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.