Here’s Part 2 (well, part “2b”) of Ben Knaak’s Alternate Histories project exploring how to model a materialist conception of history through video games. Be sure to follow along on his blog and YouTube Channel!
Shit I Don’t Know, Entry #2: Who’s Playing This Game?
In most 4X games in which the player controls a nation, that nation’s identity, attributes, and associated play style remain static and constant. Rather than a contingent cultural and political reality that arises from particular circumstances, the nation is an eternal reality. It will often have a set of statistical bonuses or accompanying debuffs, or a unique unit or building it can construct once the correct technology has been researched, simply by virtue of being itself. The nation exists at the beginning of the game, and barring conquest by another nation it will exist at the end. Every player who chooses “America” begins history with the founding of Washington in the year 4000 B.C. Where did these people come from? Are they white? Patawomeck? Who is this Washington they named their settlement after? It’s not important; welcome to the United Neolithic States.
This works fine for a Civilization game, but for grand strategy, it just won’t do. And it especially won’t do for a game like Victoria II, which attempts to draw from a more sophisticated, materialist version of Video Game History™. This is a game in which the names, flags, and borders of its states must necessarily change with astonishing regularity, and in ways that are historically contingent without being pre-ordained. Prussia, or perhaps Austria, becomes Germany. Sardinia-Piedmont, or perhaps the Two Sicilies, or perhaps the Papal States, becomes Italy. Or perhaps neither of those states comes into being. New countries are carved from the carcasses of moribund empires, imposed from without and from within.
What, then, are the in-game forces that govern these processes? As you would expect, nationalist movements are partially determined by the POP system. Every POP group has an associated culture group. In Ethiopia, for instance, one might have a POP group of Oromo craftsmen working with a group of Tigrayan clerks in a factory owned by Amhara capitalists. Each country, in turn, has at least one culture designated as its primary culture, and may have one or more accepted cultures. Status in one of these groups has a significant effect on POPs’ beliefs and behaviors. Primary culture POPs are more likely to support residency for non-primary culture POPs, while accepted culture POPs are more likely to support limited citizenship (which, for instance, allows accepted culture POPs to vote if your country allows elections). Primary culture POPs are also much more likely to promote to capitalists and other upper-class strata. Non-accepted POPs with high literacy, good living conditions, and few reasons to complain will tend to assimilate to an accepted culture, unless there exists a nation with their culture as its primary culture which holds cores on that province. Meanwhile, literate, high-consciousness POPs of a non-accepted culture are likely to see their militancy increase if their rights are not granted.
It is in militancy that popular nationalist struggle manifests. High POP militancy, whether caused by poorly-treated minorities or otherwise, can lead to nationalist revolts in provinces marked as the core territory of other nations, regardless of whether or not they presently exist as a state. If not suppressed in time, the rebels will break away to form their own country.
Victoria II’s approach to nationalism has several strong points. Because it is tied to the POP system, a dynamic system with firm ties to the political and economic realities of the nation’s citizens, it is able to reflect at least a few of the fluid realities of nationality and race. The economic and political advantages that the wealthy enjoy from structural racism receives some acknowledgment in the game’s mechanics.
Its shortcomings aren’t hard to spot, though. Though POPs shift dynamically between cultural groups, these groups are still themselves statically defined categories. New cultural groups do not emerge over time the way the Amhara did, and certain realities – for instance, the cultural differences between different American immigrant groups, even many of those now classified as “white” – cannot be reflected, as all of them are simply assimilated into the “Yankee” or “Dixie” group. Neither can any of the other numerous qualitatively different experiences held by members of cultural minorities or diaspora.
Indeed, a POP’s culture group fails dramatically at capturing anything qualitative at all. Rather than a loose and dynamic group of linguistic and religious similarities interacting with ever-changing ritual, social, and political habits and practices, culture groups are not much more than a label you slap onto a POP group. Practically speaking, a country with English as a primary culture and Welsh and Anglo-Irish as accepted cultures doesn’t function differently than a country with Amhara as a primary culture and Tigrayan and Oromo as accepted cultures. The only thing of consequence it influences is the degree to which the POPs feel they fit into the state you’ve created. In effect, the static pieces on the board of Video Game History™ have simply been hidden where the player can’t see them very well.
“Core” territory is another mostly immovable element of the nations of Victoria II. Though there are ways for the territorial definition of a nation to change – either by decision or by random event in non-core provinces with a sufficiently high number of accepted culture POPs – this is for the most part hard-coded into the game from the start, just like the culture categories in general. And unlike the class categories, which reflect actual economic relationships within the game, the culture categories exist simply because they do.
All of these issues are excusable. Abstractions are unavoidable in any video game, and it is difficult to imagine a better way of doing this within Victoria II’s system. And in many ways, the relative breeziness of Victoria II’s nationalism system works in its favor, serving more than anything else as pretext for existing states to declare war and assert their power. We know, both from history and from the game itself, that the nationalist movements of Europe and elsewhere cannot be separated from the history of imperialism. What’s more, many nationalist movements have lumped together millions of people who had little in common. Italy formed despite the fact that there was no such thing as an Italian cultural identity. But Italy still exists today, and as a result, so do Italians. Yugoslavia formed from a notion of South-Slavic unity that all involved thought was pretty clear. Turns out it wasn’t and now Yugoslavia’s gone.
But perhaps I should start by doing for my readers what I’ve been doing for my viewers for some weeks now: a demonstration. One of the most popular activities of the Paradox fan community is the writing of what are called “After Action Reports.” These are, effectively, narrative screenshot Let’s Plays. They are often written from an in-universe perspective in the style of popular history books, and feature accounts of the events of the playthrough interwoven with flavorful details and embellishments that the game itself does not describe. The names of political leaders, as well as historical rationales for the sometimes-irrational behavior of the AI and the sometimes-gamey behavior of the player can be explained away if the writer is creative enough. It can sometimes be difficult to tell which details occurred in the game itself, which details stem from real life history, and which are an inventor of the author.
It is in this spirit that I shall present to you an excerpt from that well-read and well-loved classic of popular scholarship, Origins of the Great War: 1875-1917, by Merid Wolde Aregay.