Indulging Counterfactuals Part 1

I enjoy a couple of guilty pleasures that are all the more guilty because I am a historian. One of these is playing historically themed strategy games on the computer, mostly various Paradox games, the Total War series, and, of course, Sid Meier’s Civilization. One of the reasons I find these games entertaining is because of the opportunities they provide to relive history but also to explore alternative outcomes. It is the latter aspect – the opportunity for counterfactual play – that is the source of both entertainment and some unease. Indulging in counterfactual speculation is “amateur-ish” enough, but doing so while playing video games feels like a professional cardinal sin.

However, I can’t separate the parts of myself that conduct professional historical research and that enjoy playing with history. Sometimes the consequence is a bit of guilt, but on the whole I think consuming different genres of history-related products enables me to enjoy them each more richly.

Last week I was excited to start a new game of Europa Universalis 4 (EU). EU is a grand strategy game that allows players to control any kingdom in the world from the 15th century to the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. I’d played this game before, but this was  the first time I had the opportunity to try out a feature offered by a new expansion: randomized new world.

One of my favorite parts of strategy games is exploring the map, even in EU where I know, roughly at least, what I’m going to find each time. The randomized new world setting, which replaces the real-life geography of the Western Hemisphere with a random assortment of land masses and indigenous peoples, offers a way to up the uncertainty and excitement of exploration. I decided to play as Portugal – a country for whom exploration both historically and in the game is very important – to maximize the impact of this feature.

Land ho!

It is an interesting but guilt-riddled experience. I can’t help but notice that there is no option to randomize the “old world.” The reasons are simple, I imagine: most players already play as Eurasian countries (for a variety of reasons), and the game is designed around them. The imbalance is consequential, though, because it reinforces a view of the “new world” as an essentially blank slate waiting to be discovered and consisting of largely interchangeable parts (including technologically-backward indigenous peoples and unplayable “natives”). In contrast, the fact that the game does not allow you to play with a randomized “old world” suggests that Europe in particular was somehow more historically necessary.

There is a lot more one could criticize about EU from an academic perspective, such as the highly problematic way it models technological development with reference to culture groups. It’s still an entertaining game, though, and I think playing it can at least raise some interesting counterfactual possibilities that could even be useful to a “serious” student of history. What I want to point out, though, is that this game raises the problem of how we define the scope of possible counterfactuals. A critical examination of this thought process might tell us a lot about ourselves. I’ll pick back up on this theme with the second post in this miniseries.

3 thoughts on “Indulging Counterfactuals Part 1

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