On video games as historiography, part 1: geopolitical diversity and homogeneity

Over the weekend, I spoke with a friend of my roommate about the blockbuster role-playing video game Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. I mentioned that Skyrim was one of the reasons I decided to study history. Below, I will reflect on my thoughts and experiences on the connections between games and the study of history.

Connecting video games and history is something I do often — as do other history enthusiasts and scholars. As I have written previously on Project Edinburgh, I grew up playing games like Fire Emblem and Age of Empires III, which introduced me — with fantasy in the former and abstraction in the latter) to the color and feeling medieval and early modern world.

In late March, I will drive (with Project Edinburgh cofounder Zach) to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, to give a presentation entitled “Europa Universalis IV: Historical grand strategy simulation games as history (and historiography),” based on a paper I wrote as a graduate student at Columbia.

Video games are a complicated tool for engaging with history. They are like maps, and in some cases such as Europa Universalis IV (EU4, for short), they are maps (Figure 1). Because they are visual, immersive, and sometimes even tactile, they have immense power to present a seductively real-feeling narrative of the past.

Figure 1: The title screen of the map-based strategy game Europa Universalis IV (source: Me, screenshot of Europa Universalis IV)

Like maps, video games represent a selective reality. Obviously, nobody playing a video game would think they are experiencing history “as it really was,” but the real connections are often made at a subconscious level. The joy of games like EU4 is precisely that they seek to give the player, in some way, an accurate experience of history. The problem is that none of us, looking at or playing the game, have the capacity to know or remind ourselves exactly where history ends and fantasy begins.

Playing thousands of hours of Europa Universalis IV, as I and many others have, may eventually instill within us some beliefs disguised as truths. For example: in the game’s map, which seeks to ‘accurately’ portray world political geography in 1444 AD, Europe is a veritable kaleidoscope of countries. Literally, as well as in its gameplay diversity, the Holy Roman Empire (central Europe) is infinitely more colorful than its contemporary Ming dynasty China (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Asia in 1444, according to Europa Universalis IV (Source: u/Not_a_Krasnal, Reddit https://www.reddit.com/r/eu4/comments/xlds2g/ming_faced_death_and_said_no/)

And it makes sense, right? Ming dynasty China was, in the 15th century, a remarkably consolidated, centralized, even authoritarian state — with an unrivaled administrative bureaucracy, and a military and economy on the cutting edge. The empire had just sent admiral Zheng He all the way across the known world to southeast Africa, well before the Europeans had made it to the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, in the Holy Roman Empire, kingdoms and duchies were feudal, decentralized, awash in local identities and rulerships, languages and governing traditions. It would be silly to represent 15th century England and contemporary Lithuania as anything but profoundly different colors on the geopolitical rainbow.

The issue, of course, is that what looks right–representations that we come to believe are realities–is not necessarily right. The Ming capital in Beijing had about as much administrative and extractive power over Sichuan and Guizhou (far southwest China) as the Austrian emperor had over his nominal subjects in Lübeck or Hamburg — that is to say, very, very little. This is not to mention the extreme sociopolitical and ethnic diversity of the Ming territories in this period, which the game erases by painting everything the same color — not terribly far off from current PRC President Xi’s own campaign of Han supremacy and suppression of minorities.

This is all not even to mention the incredibly complex, vaguely feudal system of rule practiced by Chinese dynasties throughout history but particularly prominent under the Ming and Qing: the Tusi system. The Tusi system allowed the dynastic administration to establish nominal extractive rule over far-flung territories, and created at most a distant feudal relationship between the local Tusi (translated as local chieftain) and the far-away central administration (see, for example, “The Cant of Conquest: Tusi Offices and China’s Political Incorporation of the Southwest Frontier“).

As a Ming player in EU4, you have functionally equal power over every province you own, from Hainan in the south to Shenyang near Manchuria. The faraway provinces may have more “autonomy,” an in-game province modifier, but this affects very little: in any province of your color, you can build and station troops, construct buildings, extract resources, and force-convert the people to Han culture — you could even relocate your imperial capital all the way across China to Qinghai, if you wanted!

The Holy Roman Empire in EU4, while still rife with its own inaccuracies, nevertheless captures one of the simplest truths of late-medieval and early modern Europe: centralized states did not exist. Empires, kingdoms, even duchies and counties were built on a frame of deeply fragile political agreements between autonomous or semi-autonomous ‘local chieftains.’ For example, as I have written, the Hanseatic League of German towns — perhaps the most powerful commercial organization in late medieval Europe — paid functionally no allegiance to their overlord, the Holy Roman emperor.

I wrote my application essay for my graduate studies at Columbia on the historiographical value of Europa Universalis. I am no stranger to its strengths as a way to experience and explore all the colors of history. But it also reveals, and perhaps only to the more critical eye, the difficulties of telling history: it is hard, nay, impossible to represent the kaleidoscope of culture, politics, and political geography as it really was. There are as many histories as there are people — there are as many Holy Roman Empires as there were principalities within that empire, and there were as many Chinas, Mings, Zhonguos as there were nominal subjects of the dynasty. It would serve us well to remember that, in video games and beyond.

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