Historical Simulations as Problem Spaces: Some Guidelines for Criticism

What simulation games do best as interpretations is present the past in terms of problem spaces. This is a concept I have co-opted from games and learning theorists (most notably Henry Jenkins and Kurt Squire) for use in thinking about how we teach and learn about the past and use simulation games. I have an article in the works that addresses  some aspects of this, but I want to test these ideas out in the meantime. I am also inspired by the recent posts from Trevor and Rebecca and the enthusiastic feedback they generated and wanted to make some sense of that in relation to my work.  Any feedback would be most welcome.



The concept of problem space is a highly useful tool for studying historical simulations, teaching history, and using the former to help in the latter.  Simulation games are interpretations of the past designed as problem spaces. A problem space, at least as I currently define it, has the following features:

  • Players, or in the physical world, agents,  have roles and goals generally contextualized in space
  • They make choices in an effort to achieve these goals
  • The choices available and their success or failure are shaped by:
    • The affordances of the space (which can include quantifiable resources, cultural frameworks, psychological tendencies, etc.)
    • The constraints of the space (which can include finite quantifiable resources and scarcity, cultural frameworks, psychological tendencies, etc.)

The problem space design of a simulation game is, in some respects just a more sophisticated articulation of the basic core of game-ness. By most definitions games require players, conflict, and a quantifiable outcome. Players have affordances and constraints embodied in rules. What a historical simulation game does, however, is craft a virtual problem space that represents a real-world one.

The problem spaces in simulation games are subject to some particular constraints. One of the most important is the constraint of quantification. Simulation game programs, as computer games, must be reducible to 0s and 1s – this is the only language through which a CPU can receive orders. Consequently, all elements of a historical simulation game, including agents and their motives, must be reducible to numbers. My favorite example of this is the happiness metric found in many city-builders. This takes a very imprecise real-world concept and transforms it into a precise number that can be increased or decreased in precise ways (often through food, housing, jobs, taxes, and amenities) that have a precise effect on the city population (generally determining whether immigration or abandonment occur). Happiness, productivity, popular unrest, attack and defense strength, espionage effectiveness, cultural influence—no matter how qualitative the concept in the real-world, if it’s an actual mechanic in a game, it is strictly quantified.

Additionally problem spaces in simulation games, however open-ended they might appear, are closed. To function, these games must be working, closed systems, completely operational once the player joins the mix. As expansive as a game might be in its treatments, it will impose arbitrary limits on its subject. These limits begin with the roles and goals of the player, decisions that shape the entire design. Perhaps more problematically for critical scholars of video games, simulation games are, as games, teleological in their focus. The quantifiable gameplay elements and mechanics all, in a tightly designed game any way, factor directly into whether the player achieves their goals.



There has been excellent discussion on PtP about the appropriateness of, and methods for critiquing simulations historically. Teasing out the ramifications that they are interpretations in the form of quantifiable problem spaces can provide some important insights on this issue. It suggests considerations for rigorous and meaningful criticism that is holistic and sensitive to the medium.

First of all, just like any other interpretation of the past, simulation games will select certain aspects of the past as their theme and not others. This is true of all historical interpretations—after all an interpretation that includes everything is not an interpretation at all. To be playable and appealing, a game needs to have a set of core mechanics that are tight and cohesive, modeling one overarching system well. Consider the standard genres of simulation games that have developed over time: city builders, nation management, trade, war, diplomacy, politics, etc. Though there is always room for crossovers and new genres, the existing genres of successful simulation games point to a constraint that a compelling game—just like a focused narrative or analysis—must focus on some things and neglect other things.


Because simulation games must function as working systems, however, the choice of problem space, or more specifically the choice of whose problem spaces to represent necessarily locks the game into certain portrayals of the past. Other media are not subject to the same constraints. One could easily conceive of a textual narrative/analytical work, for example,  that devotes time and space to a variety of viewpoints and agencies.  Still, no narrative or analysis covers all or even most viewpoints and all are subject to authorial predilections. Most importantly when considering the difference between simulations and these media, written texts are not quantitative rule sets executed by a computer to form a problem space. Even if writers wish to analyze the past in terms of problem spaces, they are free to select a variety of roles and goals that may have at times only tangential relationships. Further, they can select affordances and constraints that do not always form a complete system, and digress on important philosophical and practical comments in ways game designers simply cannot. The game designer must think in terms of a complete working simplified system in ways the writer does not. This is certainly not a bad thing when one considers the goal of designers is to entertain and interest players, After all focused games fare better than those with tacked on elements that do not contribute to the whole.



All this may seem fairly obvious, but there is an important point of criticism here that is not always fully appreciated. When trying to understand why an element of a simulation exists in the way it does and what it suggests about attitudes towards the past—whether why Colonization codes native peoples the way it does, why Civilization does not deal with social issues in cities, or why East India Company does not treat the tensions between English and Indian customs—one needs to consider holistically the problem space selected by the designers. First off, one must consider the goals and roles of the human players set out by the design plan. Certainly in the real world there can be many agents in a problem space with different roles and goals that can complement, conflict, or have little bearing on one another. Simulation games, too, can represent multiple agents with varying roles and goals. In single-player games these additional roles are handled by the program’s artificial intelligence routines. In multi-player games human players can take on additional roles. Generally speaking however—and I welcome examples where this is not the case—simulation games, especially pleasurable and/or commercially successful ones  must commit to a very small set of roles and goals, often one role and one goal. Even where roles and goals differ and conflict they tend to be set up as binary opposites or at least draw from the same well of resources and affordances. So both sides may want to hold a territory or win an election, one group may want independence while the other wants centralization, the city ruler wants profits while the citizens want material niceties, etc. This is in large part, again, because games must be closed functioning systems: each part must connect to every other part. So a game cannot represent roles and goals well that do not fit into the core choices, affordances, and constraints of the chosen problem space. Therefore the commitment to a particular articulation of a problem space will shape every other aspect of the game and any analysis of an element of the game, not least of all an agent, must consider the framework of the problem space.

Let’s apply bits of this theory to a concrete example. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon by Longbow Games, a real time kingdom management / strategic and tactical war game hybrid. The player assumes the role of Philip, the fourth century king who unified Macedonia, subjugated Greece, and, in the process, built the formidable military system that his son, Alexander, would use to conquer the Persian empire. Consider the portrayal of slavery in the game. When one defeats an enemy unit, the survivors can be captured and enslaved. If the survivors are not captured within a short time, they will escape. Slaves can be used to work mines, perform general construction tasks, and transport food supplies. Left untended it is possible for slaves to escape. Now, this is a reasonable sketch of aspects of slavery in the ancient world, not least of all the matter-of-fact nature of a system we find repugnant today.

Suppose, however, one wanted to criticize formally this historical representation of slaves. One might start by noting that these slaves have very little agency. Granted, they have the goal of escaping in this problem space and can do so if left unattended for too long. This goal does little more than add a constraint to the player’s problem space, a reason to take care attending to slaves and spending resources on watchtowers. This is not much of a depiction of agency at all and so slaves become nothing more than affordances, resources for the player to exploit in the game. This sort of portrayal might inspire comment and critique that even enslaved people had agency beyond escape, the ability to make choices and have a degree of ownership over their lives despite the horrible constraints of their status. (I recollect from my limited work with U.S. history that this sort of development took place in the historiography of American slavery, from first not studying slaves to studying slaves as victims, to studying slaves as agents while still recognizing the oppression of enslavement).

Why does the game not portray the agency of slaves? How Longbow defined the primary problem space, the human player’s problem space, is a critical answer. For the player Philip king of Macedon is the role with a goal of uniting Macedonia and building a Balkan empire. With this role and goal driving the articulation of the problem space, depicting slaves in the game as affordances is fully understandable. One could attempt to flesh out the slaves feelings on their situation, but it is difficult to see how that would fit into the mechanics of this particular problem space, the one the designers chose.

It is important to note, however, that saying a portrayal of ancient slaves, native Americans, Hessian mercenaries, railroad barons or any other agent or aspect of the past, takes the form it does because of the problem space is not meant to be a tactic for ending discussion or defending an implementation (One could imagine such a chilling effect: “why are they portrayed this way? Because the problem space demanded it. Oh … okay, so what’s for lunch?”). It is meant to focus criticism on a game holistically and consider how the affordances and constraints of the simulation game medium and the interests and goals of a game’s creators (their concerns, assumptions, hopes, attitudes, what have you) shape a game’s interpretation of the past. At the risk of being too meta, but in all seriousness, one really needs to consider the problem space of the game designers when considering the elements of the simulation they designed. Once the commitment has been made to make a commercial simulation game, as opposed to using any other medium of interpreting the past, the affordances and constraints of conceptualizing history as problem spaces place great pressure on the final product.


So, what kinds of questions might one ask of a simulation game as a problem space and what kinds of meaningful criticisms/evaluations can be make? A few, necessarily incomplete suggestions:

  • One might meaningfully question why the particular main roles and goals for the game were selected in the same way one can meaningfully question why certain generations of historians privileged one set of topics and questions over another. Indeed meaningful answers to such questions can be given based on careful research of prevailing ideas at the time. Simulation games, for example, tend to be inclined to issues of domination whether in political, military, or economic forms – discussing why this is continues to be a lively debate.
  • One absolutely should question whether the roles and goals selected for the players are historically legitimate. In other words, do they reflect what our evidence suggests were some important roles and goals in the past? There is little question that Philip wanted to dominate the Balkans. In other cases, such as Colonization where the goal, as stated on the Firaxis page is for colonists to “negotiate, trade and fight as they acquire great power” http://www.2kgames.com/civ4/colonization/  one might very well explore the cases in the past where this articulation of goals was and was not valid. That’s a great conversation to have, and it has great bearing on the validity of each element in the game’s interpretation of the past.
  • One can rightfully question why each and every element of the game is portrayed as it is. But these questions should not be divorced from the consideration of the problem space as a whole, especially the historical roles and goals conceptualized by the designers. A thorough consideration of why slaves are mere tools in Hegemony, happiness is the defining metric for success in CivCity: Rome, Indian culture is not represented in East India Company, or any other element in any game, should  consider the goals set out for the game and the supporting game mechanics to be thoroughly compelling.


So, suppose that one accepts the roles and goals of a game as historically valid goals, i.e. goals that reasonably represent what good evidence suggests motivated some peoples of the past. That might well mean that a thorough challenge to the portrayal of some historical agents in the game could only be made by suggesting that:

a)      That the agents could not reasonably be conceived to play that role  in the problem space from the point of view of the player, the primary agent

b)      By suggesting what more legitimate roles the agent could have played in the game that would mesh into a system, or at the very least not conflict with, with the player’s roles and goals in the problem space. Considerations of this sort need to be very aware to the developer’s presumed goal to create a playable, enjoyable, and commercially viable game.

c)      (A variant of b) By suggesting what roles and goals non-player agents in the game could have played that would have worked in a system centered on the player’s role and goals.

Note: The day before posting I was browsing through old PtP posts I had missed, and noted happily that Trevor made comment in this spirit on Mark’s essay on Detroit. Trevor essentially agreed Mark’s critique of the absence of race in SimCity/Micropolis is valid, but asked him to suggest how he would have race represented in the game.

So challenging the portrayal of slaves in Hegemony, if I accept the historical validity of the role and goals (which I do), would require suggesting how slaves could have been portrayed more complexly and validly within the defined problem space, how they could have had a greater portrayal of agency through expanded roles and goals. This certainly can be done. Consider another nation management / strategy game, Paradox Interactive’s  Europa Universalis III. One of the problems the player-ruler faces is nationalist revolts. When a nationalist revolt erupts in a territory, the rebel units besiege the territory and, if unchecked, ultimately seize control of it. When the nationalists seize the province they preventing the player from taxing it, drawing troops from it, or administering it.  

(Note I was mistaken in the characterization of the next few sentences. Check out Liam’s Burke’s comment below. Fortunately, my point was to illustrate the structure of a critique, not levy a challenge against EU III)

What the nationalists do not do, however, is actually create an independent state, i.e. a functioning state along the lines of the hundreds of others in the game. This limits the nationalists’ agency severely, making them serve as nothing more than a constraint, rather than a fleshed out agent. Indeed once the player can commit the necessary troops to reconquering the province, it will be reintegrated into the kingdom. The designers presumably could have easily made successful nationalist revolts result in the creation of new small states; there are many states in the game, after all who only control one province. Doing so would have represented the agency of nationalists and the goals of nationalist revolts more realistically, rather than the current state of affairs where they simply lock down a player province. Such a change could mesh well with the game’s overall problem space—though there may still have been compelling design reasons not to have done so.


On a final note, it is not my intention to criticize existing game analyses, or suggest that I have fully practiced these ideals — I’m quite sure my critique of CivCity: Rome from last year did not offer specific suggestions for remodeling the game. Nor am I suggesting that thinking in terms of problem spaces is the only meaningful way to conceptualize simulation games. I’m simply reaffirming that simulation games are human interpretations of the past subject to certain constraints, as sources and media they should be considered holistically, and this can be done by thinking in terms of problems spaces. Next week, I’ll add a shorter post considering how the concept of problem spaces and the use of simulations to illustrate problem spaces can be very effective in the classroom.  In the meantime, I hope this will generate some comments; there is a lot more to be said on these matters.




  1. Wow, this is looking good. An especeially important contribution to education as it will surely involve now and in the future. As a pastoral psychotherapist, makes me wonder what could happen if the DSM Case book were converted to simulation case studies. hmmm.

  2. A very thoughtful post, Jeremiah. I look forward to next week’s installment.

    I would like to share a few thoughts I had while reading your post, as well as pose a question on the applicability of your method in other game mediums.

    Conceptualizing historical simulations in terms of problem spaces, I believe, is a great way to tackle some of the ‘agency’ questions you so adroitly examine above. When you state that computer games require, by necessity, the world they model to be reducible to 1’s and 0’s, it occurred to me that, in many ways, this is exactly how our Federal Government (in fact most governments) view the population they govern. We hear of employment figures, income figures, crime rates, graduation rates, life expectancy, aggregate of customer review ratings, the stock market, etc… Things that are very qualitative are often transmogrified into quantitative results in order to suit the ‘pervasive documentary’ needs of modern governance. In this way, the simulation is more real than we might first imagine.

    On the nature of computer simulations being closed- I totally agree, but as I read your piece I wondered where the presence of the board games might fit in with your analysis of ‘problem spaces’. It seems to me that board games represent a very open model- indeed, they have to be completely open in order for a player to engage with the game. Of course, board games are also limited in what approaches they take to model any given scenario or situation, much like their computer counterparts, but due to the high degree of adaptability (you need only to be able to read, write and make assumptions to change a board game) it would appear as though board games are not quite locked into the ‘straight-jacket’ of interpreting history that a computer game must embrace.

    Even textual monographs, with their ability to address a wide range of views, are essentially ‘locked-down’ interpretations of the past. If I read a book on the Russian Revolution, put it away for 60 years, and then return to see if it has ‘updated’ sources I will be sorely disappointed. In this way, by analyzing the capability of an artifact to be modified through use or transmission, one could argue that a textual monograph and computer simulation are quite alike. When you suggest that we can critique the methods of interpretation a computer game presents, I think you are right on- but I would add that this does not change how the game interprets history, it only changes our opinion of how that interpretation came to be and the validity of its guiding, computational pretense for existence and operation. If I find a board game to be unsatisfactory in its interpretation, I can write new rules and change the outcomes. Changing the code of a computer game is not that simple and in this measurement of modification potential the computer game and textual monograph share striking similarities.

    To put it simply, how does your interpretation of problem spaces address user modifications and how does the operation of board games challenge or affirm the role of problem spaces you use to examine computer based historical simulations?

    1. Author

      @Jeremy: Thanks for the quick response. Rather than risk missing a point you made, I’m just going to go down the line and respond. First, I think you are absolutely spot-on that the reduction of the world a high level simulation game makes of agents other than the player agents may in many ways reflect how certain “players” in the physical world view very abstractly or disinterestedly the details of the lives they affect (the old Stalinist cliche of a single death tragedy vs. a million death statistic). I think high level strategy games, when appropriate questioned and discussed (remember I’m coming at this as an educator) pose some fascinating questions about how some groups in the past may have treated others as means rather than ends.

      Board models definitely offer an important qualitative difference in this. To be commercially viable, my sense is they need to be closed (when I design classroom board sims I distinguish between ones I need to moderate and ones where the rulesets are clear and complete enough to have students just play.) But they can be modded readily just through implicit or explicit house variants consent. They also tend to offer a great deal deal better modeling of most aspects of negotiation and diplomacy than computer games because they bring humans together and presume (usually) the opportunity for face-to-face dialogue. So I think that board games are more flexible and offer terrific inroads into looking at the past, though of course they also do not have the computation power. (Actually I’m reminded of the work I do with Inform, the text adventure creation language. One of the great powers of text adventures on computer is that they have computational power with the precise representative power of text. Board games can be like that in that players can agree on roles and limits more precisely).

      As for text, absolutely locked in. When I teach game design I make the claim that two of the most important distinctions between text and game are games model choice and variable outcomes, while text is more precise and static.

      So to get to your main question: to me the act of creating or modifying a game, board or computer, can very much be an act of historical interpretation (I drafted a short blurb on this once on my site http://gamingthepast.net/theory-practice/mccall-student-created-sims-as-historical-interpretations/. And I would say that whether tabletop/board or computer, the framework of the problem space applies. What modders can do is add/delete/replace their own sense of the roles, goals, affordances, and constraints. Of course (because I need to get to Bruce Geryk’s comments soon), modders more often than not are not doing any of this in a historical-discipline sense. I’m just saying they could.

      If for some reason I managed not to address your question, let me know.

      1. That response is exactly what I wanted to know- thanks for addressing my question.

  3. “Simulation game programs, as computer games, must be reducible to 0s and 1s – this is the only language through which a CPU can receive orders. Consequently, all elements of a historical simulation game, including agents and their motives, must be reducible to numbers. […] My favorite example of this is the happiness metric found in many city-builders. This takes a very imprecise real-world concept and transforms it into a precise number that can be increased or decreased in precise … that have a precise effect on the city population”

    You are conflating the processor mechanics with game mechanics. There is nothing about any game mechanic that requires it to be presented to the player as a number, or that it be “increased or decreased in precise ways.” Those are game mechanics, and Happiness is a quantifiable game mechanic because city builders are entertainment products, not simulators. You could just as easily have Happiness be the color of your screen, or a combination of your screen resolution changing in concert with a low whining sound and a blurring effect, or any other audiovisual representation. It could also work one way one minute (money makes you happy, food makes you happy), then the next day nothing makes you happy, and give a large productivity bonus one day and none the next, and another day it would have no discernable effect at all. The reason this doesn’t happen is that strategy games generally require quantitative decisions, and by convention are built around the achievement of quantifiable goals, because the people who buy them for entertainment enjoy this, so that’s a good business model. But nothing about the fact that a CPU is a binary processor has anything to do with this. You have a better argument if you said that for structural reasons, games are stuck making you see and hear things, but cannot use olfaction as a gameplay tool.

    Second, you keep talking about simulations, but I don’t see any simulation in the products you discuss. Hegemomy certainly isn’t a “simulation” of ancient Greece. It’s just a strategy game. Steel Beasts Pro is a simulation. Falcon 4.0 was a simulation. Colonization is a strategy game. I would hesitate to draw any historical conclusions from anything that is a historical strategy game. These are made to be good games, and go through testing and balancing to be good games. They have historical elements, because the audience is interested in history, but “historical simulators” are boring. Even Europa Universalis is not in any way a simulator. You can easily conquer the entire world as any one of a number of different nations, such as Poland or Sweden. It’s just a game.

    Lastly, I’m not sure what the criticism of the slaves is supposed to be about. Are you saying the game is open to criticism because it includes slaves as a mechanic? I’m not sure what the point of such a criticism would be. What about wargames that have Axis soldiers? Why are you trying to add agency to slaves in a game about Greece? For the sake of having it?

    I guess I don’t really understand this essay. You take a pretty straightforward topic (problem spaces) and trying to construct meaning out of choices in game mechanics. Problem spaces are a pretty well explored topic in game design. They relate to game scale, the need for interesting decisions, and require abstraction of various problems to highlight others. This is interesting from a game design perspective, and it would be interesting to evaluate the design decisions involved, but you specifically don’t do that: you only point out that certain decisions were made. Any time a game design question comes up, it ends your line of thought.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your critique; I’m a big fan ever since CGW – Tom and Bruce days, and listen to 3MA evry week without fail.
      I was going to begin by responding to each of your points in detail, but after reading your comments a few times, I think ultimately we are coming from different vantage points and so I want to clarify my frame of reference as it pertains to this topic .
      First off I’m speaking as a (high school) educator and a historian who spends a great deal of time considering how historical simulation games represent the past, why they represent the past in the ways they do, and how they might usefully be studied and leveraged for students studying the past. To that end, I have defined “historical simulation games” in a way broader than “simulation” and the definition you seem to be using – though I fully agree that your definition has the longer pedigree in the game world. Your references to Falcon 4.0 and Steel Beasts speak of the—perfectly valid—definition of simulation as a complicated model of the real-world elements, dynamics, mechanics and forces involved in some sophisticated system, a jet, a tank, etc. For use as an educator, historian, critic I have pushed for the idea of a historical simulation game as a useful concept in those arenas. The position I am currently taking, which I laid out in my book Gaming the Past, is that a simulation game is ”a game that functions as a dynamic model of one or more aspects of the real world.”
      That leaves a whole lot of leeway but ultimately I’m not concerned with determining precisely which games are simulations and which are not—games about real world topics fall on a spectrum and there are probably many ways to mark the division. I’d like to suggest the bigger issue is whether a historical game through intent or happenstance offers a defensible interpretation of the past, why some outcomes happened and other didn’t, what affordances and constraints were at work as people acted and interacted, etc.

      I’m curious about your understanding of history. You mention that EUIII is not a simulation because it allows one to take over the world as Poland or Sweden. Are we to assume that the past as we receive it was deterministic and is fixed? Surely even in a simulation as normally defined, there is the possibility to have different outcomes? Now I will agree that the outcomes in the game (because I agree, it is a game) may be more varied and even fanciful. I agree that a game that makes it easy for Poland or Sweden to take over the world probably has some serious flaws in its representation of past systems. But I fail to see how the possibility of counter-factual outcomes a priori makes something not count as a simulation of the past. Unless a simulation should represent exactly what happened in the past and why, in which case I think there is a confusion here between the past and history. It wouldn’t take much pushing for me to call EUIII a flawed simulation or call it not a simulation compared to Falcon 4.0. To me, however, that is missing the point: it offers a number of plausible and defensible (through historical evidence) claims about how and why states and militaries succeeded and failed in Early Modern Europe. (I should note here that I assume even the most carefully researched and argued historical monograph is still an interpretation subject to revision, not a truth of what happened and how; though the monograph will almost certainly be better supported and argued than the game – the purposes of the creators and their audiences are very different).
      Would it have made more sense to you that I referred to “interpretations of the past” rather than “historical simulation games” to refer to games like Hegemony and EUIII. If even that variant does not seem to be a meaningful phrase let me offer that in this day and age when the historical profession has become very interested in and even involved in cinema, games and other media more modern than text, it is not controversial to suggest that these games are interpretations of the past, so long as it is not expected that the only interpretations of the past that are made come from professional historians, and it is understood that often the most enduring presentations of the past do not come from historians.
      I think the other thing that is important to note is that this is an essay about historians and the historically minded analyzing historical games and understanding more about the medium of games and how the constraints and affordances of the medium tend to produce certain visions of the past. Though I strongly suspect I have not really responded to your concerns, I do appreciate the comments and welcome more discussion on this.

      1. Jeremiah, thanks for your detailed reply. Regarding my comment about taking over the world as Sweden or Poland and my understanding of history, I think we basically agree. I am not arguing that there could not have been reasonable counter-factual historical outcomes, I am arguing that allowing Poland to take over every inch of the world, with all of Europe, Africa, Asia and America and Australia under its control, and every person on Earth beholden to Warsaw, is not a reasonable counter-factual historical outcome. It would be roughly equivalent to an F-16 simulation where I pointed my nose up, maxed the throttle, went out for a while, and came back to my computer to find that my plane had entered faster-than-light travel and was now passing Proxima Centauri. In other words, not a simulation.

        (I’m picking on Poland simply because I played that country a lot in the original EU: once I basically figured out how to achieve total victory with Poland and a couple other countries, I stopped playing the game.)

        You actually did respond to several of my concerns, at least in the sense that I have a better idea of your perspective on this. I think that we fundamentally differ in our opinion of the appropriateness of drawing conclusions from historical strategy games. I kind of feel like looking to Colonization for insights into colonialism is like looking to Operation for insights into surgical planning. It’s not designed for that purpose, and while I agree that historical games are certainly “interpretations of the past,” I disagree that they’re in any way helpful in shedding light on any historical problems. They are entertainment products, and thus designed to entertain. Yes, someone could write an essay on the portrayal of slaves in Hegemony, but the answer to the question “why wasn’t such-and-such done” is usually as simple as “the game was better that way.” Since you specifically avoid any discussion of game design in your article, that sort of ends the discussion right there.

        I have a feeling that our debate is beyond the capacity of the comments section of your website. Drop me an email and we can discuss further if you’re interested.

      2. Author

        @Those reading Bruce and my comments. Just wanted to let any readers know that we are continuing this great conversation on email. I saved PtP from my lengthy response but I’ll work it into my post on the educational implications.
        Let me take the opportunity again to pitch the outstanding strategy games podcast Three Moves Ahead that Bruce regularly contributes to. The episodes are topical, get into all sorts of historical issues, and the old episodes are just as insightful now as they were when released.

  4. This is a very interesting post. I’d point out here that in Europa Universalis III, the nationalist rebels will in fact create their own country or join a nearby country of their nationality eventually — it just takes almost three years of inattention for them to do so. So the model isn’t quite as reductive as you might think!

    1. Author

      @Liam: Thanks for the correction. I was playing EU III the other day while finishing this up and had the idea. I tested it out only so far as letting a nationalist group take over, but did not wait to see what happened in three years (when I’m playing I usually try to stop the rebellion at the siege phase, so it did not occur to me). So let me integrate this into my reasoning and say that the game does provide a greater portrayal of agency and options for the rebels than the bare minimum it would have were the rebels just province blockers.

  5. I’m coming into this discussion rather late, so I have some thoughts on some of the comments as well, and how they pertain to Jeremiah’s original post. Since general questions about the capacity of games to simulate influence more specific concerns, I’ll start with the general.
    Bruce’s objections strike me as issues of nomenclature across different disciplines. Producers of war games have long touted their products as simulations, even when they dealt with history at the strategic level. For instance, Simulations Publications Incorporated (SPI) was one of the major producers of historical strategy board games in the 1970s and early 1980s. Moreover, most historians today readily acknowledge that history cannot be understood in its entirety, not only because of its overwhelming complexity and the incompleteness of sources, but also because of the inherent bias in any person’s understanding of past. Moreover the prominence of cultural analysis in modern historiography means that any popular production is worthy of critical analysis for its historical themes.
    For instance, a film critic might argue that Braveheart is just a movie, not to be taken seriously as a depiction of history, and indeed almost all historians would say that it should not be. However, the general population may not be aware of how fundamentally inaccurate the movie is. (I’m referring here to issues more important than misapplied war paint or six-year gestation periods. The major historical critique of Braveheart is its reified view of English and Scottish national identities, which did not exist in anything like their modern forms at the time of William Wallace.) Similarly, just because historians understand the limits of historicity in popular historically-themed games, such as Civilization and Total War does not mean that the average player does. Historians can analyze these productions as they do movies for contemporary cultural biases and marketing considerations that shape the productions portrayal of history.
    Historically-themed games are therefore necessarily imperfect models of the past that privilege some aspects over others. This can be seen in terms of the divide between first person shooters and strategy games. Hearts of Iron III and Call of Duty: World at War are both simulations of World War II, but operate at very different levels, the difference say between a history of the Second World War and a biography of a particular combat veteran in that war. It is difficult to see how both levels of experience could be modeled in the same game. The closest I know of is the Total War series, in which the player, who is operating at the strategic level across a map of Europe, Japan, or multiple theaters depending on the game’s themes, can choose to resolve a battle as a commander at the tactical level. In this case, however, no other issues are resolved at that level. These games do not, for instance, include city building options along the lines of CivCity: Rome when developing your cities. Nor do they model spying at the level of a first or third person role-playing game.
    In this sense, therefore, I’d suggest that searching for a total simulation of history is akin to searching for a unified theory of physics. You might be able to provide a model that simulates at one level, for instance world systems, but in doing so you will almost certainly shortchange the experience of another level, for instance individual agency. However, just as the lack of a unified theory of physics does not prevent physicists from modeling the universe mathematically through gravitational and quantum forces separately, the complexities of history should not prevent historians from simulating history at different levels as well.
    This gets me round to the issue of slaves in Hegemony. Many scholars have argued that no individual has agency at the strategic level, since the aggregate of individual actions subsumes individual agency. The most famous of these is probably Karl Marx, and those who have been influenced by him. More recently, even the cultural turn in history, which many Marxist’s opposed, has come perilously close to denying agency to victims of oppressive forces, so much so that a major objection to Edward Said’s Orientalism was that, in criticizing the “West’s” creation of knowledge, he denied agency to Asian and African society’s in shaping their own cultural identities. I think an argument can be made that the strategic level of simulating history inherently biases the perspective to those who control great political and economic power. (What after all is the role of a player in Civilization, Europa Universalis, or Total War? Given the multiple generations that these games cover, the player is not playing as a single ruler, but more as the spirit behind a people – along the lines of Herder’s Volksgeist.) For this reason, I think Jeremy’s observation about the perspective of governments toward populations is on target. Even in modern democracies, candidates are driven by poll numbers, which have narrow percentage “margins of error.” At the strategic level therefore the only way to model the agency of slaves, it appears, would be if they rebelled. One could easily have a strategic game about the Roman Republic that figured in Spartacus.
    Perhaps the underlying question is why do so many first/third-person level historical games focus on combat? As my sister-in-law, a player of The Sims, complained: “Why isn’t there a Jane Austen Sims?” (There is a Sims: Medieval which is more fantasy than history.) Similarly, one could imagine a first/third person role playing game that focused on the underground railway. Perhaps there is one out there of which I’m unaware. But if this is the case, then why isn’t it selling well on the commercial market. Perhaps this does bring us back to Bruce’s remarks about the importance of these being games (albeit I would argue simulations as well). Gender issues possibly enter into these considerations, since the presumption is often (perhaps incorrectly) that war games attract men whereas social games attract women.

    1. Author

      Martin, among a number of great points, makes one about how modern mass media make any number of assertions about the past that may essentially go by unchallenged. What I think is critically important in all of this is to recognize that it is not the historian’s job to assign blame. At no point in this process of identifying problems of interpretation in Braveheart or CivCity:Rome etc. should the goal be to blame a director or game designer for somehow failing to get “the facts straight” (whatever that means) or for intentionally misrepresenting the past. These authors have their own goals and to suggest otherwise will not do. Ronald Syme, a master historian of the late Republic and Early Empire once pronounced in reference to Cicero “It is presumptuous to hold judgement over the dead at all, improper to adduce any standard other than those of a man’s time, class and station. “ I would suggest, as historians, that sentiment also applies to understanding why a historical game or film takes the form it does, understanding why the designer/authors did what they did. The goal should not be to assign blame. Rather the goal is to understand how the past is represented in games that suggest they are about historical topics and why it is represented in the ways it is. This requires understanding the medium and its constraints and affordances, the audience and its expectations, the designers and their goals, and the ways these and other factors shape how knowledge of the past is transmitted from that past to our living rooms.

  6. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Jeremiah, I think this does a nice job in laying out some of the potential vectors for interpreting and analyzing simulation games. With that said, I feel like the big thing that is absent from discussion so far is consideration of meaning making. That is, the mechanics and design of a game model some slice of the world, but that model is, for the most part, meaningful to us to the extent which we come to understand that model.

    In this respect, I tend to prefer Will Wright’s notion of thinking about sandbox games like Civ as possibility spaces as opposed to problem spaces. In particular, the idea of the possibility space focuses attention on the dynamic exchange that occurs between players and the game. The game’s mechanics afford particular ways of playing and thinking about the game that different players engage with and experience. I’ll give a few examples of works that I think support this way of thinking.

    The Simulation Starts when you hear about the game or the box art. I heard Will Wright give a talk a few years ago on this idea and it really stuck with me. In his perspective you start playing the game in your head before you even start it. You are imagining how you would run your city, or your civilization or your house and when you start playing the game you are actively engaged in testing your model of the world against the model of the world in the game.

    Devane’s essay, The Meaning of Race and Violence in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was one of the most important pieces in shaping my thinking on this. I love how Devane exposes how the depiction of race in the game can mean such different things to different kinds of players. He does a nice job of connecting the interpretation of games with the interpretation of literary works. In this case, focusing on how playing games like reading books involves an active process of individual interpretation. We bring our experience into how we play. The critical difference here is that when we bring our experience and understanding into our game play it shapes the responses the game provides.

    In some of my own work I have focused on how a game’s online community forums can serve as a point of entry into the interaction between the games model and what meaning we make from the game. For example, in a recent Essay on Spore I suggested that although the game doesn’t do a good job at representing and modeling evolution the online forums suggest that far from teaching intelligent design the game is acting as a catalyst to convene a place where people tell science stories and share science information. Similarly, while Civilization’s model of the history of science and technology is rather deterministic, in a study on discussion between Civ moders I suggested that the limitations in the game model actually prompt players to imagine how one might differently model the game provides.

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