi warning us to behave ourselves because his words are BACKED WITH NUCLEAR WEAPONS. There is a universal cognitive dissonance in seeing the face of active but peaceful resistance to imperialism threatening our empires with atomic annihilation because…well, who knows why? In Civilization II, Gandhi didn’t need much of a reason to hate us.
Gandhi is the father of modern India and the face of the civilization to many strategy gamers, so it’s natural for both designers and players to conflate the great revolutionary’s personality and skills with that of one of the world’s oldest and greatest cultures. But India is a puzzle for many people because our general knowledge of it is so rooted in the present – we assume that there is a single India, the 1960s cemented in many minds a culture of yogis and spiritual thinkers (fitting for the birthplace of both Buddhism and Hinduism – two of the oldest and most enduring faiths) and now we see India as a more free China (populous, technologically sophisticated, the next great power on the horizon.)
Keep these numbers in mind while we talk about what India means. The modern nation state of India has 1.2 billion people – one billion plus 2/3 of the United States over again. Half a billion more people than all of Europe. It is twice the size of France, Germany and Spain added together. It recognizes over 20 regional languages, and is so diverse in language and culture that it had to adopt the imperial conqueror’s language as a common tongue. And this is not including statistics from Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, all of which can be considered integral parts of what many understand as Indian culture and central to Indian history. It almost makes as much sense to speak of Indian national character as it does to speak of European or African. To discover India is to discover a world. India is not a Germany – a people united by language and religion but seeking a state. India is a state that history has built upon a people divided by almost everything people assume makes a culture a culture. (If you read old political science textbooks, like I used to, it’s fun to see all the predictions of India’s imminent collapse. India is the first modern multicultural success story.)
It’s no wonder that game designers want to think of India as a single culture and entity. Even though it was very rarely unified in its history, there is an assumption that the peninsula makes sense as one civilization and not, say, five. The reference points, then, become almost exclusively modern. What do we mean by India? We mean whatever the British said was India, and that is close enough for game design work. Religious divisions between north and south, east and west, old and new become blurry and we see an unbroken chain of custody from Asoka down to Nehru, even though the Mughals had only mixed success in the south, the Punjab was always restive and the British showed up to an India where they could play prince against prince.
All nations and states are ideas more than reality, but India is a very special idea and it is a very western one. India is a resource to be harvested. It is a destination. It is a place more acted upon than acting. Not only is India the state a Western invention, India the game idea is a Western conceit. Take Nitro’s promising but ultimately shallow East India Company. A game named after one of the great legal pirate companies in history takes India (and really all non-European powers) out of the game since all that is really important is the money. The EIC was a fascinating diplomatic/business/political/military company, an 18th century Halliburton or British Petroleum, that could dictate the course of British politics and imperial acquisition. But all that was taken out to focus on India and other ports as trading opportunities. Yes, this is what the EIC was about, but it misses the most important part of the story.
The first Europa Universalis had some of this blindness, but that was rooted in the original board game design. India was not a subcontinent full of independent players; the coastal areas were all “native provinces” that you could just colonize and take over. Because it was that easy for Europe, I suppose. There is still a lot of debate over how profitable the Raj actually was for Britain, but for strategy game designers, India assumes the place of an historical El Dorado just waiting to be controlled and tamed.
The battle for India itself, of course, has not gotten a lot of attention. 1991’s Champion of the Raj from Level 9 was probably the closest we’ve had to a game that drew attention to the economic and military competition for India. It’s a clever strategy game with a tactical battle subgame, as well as annoying arcade minigames like those you find in Centurion and Defender of the Crown. You can use your prestige to seduce cities into your empire and protection, which is a great reflection of how so much of the subcontient fell into British hands, and there is a fail state beyond simply being conquered, because the Thug society is a constant threat to your security. Though not really a great game, it was smart enough to see the potential in building around the idea that India was a theater for political action and not just economic.
The economic power of India was also reflected in how Rise of Nations treated the culture. Only introduced in the expansion, India’s cities had larger radii for resource capture, buildings did not increase in cost no matter how many you built and the cost of fortifications increased at half the regular rate. So without actually using gold bonuses beyond a modest caravan income boost, the Indian civ was able to hoard amazing piles of resources by midgame. And, of course, it had elephants. Can’t have an historical RTS without elephants. Interestingly, Big Huge Games dubbed these attributes “The Power of Majesty”, even though the connection between majesty and cheap barracks is lost on me.
Age of Empires 3, though, takes a view of India that is not economically focused, probably because the Dutch have that sewn up. The brilliant Asian Dynasties expansion – also from Big Huge Games, incidentally – does a few things with villagers, so that you can increase your population for lower costs and using less food. That last bit is important, because India is forbidden from harvesting livestock for food. You can use them to increase your experience, but this design choice is a reflection of India as the spiritual nation. This is a power shared with Japan for some reason, even though the refusal to eat beef or pork was central to the Indian Mutiny that sets up the Indian Campaign in the game. (It’s interesting to note that none of the Age of Empires III European civilizations have notable religious powers or limits, but in both expansions, religion plays an important roles in at least some of the new factions.)
In his classic novel A Passage to India, E.M. Forster writes that “India is a muddle”, which the author claims is a more honest term than “mystery” when characterizing this larger and complicated world. For strategy game designers, I almost wish India were a muddle. For them, India is a land of sage wise men, amazing wealth, red forts and elephants. Except for the elephants and the colour of the forts, you could say as much about Europe or Arabia or China. Where China’s very longevity as a unified nation makes it difficult to point to a characteristic moment on which to draft and archetype, India’s muddle sends designers to seek refuge in a united India and seeing hundreds of millions of people as their conquerors saw them: India is easy money, so you have leisure time to go native and suck in the wisdom of the gurus.
Fortunately for developers, Mongolia is an easier nut to get a grip on. They come next.