You are what you program.
Whether we like it or not, every video game reflects an opinion of the world. Every aspect of a game is a hint about how the developer views a particular topic. To be sure, sometimes elements of realism are sacrificed on the altar of gameplay, but even that is a reflection of the developers mind. Realism is sacrificed, but elements the developer deems core to know that a thing is a thing are preserved so that the audience can identify whatever item or concept the developer is trying to convey. Case and point, guns. Guns in an FPS never jam, don’t have weight, and have magnetic ammunition that leaps into your pocket when you walk over it. These unrealistic aspect of guns are included because they are deemed inessential to the idea of a gun. Today I’ll be looking at the idea of a state. Many strategy games model the state, but they rarely reflect a state as it actually is. Many have a different idea of how states function as compared to their real counterparts. Here are a few:
Civilization V – Centralized dictatorship
Putting aside the immortal sovereign, the Civilization games function as a dehumanizing centralized dictatorship focused on control of major cities. Decision making is done entirely by the leader without much input from independent interests or other government agencies. The only part of an empire that actually has a voice is the population based on generalized notions of happiness. As a result, very little gets done without a direct command. Everything from basic public buildings to countryside infrastructure is dependent on the player making the order and releasing the resources. Even supposed changes in government rarely restrict the leader from doing what they want to do (I do recall that democracies could prevent the player from declaring war in Civ2. Ahh, the glory days.). Of course, most real governments have interests other than a generalized notion of “the people”. These interests play an important role in prioritizing resources and are largely ignored by the Civilization series. Especially in dictatorships, the ruler must appease these interests or face serious problems down the line.
Rome Total War 2 – Bureaucratized Oligarchy
The Total War series attempts to model various interests in the empire. The Roman Senate plays a role in determining the support a given leader has and special characters, such as generals, each have their own traits and ambitions. The opinions of the people matters, but, like the Civilization series, only insofar as they cause trouble. If the people are happy, then the player must respond to a small group of specialized interests. To do so, the play has access to an efficient and effective bureaucracy that is able to maintain control over a massive empire. Orders from the center are reflected quickly in the priorities of the provinces with only a corruption increase to show that the bureaucracy has interests of its own. Modern bureaucracies are only half as effective as the Rome Total War 2 ones. The idea that a pre-industrial society could have detailed control over such a massive amount of territory is ludicrous and likely reflects the developer’s bias towards modern governance. Like the Civilization series, Rome Total War 2 also doesn’t model the institutions that would inevitably develop to handle such a difficult task.
Crusader Kings 2 – Legalistic Feudalism
The last game on our list is the most realistic attempt to model an actual government. Rather than rely on a faceless, obedient, and super capable bureaucracy, Crusader Kings 2 creates a government and society built on individuals with their own interests. Individuals have titles which reflect their area of control and the individuals they rule. Those individuals will negotiate with their superiors, fight wars for them, and rebel. Without direct input, NPCs will develop their own territories and conquer new lands. It’s a fascinating system, though not without its flaws. The most notable is the high degree of legalism inherent in the system. While medieval lords were a far more legalistic bunch than they traditionally get credit for, they didn’t stop crushing victories against their infidel foes because they promised they’d only crusade in a certain area. Furthermore, borders of provinces shifted all the time whereas Crusader Kings 2 acts as if they were set in stone by Charlemagne.
There are plenty of other things to nitpick. All three games (and all strategy games that I am aware of) assume an instantaneous response to all orders regardless of distance. Every leader has a crystal clear view of all resources they possess and the capability to move them wherever they need to be. I could go on. Still, these feel like conceits to gameplay and less like a world view. The governments outlined here seem reflective of a viewpoint, or a blind spot, of developers who didn’t quite understanding what they were saying when they made their game.