Imperialism for Fun?

Many video games allow their players to explore history by taking control of an empire. The player must manage their empire, balancing war, culture, science, and funds, among other things. Some games, like the Civilization series, start at the dawn of agriculture, allowing players to experience the entirety of history. Others, like the Europa Universalis, Victoria, and Total War series, start and end at specified dates, aiming to capture specific periods. Although there are many games in this genre, known as “strategy” or “grand strategy”, these series are some of the most renowned in the field. For my print project, I will analyze how these series depict imperialism from 1444 (the start date of Europa Universalis IV) to 1936 (the end date of Victoria II).

The specific games I will be looking at are the most modern entries in each series that takes place during this time period. This will be Europa Universalis IV (2013), Victoria II (2010), Civilization VI (2016), and Empire: Total War (2009). Each game either takes place during or includes the era of European imperialism. I will explore different aspects of imperialism and how these games handle these aspects. Examples may include reasons behind colonialism, the depictions of indigenous people, and how the process of colonialism occurs, among others. These games also have in-game text that gives context to the action, such as biographies of important figures and descriptions of technologies. I will look at this text as well, since it provides the best approximation for how the game itself views these topics. One source I am currently unsure about is out-of-game information, such as interviews with game designers. This could provide valuable insight into how these games are meant to depict these topics. However, developers’ intentions and how the game actually plays out often differ, and for the average player, the games’ depictions are usually more prevalent. Depending on what I find, and if it can fit in, it might be an interesting topic to see how developers’ intentions played out in the final product.

Even the cover might show some things about these games. No points for guessing which continent gets the most love in this game.

Other topics I may explore include the change over time in these games. Three of these games are sequels, and all of those have significant changes from the first entries in their series. This has come with different depictions of imperialism and associated topics. The games themselves have also changed over time, through updates. These can reflect changing views on imperialism and treatment of indigenous cultures, such as Civilization’s recent update on how “barbarian” cultures are handled. If it is appropriate, I can present possibilities of how these games may better show these topics. I am also interested in doing research into how these games affect public perception of these topics. There are popular public forums for these games, on which I would be able to create polls. Although these polls would not be scientific surveys, they may provide some information on what players know about topics like imperialism, and how they feel the games relate to those topics.

Games are a very interactive medium for history. Although education is not the first goal for most of them, they can still provide some information that players did not know. By studying the depiction of imperialism in these games, I hope to learn whether the information these games provide is accurate, or whether it is even trying to be accurate. Colonialism and imperialism are still touchy topics today, and I am interested to see how they intersect with entertainment.

5 Replies to “Imperialism for Fun?”

  1. Shaan, I think this is such an interesting idea! I’m excited to see where it goes. I know you mentioned discussing the depiction of indigenous peoples, but will you be specifically looking at the characterization of race as well? I think that could be an interesting question to ask of the games–how does race appear for characters that are colonizers in contrast to characters that are indigenous? And do people who play the game pick up on that difference? Excited to hear more about this project!

    1. Thanks for the feedback! Race holds an interesting position in these games. Many things that are closely linked with race, like slavery, are included in these games, yet race itself is almost never mentioned. At most, it’s a purely visual component. That absence is definitely a topic I’d like to look into, and it poses some interesting questions.

  2. Shaan, I am really excited about your project because when we first started this class, this approach to studying historical video games was one of my project ideas. It is such an interesting part of digital history and one that I think is worth delving into. Similar to my project, these video games prove to be unique case studies into how history can be presented in media. I also like your focus on imperialism and colonialism because it is such a prominent subject for video games like the ones you are covering. I look forward to hearing more about your project if you decide to go further with this idea!

  3. Hi Shaan, I think is a great idea! (though my 13-year old heart breaks a little to see Empire Total War on your list, it makes complete sense) These games arguably push players towards colonial actions such as conquest and proselytizing religions. I think another angle may be to examine what “empires” are playable and which aren’t, and see what themes emerge from there? I’m thinking about another game series, Crusader Kings, which makes you pay for DLC to play as non-white cultures and realms.

  4. Shaan, this is a great topic! Lots of directions that you can take this as you get into analysis too. If you do decide to do this as your project I think your main issue is going to be sorting out how to zero in on the specifics of what parts this to focus on.

    I think your approach to looking at multiple games makes a lot of sense. That said, I think you could also do a project like this focusing in on any one of the games you’ve mentioned too. If you do look at multiple games it would likely be good to pick a specific issue in imperialism and look at how that issue plays out across multiple games. For instance, you could take the “barbarian” concept from the Civ series and specifically look at how each game series defines and characterizes different kinds of civilizations and peoples and what they are capable of.

    If you do run with this, I would encourage you to get a hold of a copy of “Playing with the Past” (https://playingwiththepast.com/ ) which has a series of relevant and related essays that you could look at to both iron out your approach to analysis and identify existing literature to situate your project in relation to.

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