The Strategy Game as Digital Humanities Document, Part II


Seven Cities of Gold, as with many EA products at the time, was known for its high-quality interface and the ease of use it afforded. Management of assets within the game, as well as the movement across the map and the map itself, were presented in an abstracted form wherein logistical and environmental versimilitude were considered secondary to a concept known as playability. This could be translated as simplicity or elegance. Game designer Chris Crawford believed that, “popularity—perhaps even art—lay in creating a realistic human interface between player and game.” The “friendly interface design” of Seven Cities afforded an ability to interact with a complex landscape and social environment with nothing more than a joystick and a machine less powerful than a modern cellphone.

The drawbacks are apparent: Rather than the vast multitude of environments present within North America and South America, there exists in Seven Cities only swamp, desert, mountains, plains, forests and rivers. Likewise, rather than the thousands of native cultures, there is only a crude continuum of representative cultures: Hunter-Gatherer, Farming, Pueblo, Aztec and Inca. There are no Mayans in the New World of Seven Cities and, perhaps more importantly, we do not know if they were left out because of disk space or design.

The benefits require more explanation. Besides the technological achievement of cramming such an ambitious project into such meager technology, there is another, more subtle achievement: Suspension of disbelief. Danielle Berry, the designer of Seven Cities, demanded that, “Wherever possible decisions be entered into the computer by ‘doing’ rather than ‘telling’” The result of this pared-down interface was that the player expended less conscious thought regarding the environment (Both social and physical) and more on the interaction with that environment. That there was only one terrain to cover the different wetlands, swamps and bogs did not reduce but instead accentuated the experience of the player. Any representation of the world will need to make such sacrifices, and in buidling a historical media in the digital humanities, the question associated with such a decision is how that omission is used, and not whether an omission will occur.

Seven Cities of Gold map interface

Seven Cities of Gold map interface

The Static Database

The world and rules of Civilization are of much larger scope than those of Seven Cities. Rather than simply the Age of Discovery, the broad scope of Civilization ranges from 4000BCE to the present (And a half-century beyond). The gameplay of Civilization takes place on a sort of large-scale grid using what are known as ’tiled graphics’: “Images are designed and drawn within these screens according to rigidly defined, rectangular format. These images are graphed, plotted, translated, stored, and eventually reproduced as electronic pixels.” The use of tiles affords these large-scale games, with their dynamic and semi-dynamic worlds, a way of introducing manageable elements for gameplay. Each tile represents a piece of terrain or a unit which could be a city, a diplomat or a military air wing. The tiles are rated on various attributes and the interaction between tiles is mapped out by the designer, commonly in the form of a table or algorithm.

This mass-production of elements within a game, each resembling another, can crudely be described as object-oriented without too much damage being done to the term. By creating interaction tables and classes of elements, the game designer has “a vastly increased number of static details in these components, requiring a greater variety of dynamic choices from the human player.” This process allows for an exponential return on the part of player interaction. A modern game, in comparison to Seven Cities, tracks enormous amounts of landscape and logistical data, each with myriad attributes affording, assumably, a more realistic simulation of the environment.

The Runtime—or Persistance—Database

On top of the static database sits the runtime database of a game: “The line drawing in a coloring book versus the color added to it” The runtime database tracks changes to the environment and actors within it—whether the simplistic kind of changes available in Seven Cities, such as the discovery of a great lake or contact with an Aztec city, or the drastic changes available in Civilization, which can include modification of the landscape or the loss of entire armies. “Computer screens are dynamic—but mutable… They change—not only through time, but over time. Their shape changes from player to player, from playing to playing.” Tracking these changes requires enormous amounts of resources. Maintaining these changes—a condition known as persistance—is so cost-prohibitive that it is little used in any modern game. In sharp contrast is Seven Cities, designed to run on a computer with no hard-drive and barely any RAM: “Unlike most strategy-adventure games… which load the player with numerous economic and logistical decisions, it only used four commodities to model the constraints and opportunities facing the Conquistadors” This is another benefit of low-detail environments: the lessened resource cost of tracking and maintaining the changes of those environments.

That the interactions in the game world are only capable within set (though dynamic) parameters is ignored in gaming, where the goal is suspension of disbelief. However, this should be explicit in a digital humanities document which “has to expose its subjective status and operation.” Only in this way can we, as Anderson argues, move beyond the stereotype of knowledge presentation and embrace these non-standard forms of learning and teaching. In this, the strategy gaming environment provides the perfect example of techne versus poiesis and is, in a primitive way, the ‘garden’ versus the old-line narrative view of history. By integrating lessons from artificial life and simulation in a scaled-down manner that preferences humanities and spatial information, it truly does move away from“beauty, truth, mimesis, taste and form” and toward the “emergent, autopoietic, generative, iterative, algorithmic, speculative”. This develops the most striking knowledge-presentation dynamic: when a player is given the freedom to perform in a certain manner but doesn’t, because it is too difficult or too nuanced. What current digital humanities project can claim to evoke what is all too common in a game like Seven Cities or Civilization: a player may want to be a humanitarian leader that enlightens the masses and seeks non-violent solutions, but finds the sacrifices too onerous and resorts to cruel subjugation of a weaker state and its people. Modelling the deep historical processes that drive societies and historical actors is only possible if scholars model the social and historical pressures.

Play as dialectical process

Despite the linear nature of Seven Cities and Civilization, they are primarily what are known as “sandbox” games. The design of the game “provides players with the tools to amuse themselves” so that the player determines the goals of their playing. As opposed to interactive adventures, where each scene is a puzzle that needs to be solved or opponent that needs to be defeated, sandbox games allow for what approaches full latitude. This proves to be a problem with people who are coming from the perspective of the audience as well as with designers who consider the player to be an audience.

But exposure to non-linear pieces of information in historic strategy games is “where history’s complications set in. You don’t have to make peace with the Native Americans. You can kill them, and steal their resources. You can even eradicate them… You have that freedom, and if you are equipped with enough ships and men, you can be very successful…” from which Thomas’s analysis is that ” It mourns their genocide, and by putting us in their boots, we are invited to mourn, too.” But who is to guarantee that the player makes that analysis? What’s to say the analysis will not, instead, be disgust at weakness and a sense of cultural superiority? Unlike obviously fantastical games involving widescale, physically impossible carnage, the “magic circle” that separates games from reality, and in the case of historic strategy games, separates games from the player’s understanding of historic processes, is incomplete or even nonexistant.

Some of Bunten’s elements of a successful game are that: “You should be able to personalize your game… keep the features down” so that players “could concentrate on human psychology” as opposed to technological flash. Along with: “The computer-age truism, garbage in-garbage out, is certainly best kept in mind. The software only displays the historical sophistication of its framers.” This is not quite accurate. Player interaction within a gameworld is mediated by the rules of the game but these rules are only so good as the rulemaker and the player, who combine to create a unique instance—each time somehow different than the last and different, even if only slightly, from all other experiences with such sandbox games. It is not only the historical sophistication of the framer, but also the historical sophistication of the framed, which is itself informed by the playing of the game, producing a long-term dialectical feedback loop that can either reveal or reinforce, depending on the design of the game.

Comments are closed.