Monday, April 21, 2008

The historiography of grand strategy computer games (aka. the most boring title ever for a post)

I have been playing a computer game recently, and it's good. It's addictive and eats up time. It's called Europa Universalis, and it's one of the most complicated and historiographically acceptable of any of the 'conquer the world' games I've played yet. The combat of armies, the loose political organization, the factoring in of culture and religion in a non-trivial way all make for a fun but also acceptably historical game. It's nothing like another favorite of mine, Medieval: Total War, which makes each playable faction out to be an empty container that can build a massive force and steamroll across Europe regardless of culture and religion.

But amid all this is a disturbing little nugget: the way that EU calculates the rate at which your government researches technology exposes two important ideas about how nations advance, both of which are faulty.

First, advances in technology - from governmental forms to new types of military to better trading practices - come about only by direct investment from the player. Since you play as the central government of your faction, this seems to be telling us that governments create innovation, and that advances are made only this way. I give the developers a huge amount of leeway since they had to think of some system, and even if they didn't mean this, I must discuss it.
Most large advances in any area of technology came from individual or group (though not always private) experimentation or thought. They did not come from governments pouring big buckets of money into an idea. This only began to happen when new technology became expensive. The first big tech breakthrough totally made by governments was, in my opinion, the atomic bomb. There is only one other big breakthrough since then: spaceflight. Some would even argue that the government spaceflight programs are a dead end, marking not a breakthrough but a hobbled mistake that needs to be ditched. The major breakthroughs until then, from Longbows and heavy armor for knights and horses to powered flight to electronic components were mostly free of government funds. Most great political thinkers weren't subsidized.

The second problem with EU's historiography is again about technological research. In the complicated formula determining how quickly an area of research is completed, there is a variable based on which major culture group your faction belongs to. Based on which group you belong to, your research speed gets multiplied by a number. The groups and their values are:
  • Latin (Western Europe): 1.0
  • Eastern (Eastern Europe): 0.9
  • Muslim: 0.8
  • Indian (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh): 0.5
  • Chinese (and Southeast Asia): 0.4
  • African: 0.2
  • New World: 0.1
Well if that isn't Eurocentric and condescending! This feature actually wasn't required to make the game playable, unlike my first complaint. Even taking the actual values very lightly, there is a startling downplaying of New World tech and ideological prowess. Africa likewise gets shafted. The game begins in 1453, when Muslims, not Westerners, were the preeminent culture group. China's technology rivaled Europe's for maybe another two centuries.

What this means is that by the time you being to colonize as a European faction, the African and New World ones are pushovers. Your troops cut them to bits and settle on their lands. There are, however, good arguments to be made that New World tech was actually much more advanced in some areas than European kinds. The bows Amerinds made were superior to European bows and guns, and hardened leather armor they used could actually repel bullets up until better methods were found in the 1840s.

This game, like almost every other I've played, seems dead set on explaining that Europe really was the best in most every way. It's nearly impossible to play as a New World faction, and I (playing as England) ripped apart an Amerind alliance of three nations comprising the entire Southern US, then without stopping conquered all of Mexico and Central America. From this game, it's pretty evident that a kind of Eurocentric and imperialist attitude to history still exists.

(For more on Amerind sophistication, read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Charles Mann is an amazing popularizer of real, substantial history.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the world is not a game even if the europeans invent the game and make the rules the meek shall inherit the earth

the pope