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The American National Character

November 8th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 19 Comments · Design, Feature:Nations, History

What this is about.

There is always a group of people who resist the idea of putting “Americans” in a game as a race/nation/faction. Though you can certainly argue that there is a unique American history that predates independence by a good century, the United States of America is a relatively young nation whose imprint on civilization is sometimes seen as unfinished. But since most historical strategy games with discrete national powers happen before the 20th century, this is a nation that is largely left alone. You have the Civilization games and Rise of Nations. I strain my brain to think of any others.

But what a nation. It opened the 19th century in an underdeveloped corner of the continent and ended that hundred years spanning from sea to sea with railroads and factories and farms. Some Americans like to speak of “American exceptionalism” – the idea that the United States is different from all other nations because it has a mission statement, or a Divine providence or that its isolation from the tumults of Europe through the 17th through 19th centuries led to a new type of country.

Ultimately, America is an idea – both to Americans and foreigners. This is an idea that is hard to grasp or bind in a rule set since the idea is some mish-mash of liberty, opportunity, wealth, glamor…America is a shining city on a hill, but that shine could be anything from a heavenly blessing to gold to the glistening tears of an oppressed people. Is America freer than any nation on earth? Probably not. It is the wealthiest, but its glamor often seems a faded plastic next to the glories of Versailles or the court of Akbar. America the liberator stands with America the hegemon, America the inventor stands with America the consumer. So efforts to embody American culture and character fall back on ideas of what made and makes the United States the child nation born almost fully grown from the head of King George.

Civilization V gives America the power of Manifest Destiny, a reference to an historical American belief that its expansion was natural, sacred and inevitable. America meant freedom and civilization, so that meant liberating Mexicans, British people and relocating/eradicating Native Americans. Firaxis translates this ideology into greater sight for units and lower cost for buying tiles. Lewis and Clark live on, so to speak – they can explore faster and see the bad guys coming plus you can get Louisiana for a bargain price.


Given the bloodiness of America’s westward expansion, I’d have had a combat bonus for battles in “no man’s land” after the medieval age – a way to reflect frontier combat. Civ 5 has some of this in the Minuteman unit, the American unique musketman that can move through rough terrain as if it were flat land though this is more an homage to the militia that fought in the Revolutionary War. There’s also a unique bomber unit – the B-17 – which does more damage.

No unique building for the Americans in Civ 5, and it’s not hard to see why. American culture – the real source of unique buildings -is a mishmash of British, authentic American, Mexican , Southern Gothic and Frank Lloyd Wright. It is a large nation that covers many climates and which has become as much a mosaic as a melting pot. This is probably why Civ 4 stuck the Americans with a pretty crappy unique building. The Mall gives more happiness from Hit Singles and Hit Movies but, like many late buildings, comes too late to really be useful or game changing. But hey, Hollywood and Rock and Roll and Broadway – the three big late cultural wonders are American ones; it makes sense to somehow give the US a bonus for exploiting their products.

This lateness permeates a lot of understanding of America in these games – in Civs 3-5 all the unique units are 20th century except the minuteman. Rise of Nations inserted America in the Thrones and Patriots expansion and blessed them with The Power of Innovation. Once again, this interpretation is drawn from a relatively late point in American history. America’s vast resources and the opening of the west spurred a technological boom from the late 1800s to WW2, and a few moments here and there since.


A lot of the game’s payoff for this power comes early, though. You get a free scholar with ever new university, your first wonder is built instantly (and you’re burning that on the Terra Cotta Army), you begin with science tech 1 already researched, ground units are cheaper…America is a military powerhouse that can run over anyone after the gunpowder age.

Designers clearly see America in the way that many Americans do. It is a land of opportunity, but the meaning of opportunity is different. In Civ 5, it’s the opportunity to see and seize resources, the wealth of a continent is at your disposal. In RoN, opportunity is about quick construction of one giant project and a leg up on research.

From where I sit, the best game about American national character doesn’t even have America as a playable nation. Colonization is about the founding of America, how a bunch of colonists loosely tied to the Motherland fight their way free to become an independent state. This is a game that epitomizes Manifest Destiny perfectly. It is not seen as something inherent in America the nation; Manifest Destiny is inherent in America the destination. The four Xs – exploration, exploitation, expansion and elimination – are part and parcel of America’s early centuries but the ultimate goal is to breathe free, to make your own path in a New World as a new nation.


In the new Colonization you can choose new civics to establish whatever sort of nation you want, even one that looks nothing like the America that emerged. But this is less important than the fact the journey required attracting the right talent and using your ingenuity to tame a hostile wilderness. This is the America that emerged from the early settlers to become a superpower.

Next up, one of the New World “losers”, the Aztecs.


19 Comments so far ↓

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  • James Allen

    I suspect Rise of Nations and Civilization both will get plenty of references here (both great games, though I prefer the former). Any other games that use multiple historical nations to mention? Empire Earth?

  • Troy

    Tons. Age of Empires, Empire Earth (which is mostly too dull to talk about), city builders, the first Europa Universalis, Colonization, Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War (which is mostly too unknown to talk about)…

    There are more than enough reference points to work from without it all being Civ and RoN.

  • cuc

    The Empires: Dawn of the Modern World is Stainless Steel’s best game, and each nation plays very differently in that game. However, unlike Ensemble or Firaxis, there’s a sense of crassness or vulgarity to Stainless Steel’s treatment of history.

    The Seven Kingdoms series give each nation a unique citizen (in 7K, all workers, scientists, generals, spies or soldiers are trained from the same base citizen) with different combat properties, and a unique “Great Being” – a summoned god. But that’s all the differences. Anyways, 7K is a weird blend of history and whimsical monsters (there’s a carrot monster), coming from the cultural desert of Hong Kong , so no one expects it to pay history any respect.

    There’s also the CDV series: Cossack and American Conquest. These are lesser games though.


    I suppose since Civ1 (the source of your list) was basically using Aztec to represent the whole Meso-American group, the next article will also deal with strategy games’ portrait of Meso-America culture in general?

    And as I’ve argued, the Japanese and the Arabians have now become part of Civ’s “core group” of nations. Would you consider writing about them?

  • Troy

    You are right about Empires: Dawn of the Modern World. It is on my list, too, and is one of the great under-appreciated RTSes. I will probably fill my hard drive with games that no one ever played except me and you.

    As for adding the Japanese and Arabs…maybe. If I can’t cover them in an also ran post, these are two great candidates to add because, in the West at least, both have personalities and characters that are assumed often wrenched entirely out of historical context and oversimplified in a very consistent way in a manner you don’t see for the English or Russians.

    I may have talked myself into adding them…we’ll see.

  • Warren

    Well, you certainly talked me into hoping you add them.

  • Davemonkey

    Loving this series already. The Americans are an interesting addition to these games because they manage to take me out of the mythology I build for myself to play many of these games that start at the dawn of civilisation (Civ, RoN) than any other. I can understand why they are chosen and not us Australians or Canadians or any of the other English speaking peoples for that matter. The US is exceptional in world history to this point, but having Washington bang around in the 4th Millennia BC is just a little distracting.

    Surely the main reason they are included is the majority of the market for these games is in the US. However I think they deserve it although I would love to see more of what EU achieves by having actual revolts forming independent nations. That is, when they don’t pop up 100 years early or never at all.

  • frags

    @Davemonkey, because we are part of the commonwealth. The only representation of Australia and Canada are in WW2 games as part of the commonwealth troops :P

  • Nick

    “Designers clearly see America in the way that many Americans do.” This isn’t that surprising though, as most of the designers mentioned here are American. It would be interesting to look into how non-US designers model America, Paradox for example in Hearts of Iron.

  • kongming

    Personally, I find the way the US is depicted a little too triumphalist and mythologized for my tastes… I’d love to see a strategy game that takes its cues more from Zinn than eighth grade civics textbooks.

  • Nate Homier

    “America is a shining city on a hill”

    This reminded me of the opening cut scene from Deus Ex. It had the bad guy talking to another bad guy about the golden city on the hill. And the other guy says, “well be kings”, then the other guy says, “No gods even”. Too bad I can’t remember exactly.

    Thanks for the memory, even though it is off topic.

  • Zer0s

    @Nate: “Bob Page: We’ve had to endure much, you and I, but soon there will be order again. A new age. Aquinas spoke of the mythical city on the hill, soon that city will be a reality and we will be crowned its kings. Or, better than kings… gods!””

    When I saw the “Governments are free” line on the Rise of Nations summary I almost had a heart attack.

    No, Rise of Nations, governments are never, never free.

  • kongming

    You know what’s fun about that “city on a hill” phrase is how it entered the American lexicon by way of John Winthrop, Massachusetts Bay Colony governor and authoritarian Puritan asshole extraordinaire.

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  • David

    Just to clarify, you can’t select “American” in Colonization. The object of the game is for one of the colonizing nationalities (Dutch, English, French, or Spanish) to emerge as the dominant power in the Americas and become the U.S.A. via revolution.

    I still think it’s one of the best strategy games ever designed.

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  • Codicier

    One issue looking at America in this way is I suppose is that it is still the dominant culture internationally and that the internal and external views of that culture differ so hugely.

    The section on the building struck a particular cord. To most Europeans when we think of American culture is its ubiquity and association with commerce which often come to mind first. Corporate perhaps is the word which best describes how many see it. So a Mall seem a pretty fitting choice.

    Anyways great work as usual, i’m looking forward in particular to the German, Russian and British section of this series since they are all nation America has had antagonistic relationships with at certain periods in its history.