No. History is not the history of states

In a recent article for The Atlantic, Luka Ivan Jukić, a freelance journalist with a focus on central and eastern Europe and Eurasia, writes about the interesting question of how kids are learning history today. More students are being exposed to historical narratives through video games, but what exactly are they being taught?

This idea captured by attention (guess why):

Games are about systems; they’re about the mechanics, (…) In my experience, Europa Universalis is particularly effective at teaching users about its systems. Playing in Spain in Europa Universalis, you’ll learn the power of a good marriage when you see that Spain is actually the result of a personal union between the crowns of Castile and Aragon. If you’re unlucky enough to choose a country in the Balkans, you will quickly understand the full force of the Ottoman invasions of Europe.

The article closely follows and extensively quotes Bret Devereaux, a history professor at the University of North Carolina, who happens to be a video game player himself, and who wrote four long posts about Paradox’s game Europa Universalis IV last year.

Europa Universalis IV (henceforth, EU4) is a grand strategy computer game made by Swedish developers Paradox Interactive in which the player plays as an early modern state – not a ruler, but the state itself – guiding its strategic and operational (but not tactical) decision making from 1444 to 1821. As the name suggests, this is the fourth game on this theme by Paradox. The game is primarily played on risk-style map (but with far more, smaller provinces – a little over 3,000 in total which are simulated in substantially greater depth), where players can move around their armies and fleets and make province-level administrative decisions. Players choose one historical state to play as (out of several hundred – there is a real effort to get practically every state of any size or significance to be on the map and playable); all of the other states operate under the same rules but are managed by the AI (or by other players in multiplayer, but most players stick with single-player). The starting maps are based on historical borders at given points in time (and generally fairly accurate; far more so than is normal in the genre).

Let’s go to Jukic’s question: what are (video games) students learning?

This is a game about states. If you play as, say, France, you play as the state of France. You do not play as the kings of France, or any particular king of France.

So you do not play as a ruler, nor a family of rulers, nor as a government, nor as a people, you play as a state.

Consequently, EU4 views the world almost exclusively through the prism of state action. Only states are real actors in EU4 (rather than simple mechanisms those states must manage), to the exclusion of all other forms of social organization.

in EU4 history is the story of states.

But this is far from surprising. It’s what we hear every single day in the news. When I read or hear about international politics and affairs, I am always terrified by headlines like Russia says it will ‘dramatically reduce’ military activity, or Moscow says it will curb assault on Kyiv. WFT? Who is Russia? Who is Moscow. Who are these monsters?

This idea by Deveroux is therefore absolutely key, and should be carefully conveyed and promoted among journalists and presenters everywhere:

my advice to teachers who find their students coming from EU4 to the classroom is to foreground the human consequences of those state-centered policies. What does it mean for people (…) And for students who are using EU4 as a background, my advice would be to interrogate more deeply some of the processes that are being simulated here.

It is people who are behind those nations customes! With a bit of good luck those monsters will not last too long. Unfortunately, for some of us it will be notwithstanding too late.

Now reading “Video Games & the Novel” by Eric Hayot. Stay tuned.

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Images: Europa Universalis IV

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