The Strategy Game as Digital Humanities Document, Part I

The growing field of historical GIS has led to a concurrent growth in the use of spatially-oriented digital humanities data that is not, necessarily, GIS. The difference between the Ann Knowles edited Past Time, Past Place:GIS for History and the recent Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship, demonstrates this shift from just trying to fit GIS into historical research to using spatial techniques to present and analyze data without necessarily entering into GIS. As academics begin to move away from scientifically-oriented GIS methodology toward spatially and digitally aware, but humanities-oriented, spatial methodology, a host of best practices can be gleaned from a similar source of spatially-aware, humanities-oriented knowledge presentation: historical computer strategy games. The packaging of knowledge in these map-based historic games can inform current attempts to create national historic GIS, cultural atlases and dynamic historic world simulations. The logical growth of digital historic media into something more than passive representation of data requires a framework on which to be built and the design of strategy games, with their focus on interactivity, could provide that framework. To analyze multimedia gaming (hereafter referred to simply as gaming) for its particular benefits and drawbacks, one must focus on the centrality of the active manipulator that is the player.

Within the young field of gaming analysis, large-scale historic strategy games, such as Civilization and The Seven Cities of Gold, have received scant attention. The situation has little changed since David Myers remarked that, “aside from review articles in popular literature, there is little critical analysis of computer game structure or form.” Some attention has been given to gaming, but that attention focuses on the more visceral style found on consoles such as the Xbox or Playstation. The results have been disheartening, and highly complicated political, diplomatic and resource-allocation systems present in historic strategy games have been ignored by researchers who define gaming as first-person, visceral and, most importantly, easy for researchers to study given their resemblance to film and television. While the popularity and scope of, say, the Grand Theft Auto franchise deserves attention, it has only broad similarities to the slow-pace and large scale of historic strategy games.

A historic strategy game in the sense presented here in this paper can be defined in one of three ways. The first is best described by Marie-Laure Ryan:

Simulation games create a dynamic model of a complex entity, such as a city (Simcity), an empire (Caesar), or a family (The Sims). An emergent process, the global evolution of this entity is the product of an algorithm that computes the interrelated consequences of the actions of many individual agents and continually feeds this output back into its own engine… In keeping with its conception of life as a story that is constantly being written by the interaction between individuals and their environment… Characters are like objects: they too offer opportunities for actions by other characters… The object of the game is not to win, since life never runs out of problems to be solved, but to manage the life of the characters as successfully as possible according to cultural standards (make them rich), or to the player’s personal idea of dramatic development (for instance, create interpersonal conflicts and situations leading to catastrophic events).

The second is that it is more of an analytical than emotional exercise, with the player’s avatar not appearing as an individual but as some kind of political state entity. Classically, they are presented in an overhead view, with a variety of natural and man-made resources for the player to accumulate and manipulate. The game is presented as having multiple concurrent phases, so that one is concerned with the military, diplomatic, economic and agricultural variabilities of a state simultaneously. A final, more compact definition is the colloquial ’4X Game’. This term refers to the fourfold goal of the player’s state entity: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. While modern incarnations provide more nuance than that, they are—no pun intended—an extrapolation of this design.

These games, the most well-known being Civilization, but also, Rome:Total War and Europa Universalis, are already being treated by the lay public as academic digital media. And, like much popular academic media of questionable accuracy, “The question takes on real importance when we realize that some games have reached more people than any 50 or 100 scholarly treatises or textbooks combined.” Analysis of the mechanics and popularity of historic strategy games reveals not only best practices that could be integrated in digital humanities projects, but also an uncomfortably clear understanding of historical processes as they are viewed by the lay public.

It was the 1984 game, The Seven Cities of Gold, a hit at its time, for which the term “edutainment” was created. The player explored the continents of North America and South America, interacting with its indiginous people the 15th and 16th centuries. The game was created without any attempts by groups to audit its view of such a long-examined and long-questioned period. The absence of any historical scholars taking part in the creation of these games would prove to be a trend, and yet, “the interactive quality of such simulated histories can make them diabolically absorbing… even the most bookish, sophisticated player can find them shaping his or her understanding of the ancient past.” The home computer technology of the time allowed a robust 64 kilobytes of memory to simulate the New World and sold 150,000 copies.

In comparison, the cost to create a game has increased by a factor of twenty-two in the last twelve years, while the data created has increased between 40 and 150 times that. The world of Seven Cities took up 64k, while NASA World Wind, a modern 3D application, has a total data store of 6.4 terabytes. These games, of which Seven Cities of Gold can be seen as an early example and Civilization II can be seen as a middle-period example, have grown and developed without any consensus view as to what data should be shown, how it should be shown or even if there is any responsibility for a company to consider historical processual accuracy in the design of its games.

The standards for a different map-based type of digital media, GIS, were developed by the Federal Interagency coordinating Committee on Digital Cartography (FICCDC) in 1983 (a year before the release of Seven Cities) to bring some semblance of order to the varied digital mapping solutions in use by government agencies. Despite this centralized authority and long dialog, the GIS solutions by the early nineties were varied and unsophisticated. In comparison, strategy games had grown complex, popular and economically successful. They did so with no central authority guiding the historical accuracy that defined the games except, perhaps, “that naive faith—central to both Marxism and Christianity—that humanity is meant to get history right.” Naturally, you cannot expect a segment of the entertainment industry to institute rigorous standards for historical accuracy, but the historical accuracy of these games proved to be their selling point. So, the audience demanded adherence to historical accuracy or, at least, adherence to some system of historiography that seemed accurate, even if, on review, it demonstrated little historical sophistication.

  1. Egbert says:

    I think it also important to note that the newer versions of these games, notably Civilization IV is, by design, heavily mod oriented with the published welcoming the independent work to create and publish these significant modifications.

    The military has embraced the use of games significantly for training and scenario testing. I would think your field would lend itself particularly well to research and education using games. In conjunction with the rigorous pursuit of accuracy vice playability, Off-the shelf- technology and supported modding, this should open opportunities that were not present n the past.

  2. zarquon says:

    Hmmm, strategy gaming wasn’t invented with the C-64. The original ‘Kriegsspiel’, a set of complex rules used by the Prussian army, dates back to the early 19th century. H.G. Wells wrote and published a popular wargame around 1900, IIRC. The genre really took on a life of its own in the 1970, with hundreds of titles being developed (mostly in the US) and sold all over the world. Modern computer strategy games are simply the offspring of these games. And while the vast majority of strategy games are purely wargames with a limited historical scope (depicting tactical battles from ancient to modern times, but not going much beyond the technical aspects of killing your fellow man), there are some titles which IMO can be considered scholarly works by themselves.

    If you check out what is considered a classic of the genre, Imperium Romanum II by Al Nofi (, you’ll find a game that indeed might tell the player more about ancient history than any “50 or 100 scholarly treatises”. Or have a look at Vietnam 1965-1975 (, which I think really helps to understand the mechanics of, well, the Vietnam war, including key political aspects.

    Generally, the game designer’s job is to condense, simplify and abstract the historical data (military, economical, geographical and political facts), display them in a spatial form (the map) and devise a set of rules which govern the interactions of these elements. Of course no playable game can be considered a complete simulation of the world. But if the designer does his job right, the player can, for a few hours, play the role of Roman emperor. Or, slightly less popular, General Westmoreland. He (rarely she) will be faced with some of the decisions that his historical counterpart had to face. As Roman emperor, you have to weigh every option with your neighbor the Parthian Empire in mind. As US commander in Vietnam, you’ll be constantly frustrated by the fact that you need to be everywhere at once in a huge country, but don’t have enough troops for the job. Games make you think about the facts in a different way. Instead of just watching the story unfold on the stage, you become an actor yourself and have to improvise.

    Of course historical facts and interdependencies can be learned from texts, but there are areas where the game might be a better tool for understanding. For example, you’re talking about spatial information being sometimes crucial to the understanding of historical events. Now, a strategy game makes you stare at a map for hours, more than any book can do, but the point is that the game also forces you to consider time. With most decisions involving matters of economics, war or policy, space is often one key factor to consider, but time always is. It’s maybe the most difficult element to abstract in a game design, but a good design makes you understand that your assets plus space plus time equals your options, in a way that no textual analysis can.

    Oh, wait, you were talking about the *digital* humanities. Well, OK, computers can do the bean counting, and present stuff in 3D. That’s about it.

  3. Elijah Meeks says:

    One of the problems of studying this area is a poor naming convention, so that boardgames, operational/grand strategy wargames and 4X games get lumped in together. While I’m primarily looking at the 4X games, I think the long historical tail of the subject does fall into boardgames and tactical/strategy box games, where bean counting and tile representation can be seen without computer assistance. One of the issues I’m dealing with insofar as the digital humanities is concerned is getting scholarly credit for creating these objects. I suppose that could go both ways. If, indeed, CMBO and Imperium Romanum II and Vietnam 1965-1975 are so well-researched and extensive, do you think the designers should be recognized for their creation of academic scholarly sources? Should institutions look at the small-arms and tank warfare modeling in Combat Mission and award Steve and Charles a couple PhDs (Or, heck MAs) in history for their work?

    The other side of it, which I focus on in this essay, is that you see a ream of works that are only “historical” in the same way the movie Spartacus was historical. How do historians, who have less resources for creating academic digital media, avoid the same pitfalls of promoting bad history?

  4. zarquon says:

    Pffft. I’m new to the ivory tower, so let me take it slowly. You shoudn’t get a PhD in civil engineering for building a bridge, not even if it’s a very well designed one, unless you contributed anything new and significant to the pool of man’s knowledge (OK, OK, you’re a professional academic, stop laughing).

    Building a bridge is applying knowledge to solve a problem. But if you create a tool, e.g. write a software, that helps others to build better bridges, an academic title for you might be in the cards, even if the engineering calculations your code does are nothing new. Maybe your program has a new way of graphically representing stress in elements of a construction, making it easier for engineers to understand the complex relations between forces in those elements, find faults and test alternatives. Thereby you have advanced the science of building bridges.

    The way I see it, a game about the Roman empire cannot possibly contribute anything new to our knowledge about it. But if you agree that making a useful new tool could merit academic recognition, you can find games that are useful tools for understanding. Actually, you might say that the historical sciences exist to serve the strategy gaming industry, because they – sometimes – apply the knowledge you academics accumulate in your dusty old books.

    So you need to find criteria to seperate useful tools from those which merely got the sandals right. How much control does the player have, how much information does he have? Godlike games generally make for bad history. Does the game allow completely ahistorical (in the sense of impossible) actions? If anything is possible, it becomes a fantasy game.

    Civilization is a fantasy game, made popular by well designed gaming machanics. It’s fun seeing Cleopatra’s stealth bombers pound Mao’s phalanx into dust, but it’s somewhat ahistorical. It’s a good game, but not a simulation at all. Replace Mao with bug-eyed aliens and nothing changes, except the graphics. Getting the space (the map) right is possible, but the game allows building a thriving city in about the same time it takes a ship to cross the mediterranean sea from east to west twice. And maybe the game helps explaining why the European powers could spread European civilization across the globe – they had the better ships and the better guns. Is that all? In Civ, it is.

    CMBO has its limitations, especially when it comes to the representation of time within the game as compared to real-life battles, but it gets many spatial aspects right, as well as the interactions of different units. It can help you understand the stone-scissors-paper aspects of WWII warfare. When it comes to scholarship, does it help you to test a theory, play through a what-if scenario and have at least some faith in the results? Not with Civ, or the majority of 4X games out there. With CMBO, maybe, but the scope is limited to the more technical aspects of Hun and Russkie killing.

    Can you win a game of IR2 without paying any attention to the evil Parthians? Only if your opponent is incompetent as the typical computer game opponent. And that brings me to another point: most – if not all – computer games are designed to present a winnable challenge to the player, i.e. let him win if he makes the right decisions, because that’s more fun. Maybe fun and science are not so terribly compatible.

  5. Elijah Meeks says:

    But couldn’t the framework of 4X games (Not the games themselves) serve to allow scholars to explore emergent properties at the intersection of environment, geography, politics and society? Granted, the games themselves don’t do this, they’re focused as you’ve noted on providing an entertaining experience (I’ve always wondered about the “leaders” in Civ. What do they represent? Cultural demiurges?) but the framework of the software can provide humanities scholars with the ability to perform at least low-level historical modeling. Remove factors, modify factors, change weights and then see if a society grows differently. You can try to isolate agency from environmental and cultural determinism. Lots of academics get paid lots of money to play with models, they’re just not in the humanities. You could build concurrent historical software where all the factors are the same except one operates with a Malthusian concept of carrying capacity and the other a Boseruppian concept. You could test Marxist theories of state formation with Hegelian. Or, you could extrapolate documented events of technology diffusion to regions where the data is lacking and see if, based on your game setup, it bears out according to historical reality.

    Don’t disregard CMBO for its specificity, folks have garnered PhDs for studying even more focused subjects (The role of medallions in late 17th century France being my favorite). If the model really is as good as all the grogs have said, it’s a wonder that it hasn’t produced new knowledge regarding WWII combat, not if it hasn’t.

    Also, you may take Civilization as having all the historic merit of Bughunter, but undergraduates in history spent more time playing that than reading Gibbon, and their basic sense of historical processes reflects it. And it’s not just undergraduates. Diamond got the Pulitzer for his book claiming that Europe ended up on top for reasons any Civ-player would immediately recognize. Because of it (And not his PhD in membrane biophysics) he’s now a professor of geography at UCLA.

    Ultimately, I think you’re right about the scholarly value of 4X games, but is the medium useful for displaying humanities data (like National Historic GIS does) or analyzing it? Could it be designed to do so and would it be worth the effort?

  6. Elijah Meeks says:

    Also, regarding Egbert’s comment about the mod community. There’s been a lot of kerfluffle about academic commons-based peer collaboration (Yochai Benkler touched on the subject in his paper and then book on open source as a firm) and it may be that the strength of 4X games, with their defined unit and terrain types and the relational data between them, may provide scholars (with limited coding experience) the ability to test different theories of social complexification, agricultural intensification, culture shift and a host of other model-suitable problems.

  7. zarquon says:

    Wait, wait… you’re talking about half a dozen things at once. Using the framework of computer games for teaching purposes is entirely different from creating a simulation of social evolution (the Isaac Asimov approach, but I think that tools like this already exist).

    You can use Civ to show that sometimes it’s necessary to set the tax rate to 100% and station extra troops in every city to make the people understand the wisdom of your fiscal policy. Or else Mao will swallow your puny state whole. But that sounds like a waste of time.

    Try Victoria from Paradox games (I’m playing that one right now). It places more emphasis on economic and social developments than other Paradox games, although it’s still half a wargame (the last time I played it, Austria had conquered all of China and was busily eating up chunks of Korea when the game ended due to the fixed deadline). If you can get your undergraduates to move from Civ to Vicky, you’ve accomplished something.

    If you want to get something more out of it, have them try and identify the strengths and shortcomings of the game. Why couldn’t Austria conquer China in the 19th century? Or could they have done it, and just didn’t for the lack of trying?

    Or have them play Germany, colonize half a dozen provinces in sub-saharan Africa. The emperor spent a lot of cash building a battle fleet, and imperialism was wildly popular with the masses. Now add up the costs and benefits, something you could hardly do with real data because you don’t have them. The cost of the convoys, the troops stationed there, the colony buildings themselves amounts to tens of thousands of game pounds, and all you get in return is fifty units of wool per year, and wool isn’t particularly valuable. The only sane reason to do it is that it gives you Prestige points, and a naval base you need only to protect other loss-making colonies. Maybe your students have learned something about 19th century imperialism now. But using it as a tool for research and serious modelling… well, I don’t know.

    There still is a community of Vicky players committed to making the game more realistic (the VIP mod project). Oh, and maybe your department can buy a license for the engine, Paradox is selling those.

  8. Elijah Meeks says:

    I thought blogs were all about saying too many things at once without needing to back them up. The VIP is very interesting, just looking at the changelog makes me think it’s already a digital humanities project. I think I’ll take an in-depth look at this project, it’s exactly what I wanted as far as a case study goes.

    To whit:

    -Added events for the Bidlack’s Treaty, Panama Railroad & The Watermelon Incident
    -Corrected the “Russian Fleet Visit of 1863 by Aragos” event chain
    -Reduced prestige gains for almost the entire world (specially in flavor events)
    -Corrected the problem with the Californian independence
    -Heavilly edited the Spanish-American war
    -Integrated the new South Africa mod (with Boer culture)
    -Integrated new stuff for Australia, New Zealand and the Maoris (Aotearoa)

    So, what’s the self-organizing motivation for this? How does it differ from a historian attempting to write a history of the world or a particular region? I don’t buy the “magic circle” argument (ie that “it’s just for fun, don’t take it so seriously) because obviously these guys went off the “playing a game” map long ago.

  9. I’d be careful with the definition of “strategy gaming.” I note in particular Zarquon’s use of the term – while he uses it in the sense of computer gaming, his application to earlier games is certainly inaccurate in the sense that it is mis-applied. H.G. Wells’ rules were for physical miniatures combat, not “strategy” in the sense that Civilization players would understand the word. Kriegspiel as the Prussian General Staff knew it was a mixture of operational level planning, logistics and tactics, including what we now call “double-blind” play with unit-sized maneuver elements. In a strict wargaming sense, this is not “strategic” but “tactical” level gaming.

    There are several different levels that war can be gamed at – Strategic, Operational, Tactical, and sometimes you have the “grand” prefix added in, i.e. Grand-Strategy, Grand-Tactical, etc. Some of these terms are nebulous and sometimes they overlap. Words like “strategy” and “tactics” get thrown around a lot without people really understanding the subtle distinctions. Modern computer gaming obviously use the terms differently than the military does, but mixing references to the two genres will only compound confusion.

  10. Max says:

    “Naturally, you cannot expect a segment of the entertainment industry to institute rigorous standards for historical accuracy, but the historical accuracy of these games proved to be their selling point.”

    I’m unconvinced of this assertion. What was your source?

  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.