On Morality in Historical Games

In my last post, I fretted about some of the unethical choices I was making in Ultimate General: Gettysburg. I’ve continued to think about the issue over the past couple of days and I have a few more comments because I think for a certain subset of people, these games are the primary way they interact with history. In essence, the central question here is the same that’s preoccupied designers and critics of modern games like Grand Theft Auto: Is something that’s immoral in real life equally immoral in a video game?

I think it might be instructive to bring in examples from outside of the Civil War. One of my favorite historical games series is the Europa Universalis franchise. In short, these games allow you to select any nation and play it as part of a complex simulation of global politics, economics, and religion from the fifteenth century to the end of the Napoleonic Wars. While it’s possible to pick a country anywhere in the world, the game is obviously geared toward a European state, with an emphasis on proto-capitalist expansion and imperialism.

Europa Universalis IV

Now, building an imperialist European state suggests a host of morally repellent historical practices but these usually remain subtext. However, this veneer evaporates if you choose to colonize Africa. The entire map is broken down into small “provinces” and each is assigned a primary commodity, which becomes part of your trade system once you control the province. For many African provinces, that commodity is slaves (represented in the first game by a picture of enslaved Africans and in subsequent versions by a shackle). This is, of course, historically accurate and the game is so wedded to historical accuracy that it doesn’t allow you to abolish the slave trade until about the 18th century, when real anti-slavery movements arose in Europe (as shown in the top image). At those times, I act like a diligent 21st-Century fellow and dutifully abolish slavery within my empire (which typically replaces slaves with wheat as my African provinces’ primary commodity), but didn’t I just simulate centuries of mass enslavement and the destruction of wide swathes of Africa’s culture? Is this something I really ought to be doing ostensibly for pleasure? The game’s simulation of North American colonization is equally fraught with disturbing subtext (for thoughts on that, I refer you here).

I can stomach these elements because I realize that part of the value of a game like Europa Universalis is that it is serious about simulating the past and, in that past, imperial leaders only saw parts of Africa as sources of human chattel and North America as an essentially hollow landscape ready to be filled by white settlers. But every time I see that little picture of enslaved Africans ready to be shipped away, I can’t help but feel a little icky. Maybe that’s a good thing because certain elements of history should make us feel uncomfortable, but it still seems odd as part of a video game.

The original Panzer General only let you play the game as Nazi Germany.

And it’s not like there isn’t a line that these games won’t cross. There are lots of strategy games that allow you to play as Nazi Germany, but I don’t think any attempt to simulate or even suggest the Holocaust. Such a representation would be historically accurate, but industrial genocide is clearly (and thankfully) off-limits for game designers. Europa Univeralis effectively simulates genocide in the way it handles colonization and Sid Meier’s Colonization more blatantly does by allowing you to adopt an aggressive policy toward Native American tribes and conquer them by force. This results in the destruction of their settlements and permanent removal from the map (you also often get a little wagon loaded with treasure as a sort of ill-gotten reward, especially if the settlement belonged to the Aztecs or Incas). The game penalizes you for this in your final score, but it lets you do it nonetheless. Does that make these games essentially immoral?

Civilization 4: Colonization

Obviously, I don’t find these games unacceptably unethical or I wouldn’t have played them enough to write about them here. For me, they are similar to historical fiction in which historical actors do reprehensible things that situate them in a particular historical culture. But I study history for a living and am more aware of the contexts for these events and phenomena than most “gamers.” By presenting these historical atrocities objectively and making players directly responsible for their propagation and maintenance, are these games moving beyond merely displaying immoral behavior and actually endorsing it, even if only in a digital environment? Furthermore, does a game trivialize something like the Atlantic slave trade by making it just one element of a massive global simulation? Maybe, but there’s also educational value in forcing players to confront uncomfortable historical truths. I think it’s up to programmers, like the creators of any art, to take these issues seriously and not just censor them out of the historical record. But it’s also up to the user to intellectually engage with what they’re doing and remember that the events they are simulating had real consequences for those involved, both positive and negative.

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One comment

  1. Satchel29 · February 13, 2015

    Nice post, but you forgot to mention the native “convert” you get when you destroy a Native village in Colonization. Are they captures slaves? Are they recently orphaned children that are now yours to raise (residential school style)? Are they turncoats? In each case it’s difficult to fathom what the programmers had in mind. The treasure cart might be ill-gotten but at least it’s straightforward (you stole their valuables). The “convert” is immoral quicksand. Better just not to think about it.

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