Ultimate General: Gettysburg. Designed by Nick “Darth Mod” Thomadis and Ilias Georgopoulos.
Release Date: October 16, 2014
I’m only a little embarrassed to admit I’ve been playing historical video games for almost three decades. Games like Civilization, Defender of the Crown, and Panzer General actually inspired some of my initial interest in history. It’s difficult to pinpoint what I still like about them, but it’s nice to occasionally engage with history in an uncomplicated and less intellectual way. I came into history as a buff and I like briefly revisiting that mindset. The problem is there’s really no going back. My mind starts considering the historical implications of what I’m doing whether I want it to or not. This can just make a game seem like a dumb waste of time but sometimes it can even make me feel a little guilty, especially if its a Civil War game.
Take, for example, my most recently-purchased historical game: Ultimate General: Gettysburg. I don’t buy or play video games nearly as often these days but this one came highly recommended and cheap. It allows you to re-fight the Battle of Gettysburg as either the Army of Northern Virginia or the Army of the Potomac. Like its obvious inspiration, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, it takes you through a series of scenarios, each determined by your success (or lack thereof) in the previous one. According to my Steam account, I’ve spent about forty hours playing it since November, so I can report that these scenarios often lead you to very counter-factual places, but never completely implausible ones. Do a better job holding Seminary Ridge against Hill on July 1–maybe counter attack before Ewell shows up. Take Culp’s Hill from the Federals–maybe move Longstreet to the Confederate left and take Cemetery Ridge from behind. This originality, as well as it’s accurate-enough depiction of nineteenth-century warfare, keeps the game fun and re-playable for Civil War geeks like me.
But I can’t help but feel a little conflicted playing Ultimate General: Gettysburg. Knowing as much as I do about the horrors of Civil War combat has partially ruined these sorts of games by making it impossible for me to ignore how I’m simulating massive slaughter. Look at the image above; it’s hard to tell but the middle of the battlefield is loaded with tiny blue and grey corpses. When your digital brigades come into enemy artillery or rifle range, some of them will start to drop to the ground and their bodies will remain there until the end of the scenario. In some cases, this leads to such a proliferation of casualties that it effectively replicates the much-cited Civil War phenomenon of being able to walk across a spot of land without touching earth. Do these little guys have digital Sims-style families waiting for them back home, who now have to stare sadly at a vacant chair while grieving in thought bubbles? Each scenario ends with a casualty count for both sides that partially determines your score. You naturally root for your opponent’s number to be as high as possible, flagrantly hoping for a digital bloodbath despite knowing that such an outcome would be horrifying in reality.
Politics constitutes another area that bothers me more these days. When I was younger, I preferred to play Civil War games as the Confederates. This was partially because the Confederates were the losers, so achieving victory for that side was more interesting and seemed like more of an accomplishment. I tend to switch between the Confederates and the Union each play-through of Ultimate General to mix things up, but now the Confederates come with more political and ethical baggage. The image above is of a scenario I’ve played a few times, in which you control the entire July 2 assault on the Union left. I usually fair about as well as the real Rebels but I’ve managed to drive the Union from the Round Tops a couple of times and admit it was a real thrill to watch Vincent’s brigade flee toward Baltimore Pike. Bringing up Confederate cannons and putting the rest of the Union line under a devastating enfilading fire also proved very satisfactory. But once the dust settled, the potential results of my ahistorical victory started to pop into my head. In this digital alternate reality I just created, will there be no visit by a little pixelated Lincoln four months later to deliver the Gettysburg Address? Did I just condemn millions of virtual African Americans to perpetual slavery? It’s all nonsense, of course, but I can never really ignore the historical context of games like this. I can still play as the Confederates because I know there are no real consequences for that choice, but that doesn’t stop my brain from imagining them anyway.
In the end, I have to admit to myself that playing a game like this makes me as guilty as the next guy of engaging in the “football analyst” approach to the Civil War that I lamented in my first post. Maybe escaping into this sort of military fantasy in private isn’t as bad as espousing such an oversimplified view publicly, but that could just be a rationalization. Or maybe I should just stop worrying and have a little stupid fun.
- I realize this entire entry marks me as a major geek, but doesn’t being a professional historian do that anyway?
- Ultimate General is truly an unfortunate title. It sounds more like some kind of military superhero than the banner for a series of well executed battle simulations.
- Does it mention slavery? Not a bit, since the game makes no effort whatsoever to situate the Battle of Gettysburg within any larger historical context.
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