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The Emotions of Strategy

September 6th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 17 Comments · Me

Over the weekend, I mentioned that I was reading J.E. Lendon’s Song of Wrath, and it’s really an interesting book. His major argument is that we can’t understand the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War when it happened by just looking at it as a classic bipolar system breaking down because of colliding spheres of influence – the traditional “realist” explanation. In fact, he argues, Greek culture’s emphasis on forms of diplomacy that privileged ‘status’ (timē) meant that war was understood as a struggle for place of honor among cities. It was, in many ways, similar to Greek athletic contests, which were taken very seriously as measures of municipal prowess and glory. Timē was partly based on mythical glories, hence the tense relationship between fallen Achaean power Argos and the still vibrant and strong Sparta. Lendon closely examines the line of battle at Plataea and convincingly demonstrates the Spartan balancing act between creating an effective fighting force, recognizing recent commitments in the war against Persia and the then understood relative status of city-states, often based on long dead, mythical glories. Athens – not yet a city of marble and empire – had to argue for the right to fight on the left flank, the second place of honour.

Timē had to protected, and if challenged by another city’s pride and stepping out of place (ὕβρις or hubris, in its common English form) then war would result. As Lendon sees it, Sparta responded to perceived Athenian arrogance once it became clear that ignoring the alleged insults (because a stronger power did not have to answer a weaker one) were only weakening Spartan prestige. The opening of the Pelopponesian War, Lendon suggests, was basically a Greek version of “Who do you think you are?”

It’s an interesting book that I need to read alongside Kagan and Thucydides to really measure, but I recognized the emotions of timē and ὕβρις immediately. Because as much as we strategy gamers like to think that our plans are driven by reason and national self interest and the proper way to expand, I would argue that the most satisfying strategy experiences, and the ones we talk most about, are the ones that engage that Greek warrior side of us that can’t believe what the AI is up to.

Think about it. How often in Europa Universalis have you decided to destroy a growing German power on the Rhine just because Bremen has no business being the arbiter of the Low Countries? Have you ever weakened Montezuma’s Aztecs in Civ so much that you reduce him to a rump empire that you keep around just so you can nuke the sonuvabitch later? In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, do you seek out and destroy a general who defected, even if he is no threat to you because your honour demands it? In Total War games, I have let only peasants escape the field while I butcher every noble, because that is more humiliating. And, of course, if the AI has fought me hard in a good game of Age of Empires, no way will I accept resignation. Every building must go.

Then there’s the time I lost Railroad Tycoon because I imagined one of my competitors was a nemesis and I missed a growing rival in the south. And don’t get me started on The Sims.

This is the part of gaming that simple mechanics can’t quite explain. Part of it is the narrative power of great strategy games. The best ones attract us not just because they provide various options and paths and interesting decisions, but because they build a connection between you and your army or your nation or your business. And once that connection is in place, it ceases to be just a collection of numbers on which you can impose your Vulcan powers of logic. Attachment can prevent the mind from always thinking coldly and rationally.

See, the computer gives us enemies but we’re the ones that turn them into villains or threats to world order. I talk a lot about the joy of gaming, but if I were honest, a lot of that joy is rooted in finding an imagined opposite and making his life hell.

Fill the comments with examples of when you engaged in wrathful action to put an enemy in his place. I need inspiration to deal with Bruce.


17 Comments so far ↓

  • Warren

    “Have you ever weakened Montezuma’s Aztecs in Civ so much that you reduce him to a rump empire that you keep around just so you can nuke the sonuvabitch later? ”

    No, I have not… but, now that you’ve planted that particular seed in my brain, I bet I will, you evil genius!!

  • peterb

    I’ve been trying to read Song of Wrath for, let’s see, about 5 months now. Something about the guy’s writing just puts me to sleep.

    For a very related topic, but written in an infinitely more engaging and interesting way, I’d recommend John Hale’s “Lords of the Sea”. Not strictly focused on the Peloponnesian war, but fascinating nonetheless.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    It’s a hard slog for sure. The introductory vignette is terrible, for example, and he uses more examples than he needs. Quite repetitive, too.

    But I made it through Sealey’s A History of the Greek City States, 700-338 B. C.. This is heaven compared to that.

  • Gormongous

    I really wasn’t too fond of Lendon’s “Soldiers & Ghosts” for treating Greece’s ancient literature as a hotline to its collective thought process, but I may give this one a spin if you’re determined to vouch.

    Let’s see… for recent wrathful action that was true hubris, there was my second try at “Hegemony Gold” that lost me my best army in the northern Balkans because I was set on exterminating the Illyrian menace once and for all.

    Back in the mists of my youth, “Alpha Centauri” provided a better example where I sunk an entire continent with Quantum Planetbusters to punish Chairman Yang for the presumption to use his air power to deny me a toehold on the surrounding islands. The environmental damage soon turned Chiron into a water world, but I was ready, because I knew winter was coming, so to speak.

  • CraigM

    Yes, honor demanding glorious action and holy vengeance on the battlefield.

    My personal favorite is from Medieval 2, I was the English. The Venetians had been a royal pain in my backside, but because the pope was Hungarian, Venice’s ally I kept getting threats of excommunication every time I made an aggressive move.

    Not content to whimper like a whipped cur that the pope expected of me, I embarked on a holy mission. One that involved an army of assassins sitting right outside Rome. a short few decades later, I had the papacy as well as nearly the complete college of cardinals, and Venice was no more than a footnote on history. Sure the Mongols were invading, and the Russians were getting frisky up north, but Honor demanded their complete destruction first.

  • Brandon LaRocque

    It is articles like this that first hooked me to this website (after being redirected here from rpgcodex). I’ve had this in AoE, and I’ve troubled myself in-game for non-game honour.

    Never noticed it, though. Just felt natural.

  • Shaun

    This is one of those articles that you read and you find yourself slowly nodding along to. Then at the end of it, you exclaim: “EXACTLY!” – and then send it to everyone you know because it has, in words more eloquent than yours, captured what makes strategy games so compelling and often better storytellers than any RPG. *golf clap*

  • Kingdaddy

    Troy, not having read Song Of Wrath, I’m not clear how this Greek notion of national honor differed from what exists in the modern world. Certainly, nations act for a mix of motives, including wounded pride, frustration, and just being sick of certain rivals. I’m thinking of the recent Russia/Georgia clash, Austria-Hungary’s raw emotions about those irritating Serbs, or Hitler’s determination to stick it out to the very end.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Sure. These are not entirely foreign ideas.

    But Lendon argues that these ideas were so entrenched in the Greek culture of manliness, propriety and station that they were something different. He points to athletic contests, where winning was a victory to the city of such great importance that the victor could be valued as highly as a king. The whole ritual over erecting trophies on battlefields immediately after winning was to make a public announcement of worth and status.

    Lendon says that Greek honour was sort an heroic age artifact that continued to apply mythic standards to contemporary society. Today, we see Achilles and Agaememnon as two proud men who won’t bow to each other. To the Greeks, it was a legitimate quarrel over which of them had earned the right to be respected.

  • Josh (preciousgollum)

    I can’t remember exactly who said that “The strength of a country is measured in the quantity of its nuclear weapons and Olympic medals” and I never really agreed with the olympics being a significant show of strength, given that olympic athletes represent a small fraction of the world population and are often a product of elitist and neurotic training regimes – barely enough people to field a force of strength.

    For ancient Greece, I can see the Olympics being a much more significant event, particularly between city states, as the populations of these soverign entities was far less than many population centres that we see today and, as a result, would reflect a greater proportion of the ‘strength-wielding persons’ that could be found within a given area. In the midst of suspicious and war-able societies, the olympics could be seen as a staging-ground for more peaceful displays of ‘soft-power’.

    If peace-talks break down and’soft-power’ is no longer acknowledged then warfare is all too often a by-product. When viewing the situation regarding the elections in the Ivory-coast, an area where ‘soft-power’ broke down, I found it interesting in its perplexity that many world-powers accepted Alassane Ouattara as the president and gave him a democratic mandate against Laurent Gbagbo, on the grounds that the election was rigged and that Ouattara was supposed to have won the election, when both parties ended up resorting to violence and the ‘winning-democratic force’ had a bigger army than the former president, the farcical elements being that, to this day, we do not know the results of the election (and probably never will) and that neither side actually won through democratic means – yet the ivory coast has a president who, for all intents and purposes, represents a military junta until otherwise.

    Elections and ‘soft-power’ are great because they avert worse forms of conflict, unless the process breaks down in which case they lead to wars. Dictatorships attempt to justify themselves by suggesting that their form of government prevents wars by preventing elections – a logical fallacy.

  • Kingdaddy

    The importance of prestige for the Greeks doesn’t necessarily mean that national honor had a significant impact on their decisions to go to war, or how they prosecuted their wars. Athens and Sparta didn’t go to war because they wanted to erect a lot of trophies, though the trophies meant a great deal to them, as part of the prosecution of the wars. Nor did outcomes tied directly to prestige — you must adopt our patron deity, you must apologize, etc. — figure prominently in war aims at the outbreak of conflict.

    In fact, you might look at the erection of trophies at the end of battle, not solely as a matter of prestige, but a way to mark who won the battle, and therefore what the relative standings in the war are. “We’re ahead in this war” is a little different sentiment than “We’re Number One!”

  • Bob

    I don’t know much about all this Greek business, but I do know that in Civ4 that I’ll do anything…ANYTHING…to obliterate the Holy Roman Empire ;)

  • Troy Goodfellow

    I recommend reading the book, KingDaddy. A lot of it has to do with the language used before the war and the parallels that focused on status and climbing the hierarchy, why Sparta would let Athens do some thing but not others, why alliances often did not mean that the big partner would always protect the small one.

    The problem with this type of analysis, of course, is that we have no idea if the language cited by Lendon is real or metaphorical. Herodotus wasn’t at Plataea and Thucydides not at Megara – both use speeches as a sort of “what I was told was said, but better written and in keeping with my themes”.

  • Patrick

    I’m almost completely the other way around in PC games, focusing on pity over wrath whenever it is possible. I can’t tell you how much wasted time and resource went into protecting “beaten” nations in games because I felt bad for what I had done. Rome: Total War or Medieval, where I really didn’t want to exterminate most others, and was happy to make them my clients instead of just outright annihilating. Even if that meant knocking them down to one constantly-surrounded city because the AI had no notion about reasonably declaring peace.

    Or MOO2. Or anything else.

    Of course, that changes depending on how annoyingly programmed the AI is. I can’t tell you how many times I butchered armies and citizens and cities if they just kept on rebelling in the first Medieval in certain problem provinces (I remember you, Portugal and Scotland).

  • Yann Best

    Hmm, interesting article. My focus was very much on the literary side of things, so my knowledge of the actual history of the ancient Greek poleis is limited to the basics, plus some lit. crit. of Herodotos and Thoukydides, but there are stark similarities between Lendon’s interpretation of the events driving Hellenic conflict, and the standard interpretation of the cultural norms on display in ancient Greek myth.

    For example, virtually any Homeric scholar would tell you that the entire Trojan War, and pretty much every single action within the Iliad, is driven by Timē, and the importance of maintaining, increasing, and having it acknowledged. Hence Achilleus’ sulk is not about losing a slave he had fallen for, but because of Agamemnon reducing his Timē both by taking spoils from him, and by talking down Achilleus’ worth in front of the other heroes.

    Now, from this it was argued that the society of Homer’s time was very much of this mindset. It was also argued that there were signs things were changing, not least in the ‘evolution’ of Achilleus’ character over the course of story, whose sensitivity to issues beyond Timē is at odds with his fellows, and is a clear corruption of the earlier Achilleus myths. Unfortunately, my notes and essays on that subject are AWOL, and as already stated, my focus was very much on literary issues – while I was interested in broader cultural subjects too, I was less interested in the politics and war, and so never really explored that avenue. As such, I’m both curious and wary of Lendon’s interpretation – on the one hand, it fits the lit. crit. of early Greek myth. On the other, that makes me wonder if he’s transposing values we derive from early literature onto political machinations which had moved on. I don’t doubt that the issue of honour was of great influence – it still is for modern nations – but I do wonder if he’s taking things a bit far.

    But again, my area of expertise was never history, nor have I read the book in question, so I’m in no place to make any real judgement either way.

  • Yann Best

    (I should also say that what you took from the article – the interpretation of our own behaviour as gamers – was an interesting, and perceptive, observation. Any game with named characters – be they generals in grand strategy games, or individual soldiers in squad-level wargames – is particularly powerful for this. An enemy who defeats, wounds – or worse, slays – a cherished, hard-working character of this type will face my greatest wrath – often to the detriment of my overall strategy. Enemies in the West? Pah! The Uesugi must pay for shaming my most experienced general)

  • A World You Believe In

    […] As emotional as I can get when I start deciding which of my enemies I hate, one of the big challenges for strategy games is creating a playing field that is interesting and alive. This is where the role-playing side of strategy games comes in, I suppose. (I often mock Tom Chick by suggesting he thinks everything is a strategy game; I am probably the same way with role playing.) […]