The ethics of virtual empire-building, or: why everybody wants to rule the world

Empire-building games, from Crusader Kings 2 to Civilisation V, feed our desire for power and control. But if you try to replay history as an ethical god-king, guess what happens? France invades.

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The syncing of the Bismarck: in Civilization V, the German leader has a special ability called “Furor Teutonicus”. Image: Firaxis

Video games love a power fantasy and power fantasies don’t get more universal than the desire to be in control. Whether that is control over something fairly mundane, like taking over your company so you can have the weekend start on Monday, or being the undisputed and undying ruler of a whole civilisation, sometimes we’d all like to be the one calling the shots. The fantasy of control, of the ability to shape the world, particularly in a historical context, has always held a strong appeal to fans of video games, and for as long as there have been computer systems able to run them there have been games built around it.

Way back when these games first started to appear in their recognisable modern form, arguably with the birth of the Civilization series in 1991, things were kept fairly simple. The roots of the Civilization games lie in board games like Risk rather than in attempts to simulate the development of a nation. Over time, however, the Civilization games have grown more complex and more comprehensive, with more civilisations to choose from and a greater range of factors to consider. Other games have also appeared with different approaches to the theme, such as those made by Paradox Interactive, whose various series mesh together to create an almost unbroken chronology from the Dark Ages to the Cold War. Also the Total War series, the scope of which has been growing consistently over the years to the extent that in the most recent offering, Rome 2, the titular wars feel almost like an afterthought.

Over the years such games have brought me a lot of happiness, mixed in of course with a few hours of outraged disbelief tinged with despair at the evil sense of humour displayed by the random number generators in Europa Universalis 4 and Victoria 2.

These are games that make for enjoyable diversions when you have a lot of time to fill. Often challenging, requiring long-term strategic thinking and the ability to interpret data while at the same time expecting you to be able to react to new problems as they appear. There is a freedom that comes from playing as the leader of a nation, answerable to nobody, with armies and navies on standby if anybody tries to take you to task for your actions.

What sets this sort of game apart from most others, even those that are also designed around some form of wish fulfilment, is that these are not games about completing tasks at the behest of others. Nor do they require the undoing some great injustice and restoring the status quo. Instead these are games about seeking power for yourself, about your own ambitions, about changing the world according to your own plan. Self-determination is still the exception rather than the norm for most games. In spite of the fact that you are going out there to pursue greatness at the expense of others these games seldom cast you as the villain, indeed you are usually hailed as a great leader. By the normal run of things when one nation seeks global domination the hero is the one who stops them, but not in the world of the empire building game.

The way that the player affects the world is very profound in these games. Where a typical story-driven narrative might have you saving civilisation as we know it, you don’t actually get to create civilisation. Building up your society, then defending it, or unleashing it upon others, is a much more creative process than merely putting right a set of scripted wrongs in the world. This is true even in the more historically-minded games because after you’ve played the game for a while the world map is probably going to look a lot different to how it would in a history book. Moments of chance during conquests and colonisation redraw borders in all kinds of ways.

However, when looking at these games and the creative freedom they offer to players it is equally important to look at where their designers have chosen to place the limits on that freedom. Take Civilization V for example: you are free to build cities on almost any land that is unclaimed, and you are free to decide if your nation will be a handful of great sprawling cities scattered far and wide or a teeming nest of smaller towns clumped together. But you are not free to not have cities. There are no nomads in the world of Civilization, nor is there much migration.

Equally we can see in the technology trees and the way that societies develop that the route taken must be very close to that pursued by the modern western democracies. We cannot, for example, experiment with what might have happened had the Romans not conquered Greece and stifled its incredible scientific progress. We cannot examine a line of development whereby the Islamic Golden Age that started in the 9th Century isn’t halted by the sacking of Baghdad at the hands of nomadic invaders who according to the Civilization model of development shouldn’t have even been there. Instead we have to flap about with a few hundred years of medieval development that wouldn’t have taken half as long without Papal pyromaniacs threatening to incinerate anybody who looked like they might be about to discover something substantial.

This attachment to the culture and developmental path of the western world lies firmly at the heart of Civilization as a series and serves somewhat to undermine the game’s diverse selection of characters and playable nations. Unexamined survivorship bias tells us that societies can only evolve one way, the way ours did, without considering the twists and turns that lead us here, twists and turns that would be completely different inside the world of the game.

Alongside this is the reliance upon the modern nation state as the first and only model of society that exists. You start the game and create your city and it will immediately have clearly defined borders, your little village will be a nation state pretty much as we understand the term today.

The problem of controlling a state in times when states as we know them didn’t exist is addressed by Crusader Kings 2, which is set between the 8th and 15th centuries. In this game, rather than playing as a country, you take control of successive members of a royal dynasty in some sort of hereditary demonic possession. Control is passed from deceased parent to child, bouncing around the bloodline until the family tree is finally hewn down or the game ends. In the game the world is divvied up according to who owns what rather than the typical sense of identity that comes with nationalism. Different cultures, creeds and religious groups do exist in the game, but what matters the most is which noble has the strongest claim to the land.

Approaching the medieval world in this way is refreshing because it shows a truer picture of the reality of statecraft in that era than you’d ever expect to find in similar games. However, it also brings home the corruption of it all. The state, in this primordial form, is less a country as we know it today and more the sum of a monarch, their army, their friends and their armies. Ordinary people, the lowborn as those of them that do break into contact with the nobility are called, barely merit a mention. The idea of keeping the people happy in order to run a well ordered society is replaced with a more direct need to keep the other nobles happy lest they betray you. Unlike in many similar games where rebellions materialise out of a generally unhappy population in Crusader Kings 2 more often than not your enemy has a name and a face. That count over in the neighbouring province who covets your title, the son of the king you killed on your way up the ladder still carrying a grudge, or your brother eyeballing your share of an inheritance. Over the years your characters as you play through the generations, might find themselves clashing with the same people and most often these disagreements will be rooted in personal grudges and greed rather than any desire for a greater good.

The way that Crusader Kings 2 handles this, by making so much of the politics spiteful and venal sheds light onto one of the more subversive elements of this genre of games. That is the idea that pretty much everybody involved in politics, whether it’s Haile Selassie or Gandhi in Civilization V, or any of your assorted regal rivals in Crusader Kings 2, or even the faceless governments of the later games such as Europa Universalis 4 or Victoria 2, every single one of them is a double-dealing swine who will screw you over in the blink of an eye the second it benefits them to do so. Such is the nature of the video game – everything is numbers. When the numbers are no longer in your favour relations will turn sour with potentially lethal consequences.

This portrayal of politics at national level as an exercise in pure cynicism seems to go against many of the guiding principles of a civil society. We need to believe that people in government are not purely self-serving, that they are to some extent working for us. Without the belief that politics is public service democracy can’t function, or at least it cannot function correctly or with much legitimacy. In empire building games though this is not the case, nothing is done for the benefit of the people such as they are, only for the benefit of the state. The Paradox games portray this in perhaps the most unintentionally cynical method by expressing the happiness of your people purely through their risk of revolt. People are thriving with a good standard of living? No revolt risk. People are living in misery but are brutally repressed? No revolt risk. To the player, the ruler, each is as good as the other.

We also see this cynicism expanded into the international sphere of these games as nations compete for living space, resources and scientific development. Looking at the world through the eyes of the ruler of a nation in Civilization V or Europa Universalis 4, there are no friends there are only allies of convenience. This setting is a study in pleonexy, where you are driven not to create a better world or to uplift humanity but to look out for yourself. You’re there to be crowned the winner of history not just by success for your own people but also and more crucially by ensuring nobody else succeeds better than you do. You might have been close allies with a nation since you were both chasing around after bison in the same wilderness, but to win the game sooner or later you’ve got to sabotage them, or they’ll do it to you. You can initiate full scale nuclear war in Civilization and yet still win, still get the end screen and still get the pat on the head.

The presence of a final judgement in the form of a score or a finishing line is also an interesting one and it plays with our notions of right and wrong. For example, going to war by choice for reasons of conquest is perhaps one of the worst things that it is possible for a human being to do, to the point that a sizeable chunk of our cultural output is dedicated to stories of the megalomaniacs who do that sort of thing being undone in the name of all that is good and virtuous. But in an empire-building game war loses its ethical baggage.

War becomes something that you can do in order to further your goals. It becomes a legitimate tactic of policy. You barely even have to come up with a reason why. You don’t have to promise to bring democracy to the Middle East. You don’t have to pretend that you are protecting the neutrality of Belgium. You don’t even have to bump into another guy in the pub and make it look like it was his fault your pint got spilled. You weigh up the costs, you look at the possible consequences and then you can make it happen.

This, of course, varies from game to game and the Paradox games will usually demand that you can produce a legitimate reason for going to war or suffer further penalties for it, often steep ones. But this is okay because you can fabricate claims on the lands of other people or provoke rebellions in their countries and then support those rebellions with your own soldiers. It is not difficult to circumvent any notions of justice when the machinery of government has its heart set on it. War, like true love, always finds a way.

Games not holding the player to high moral standards are nothing new, of course. From Saints Row to Assassin’s Creed by way of Skyrim and Mario Kart we’re encouraged to murder, steal and even, though it represents an affront to all that is good and true in the world, fire blue shells. But being able to start wars of conquest? That’s a hell of a thing. And yet in these historical games it really isn’t. It’s just one more way to get what you want. Without ever being presented as edgy or dark these games allow players to flirt with the worst kind of evil, the calculating, banal, kind of evil that sees aggressive wars as a legitimate means to an end. Shielded from consequences and making selfish decisions for their own aggrandisement I wonder how many players find themselves for all their noble intentions running their countries like Mao or Stalin, leaders who are notable absent from the Civilization roster but would be right at home on it.

There feels like a lack of self-awareness in the Civilization games in particular. They present themselves as games that celebrate the journey of humanity from early settlements to exploration of the stars, but the truth of the game is much more about how you choose to defeat your rivals. The heart of Civilization is not in the human species achieving greatness, it is in victory over your opponents and if that victory takes the form of systematically eradicating every other person from the planet the game won’t judge you for it.

For myself, I try to play these games less to win, more with an eye to being the right sort of god-king. I try to treat my subjects well and I try to embrace enlightened thinking, the pursuit of science and of liberty, underpinned by a stable and legitimate system of government. And you know what happens? In Crusader Kings 2, France invaded. In Europa Universalis 4, France invaded. In Victoria 2, France invaded. And in Civilization V I was neck deep in Aztec tank battalions before I could say, “Hail Quetzalcoatl” which in fairness was quite a long time into the game. By pursuing a policy of peace and goodwill to all men I might as well have been marking out my nation to facilitate convenient armoured vehicle parking.

Maybe there really is a lesson here about the correct way to run a country. Maybe the games are right and politics is just an exercise in how to get yours and how to stop everybody else getting theirs. I’d like to think that they are wrong, though the evidence might suggest otherwise.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture