Entry 4: Digital War is Hell

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.

Additional Dispatches

  • 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.

Next Entry: “Wake Nicodemus”

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8 comments

  1. snippett · February 24, 2015

    I’ve always wanted a Civil War entry in the Total War series, I think the Empire and Napoleon games have already set it up perfectly, adding the economic and political aspect the Total War series has would be a boon to the genre. I don’t think any mainstream game would ever be able to tactfully broach the subject of slavery, it’s bound to offend and the larger publishers will always shy away from that kind of bad press. But imagine a Total War: Civil War playing as the Confederacy, trying to juggle the Eastern and Western Theaters, up against numerical and economic superiority, with only cotton as a potential financial lifesaver. Throw in some political intrigue with the possibility of French and British intervention, make sure you get the balance right with generals (penalties for ones like Bragg, Burnside, Hooker etc and advantages playing with the geniuses: Lee, Longstreet, Jackson, Grant, Sherman, especially Forrest) and you have the perfect Civil War grand strategy game. Imagine keeping Stonewall alive through to Gettysburg!

  2. Zac Cowsert · February 10, 2015

    Great, thought-provoking post. I’ll share a few of my own provoked thoughts! I think at the root of the issue is the question of trivializing death, and when in time does it become acceptable to re-enact or “play” with historical conflict?

    First, to a certain extent, we could lament ANY game that trivializes death, historical or no. Indeed, can a game appropriately convey the all the emotions that accompany death and its aftermath? Would it even be a game? Maybe more precisely, perhaps every game fails to fully convey the seriousness of death, but do some games handle the topic of death more appropriately than others? How could Ultimate General better convey the political, moral, and physical ramifications of conflict? Should it?

    Second, does distance make “playing” death more acceptable? The Rome/Medieval/Shogun Total War games create all the same problems–corpses become tiny broken animations, you simulate death and war, you make cold, calculating decisions that would’ve cost lives, etc. Are these simulations of death more acceptable because these conflicts happened further in the past? Or is a board game more/less acceptable, when death is taking a plastic figurine off the board?

    Personally, I don’t really have a problem with games of this nature, as long as they remain in the realm of gaming (as opposed to reenacting). Perhaps ethically, these games minimize death, but the alternative is no games at all (and perhaps trivializing death is a human way of coping with death).

    On a different note, I play a lot of strategy games myself, and I’m shocked there isn’t a wider and better selection of Civil War strategy games. I keep waiting for a Total War Civil War game. Otherwise, the games all seem to be tactical–not strategic–in nature (usually refighting Gettysburg or another big Eastern theater battle). I think a strategic game could better incorporate moral/ethical/political issues.

    • Christian McWhirter · February 10, 2015

      Hi Zac,
      Thanks for your excellent comment. I’m preparing a follow-up post so I’ll keep some of my answers to myself but I think you make a really good point about whether a video game can or should convey the negative consequences of your actions, especially death. I think the type of game definitely matters. An RPG that allows you to be either a moral or immoral character (as most RPGs these days do) often shows you the implications of your actions through dialogue or plot progression. A strategy game can’t really do that. Civilization, for instance, doesn’t punish you for playing as a ruthless dictator or reward you for being a model neighbor. Each choice comes with its own positives and negatives and they are simply presented that way. Personally, I think this is can be a strength, because it makes strategy games impressionistic. The game doesn’t tell you how to feel about your actions but allows you to project your own sense of morality. Call me a wuss, but I always feel a little bad if I completely run over a passive neighbor in a strategy game. By presenting you with those kinds of choices, the game can prompt that kind of self-evaluation, which can be cool if done right. I don’t think Ultimate General really does this in any way but, like you, I’m not sure hoe that could be possible in a tactical game.
      And I also can’t explain why there aren’t more good Civil War games. We’re still waiting for a good grand strategy version of the war.

  3. Andy Hall · February 9, 2015

    I know Darth Mod’s work from various Total War titles. But I have a similar reaction to mods to that series (not by Darth Mod) — it’s too close.

    • Andy Hall · February 9, 2015

      Should have written,

      reaction to ACW mods. . . .

    • Christian McWhirter · February 9, 2015

      Hi Andy. I haven’t played enough Total War to get into the mods, but I can tell you Ultimate General has a much smarter AI than those games which makes it much more enjoyable for me, if also a little too realistic.

  4. Scott A. MacKenzie · February 9, 2015

    I tried playing Sid Meier’s Gettysburg and Antietam years ago but it didn’t work for me. I preferred another almost forgotten game called Age of Rifles. One could make all kinds of scenarios with its editor, but it came with numerous Civil War battles. There’s also North and South.

    • Christian McWhirter · February 9, 2015

      I always wanted to get Age of Rifles but never did. Back then my main Civil War game was Civil War Generals 2, which I’ll cover in a future post.

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