Karl Marx and the historical determinism of video games

History is the chaos of human events, formed into narrative upon a sloppy potter’s wheel. This is what makes it so compelling.

The myths and certainties tilt between facts of things that actually happened and interpretations, re-orderings, designed to serve us in the here and now. Bombs were dropped on London in the early 1940s. Fact. The Brits thumbed their noses at the outrage. Story.

“History is full of really bad decisions. It’s a process.”

Video game designers must take this ill-formed mess and render it into highly predictable systems that always do what the player expects them to do. The only way this can realistically be accomplished is by pretending that certain facts are malleable, and that certain stories are immutable.

On Thursday at Game Developers Conference, Chris King, a game designer at Paradox, sought to make sense of this … well … paradox. The studio where he works specializes in game franchises about the past, like Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis and Victoria.

“Computer games rely on logic,” he said. “But history is not logical. History is full of really bad decisions. It’s a process.” But there have been philosophers who believed that history is a process with an actual point, who believed that, like a line of computer code, it consisted of things that inevitably leads to other things. Karl Marx was one such. But for now, we should follow King’s logic. He gets to Marx in a while.

Even the best historical games take severe liberties with the source material. Sid Meier’s Civilization games allow you to take charge of the American empire and the city of Washington in the year 4,000 BC, a time when George Washington’s ancestors were painting themselves with woad and dancing around trees on a foggy island in the North Sea.

King gave examples of how Paradox sought to deal with history’s complexity. In Europa Universalis 4, players take over an Age of Discovery nation state and seek to build an empire. This opens up tricky problems. Cortes was a chancer who rode his luck. Was it inevitable that Spain would conquer Mexico, the most powerful empire in the Americas?

Spain was the superpower of that era. Should Spain be given Mexico at the start of the game, or does that overpower one nation? But if Mexico is a prize available to any European nation, that might trigger weird situations where the Spanish are defending the Aztecs.

The final game gives the Spanish a slight advantage in conquering Mexico, but not so much that it’s a gimme. “You can end up with English Mexico or French Mexico,” said King. The designers wanted to give players the opportunity to conquer Mexico, while placing the reasonable possibility that it would fall to Spain as part of the game.

“Players enjoy painting the map with their color,” he said. “You always want to let players do the things they enjoy, and not do the things they don’t enjoy.”

A similar trick was pulled in Hearts of Iron 4, set during World War II. The game requires that German players trigger global warfare by seeking to annex neighbors. But, as we all know, this was a disastrous move, most especially for Germany.

So the game is designed to ensure that a war begins, even if it’s not instigated by Germany. With that in mind, German players are more likely to launch the war, in order to gain first-mover advantage. However, in the real period, it’s not at all likely that Britain or the Soviet Union would have launched a war, without the provocation of German expansion.

Perhaps the most interesting example (and this is when we get to Marx) is from Victoria 2, which is set during 19th Century European colonialism in Africa. Awkwardly for the game’s desire to be realistic, the fact is that African colonies did not pay their conquerors. They tended to lose vast sums of money, not to mention lives. How does that fit into a strategy game, which relies on the concept or rewards for victories?

Some have suggested that European countries pursued colonization in order to gain prestige against their rivals. Undoubtedly, jingoistic invasions were prompted by a desire to distract the public from domestic concerns, like inequality and mass exploitation of workers. But none of this helps the game designer.

The answer comes from political philosopher Karl Marx, who argued that the foreign adventures of capitalist states are driven primarily by a desire to secure raw materials and by a wish to create captive markets of new consumers for exports. Indians, under the British Empire, were sold clothes that had been manufactured in Manchester.

The gross immorality of European expansion and wars of conquest (then, as now) is rarely a part of these games. The problem of creating systems out of moral considerations is a long way from being resolved, and certainly a long way behind systems based on avarice and power. Whether it is immoral for us to enjoy fantasies based on historical exploitation is a separate, but compelling question.

Moral considerations do not fit in with “coloring the map” which is the kick players enjoy. Marx believed that colonization and international exploitation was a deterministic process, that would inevitably usher in revolt, the fall of capitalism and the rise of global communism. Although the revolt came, and the Empires went, he hasn’t been proved correct in his ultimate conclusions. But as King pointed out, Marx’s historical system, which posits inevitabilities, looks a lot like computer programming. If X happens then Y follows.

The pursuit of raw materials, and the deprivations of same from rivals, offers up a compelling drive for rapacious countries and for strategy gamers, many decades later, looking for a rewarding challenge.

“History is complicated,” said King. “It’s difficult to balance. It’s intricacies are hard to express. History is hard.”

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