Why Play at Orientalism?

Games like Crusader Kings III build feudalism into their code, and in so doing assert the supremacy of the modern global North.

On my first try, I formed a matriarchal Hausa empire in the central Sahel region of Africa, neatly throwing out hundreds of years of history. Through play—that is, of the computer game Crusader Kings III, or CKIII—a fiction turned into solid cartography. But as the hours ticked by, I wondered: What exactly was I learning about history through play? My knowledge of geography was improved, but surely that wasn’t all. If nothing else, I had a new, specific understanding of how European feudalism worked. That’s an odd lesson to learn from Hausa society.1

My experience reflected how the grand strategy games of developer Paradox formulate a historical argument about the periodization of human history: how to break down time into distinct periods, ages, or eras.2 Compared to the Civilization series that uses the same mechanics for the Stone Age and the Space Age, as historian Greg Koabel notes, Paradox games represent those eras differently: “Rather than progressive stages, which share common universal laws of historical change, Paradox developers envision a series of epochs with ‘engines of change’ so distinct as to be impossible to model in a single game code.”3 As a result, Paradox’s Europa Universalis IV (EUIV) has an intricate economic system to explain the expansion of European nation-states and colonialism, while Crusader Kings III sees a world ruled by feudal lords, their personal quirks, and their relationships to one another. In fact, Paradox carefully limits the possibility space of their grand-strategy games. Through that space, historical contingency is represented: what was possible, necessary, or impossible in the course of history.

On the face of it, this sounds promising, even exemplary. To build the history of the world into a single game, code, or narrative would be the height of hubris. Yet, although Paradox gets one aspect right—different eras demand different engines—it makes the horrible assumption that the pinnacle of civilization is the modernity of the global North.


Playing History

Paradox is noted for its historical accuracy, evidenced in its games’ population by swarms of historical figures, many of whom have handcrafted stats and traits. But all that accuracy goes toward representing worlds based on the history we already know. As Tom Apperley explains about an earlier Paradox title, Europa Universalis II, “The game does not question the dominant portrayal of the past, rather, it attempts to simulate it. … While seeking to both conform to and challenge official versions of history on the ideological layer, players must understand the algorithmic layer. This layer reduces all ideological representations to numerical—and text editable—values within a larger algorithm.”4 This can be one of historical games’ strongest educational points. They grant access to possible worlds and make historical arguments by what they show is possible and what isn’t. It’s that exact seductive idea (what might have been) that led to the creation of the enticing and controversial field of “counterfactual” history studies.

And games have a unique potential to contribute to that field, by allowing players to explore those counterfactuals. Continuing to discuss EUII, Apperley explains: “A critical level of engagement with the game is encouraged by two drives in the online community: the desire for historical verisimilitude leads players to discuss styles of play aimed at making the historical events depicted more realistic; and the desire to explore counterfactual imaginings of history, where players discuss how to establish and explore fantastic alternative histories with the game.”5 These are tricky distinctions. Paradox games simulate history, but in a way that typically recreates great historical movements (in CKIII, the crusades almost always fail without player intervention). The same forces and ideas push nations or dynasties to succeed in each game session. Only the actors are swapped. (I see these results as comparable to Dom Ford’s postcolonial critique of the 4X genre and Civilization V.)

As you might guess, I take a dimmer view of the counterfactual history presented in Paradox games than Apperley. Paradox games construct a model of historical change, but there’s a fine line between representing that model as one of many possible versions and representing it as a necessary part of how our past came to be. I wish these games could depict a more radical history, one whose highest aim isn’t just to switch the names of the conquered and the conquerors.


Orientalism in Grand Strategy

As their titles suggest, the Paradox strategy games simulate a resolutely Eurocentric, dominant perspective on history. This has changed slightly through iterations of the game. For example, in CKIII, released in the fall of 2020, there’s a setting to change the distribution of characters’ sexual orientations: you can play an all-gay medieval era, without a mod.

This would seem like a more inclusive version of the game. However, the developer has marked all these settings with a heteronormative “Default” option, a “nudge” that displays the developer’s most-sanctioned reading of history. Even if it’s possible to play otherwise, it requires effort and knowledge on the part of the player.

These choices follow the overall model of the CKIII game: every difference is associated with a set of switches and tiny perks that make little structural difference to the game. For example, Oma Keeling’s “’Crusader Kings 3′: Eugenics at Play” article shows the innate ableism this trait system performs. Why should characters with certain qualities play like any other? Why should different cultures and religions play so similarly?

As we analyze game mechanics, we must be ready for the representations we find there, pleasant or not.

One of the reasons, I argue, is that the Paradox games of CKIII and EUIV constitute an orientalist model of the world. Defined by Edward Said, orientalism is the exoticizing ideology created by European societies to underpin and execute their colonial control. As Said shows, orientalist academic theories of the Middle East, areas of Africa, India, and China say more about European psychology than they do about the places they try to describe—the surreal “Orient” is defined by and reflects a watchful “Occident.”6

As an example of this ideology at play, in EUIV, most nations are grouped by technological culture. The technology advancement of non-“Western” nations is hindered by their culture, and these deficits compound over time. Higher technology levels provide access to new forms of government, advanced military units, and society-wide economic advantages.

As a result, there’s a strong incentive for players of areas outside Europe to “westernize” and adopt European culture. This “westernizing” mechanic, intertwined with EUIV’s technology mechanics, forecloses the possibility that another form of society could become dominant in the world—a society, that is, not based on colonial exploitation. The level of detail in the game’s representation also reflects EUIV’s Eurocentrism. For example, the focus on nation-states as the unit of play does a poor job of representing Native American tribal confederacies like the Haudenosaunee.


Technocrats and Culture

Turning again to CKIII, we see that its orientalist influence is also clearest in its modeling of culture and technology. Even in its personality-centered simulation, CKIII hints at EUIV’s later colonialism. We can see that rhetoric in how currency is included in CKIII as a cultural innovation—or threshold—that must be achieved in the early, “Tribal” level.

In a way, that makes sense—feudal lords did need to pay mercenaries in discrete units of cold cash. In his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, anthropologist David Graeber shows times of conquest as eras when bullion, not credit and trust, was the key to a functioning economy.7

However, the game’s description of the innovation gives the developer’s perspective away: “Bartering is slow and inefficient; adopting an officially-recognized currency like cowrie shells or metal nuggets will bolster trade and increase the spread of ideas within our realm.” This is, anthropologically, a lie. It’s a folktale spread by classical economics: the barter origin story.

As Graeber shows, barter societies did and do not exist as described. In human history, credit for exchange (which classical economics argues is the peak of “developed” markets) is much more common than currency. As in EUIV, “tribal” cultures and “unreformed” religions are locked out of technological advances and forms of government, regardless of local history. Technology itself advances through the “development” of the counties controlled by a culture group.

“Development” is not a neutral term—postcolonial theorists, like Eduardo Galeano in Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1997), argue that the distinction made between “developed” and “undeveloped” countries is a modern vestige of colonial thinking. Development isn’t a linear process, but a status granted to conforming countries. Europe doesn’t start the CKIII timeline with a distinct advantage, but local buffs like Rome’s Aurelian Walls create one over time. This leads to odd glitches in how the technological system plays out. My West African Hausa empire was expected to take four hundred years to develop West African canoes, and there are no Africa-specific technologies past the “Tribal” era. Meanwhile, the Italian Renaissance is made to seem inevitable.

There is also the most obvious visual element of CKIII—the map. It’s not just that Europe takes up a proportionally outsized segment of the map. It’s how the map is divided, into counties, duchies, and kingdoms. All of it. Maps have always been one of the tools of empire. You have to know what you control to control it. That desire to understand through visualization is part of what sociologist James C. Scott calls “seeing like a state.”8 But how that map breaks down also reflects an orientalist viewpoint, as a way to examine what appears necessary in the game’s historical model.

And how does CKIII compare to the actual history of the Hausa states? Well, the Bori religion of the Dauramas in 867, according to CKIII, was incapable of supporting a feudal society. In actuality, the Hausa states existed as feudal regions in a loose supportive confederation, without a central imperial authority. Eventually, in the 18th century, those states were mostly converted to the Islamic faith, driving the Bori religion into an underground cult practice—a possibility that CKIII or EUIV can’t model. According to their logic, once a religion or culture is reformed, it can never recreate its “unstructured” status.

Then there’s inheritance. Because CKIII follows the inherited holdings of a family, all the counties and cultures have an embedded system of de jure rights. According to that system, Rome is a rightful member of the Kingdom of Sicily and, above that, the Byzantine Empire. Anyone who holds either of those two titles would be justified in declaring war for Rome. This system—of needing casus belli before declaring war, of abiding by the de jure borders for titles that might never have existed—models the feudalism of Christian Europe but also treats all other cultures as if they operate under the same kind of titular divisions. The idea that land could be conceived of in another way is simply missing.


Modeling for History

There is some hope, because developers are not the only historians involved with games like Crusader Kings III. In playing and enacting the simulations, players become historians as well. And for the Paradox grand-strategy games, the modding community is active and encouraged by the games’ developer. Both Koabel and Apperley mention how players can rewrite mechanics to match their desired view of history—many of the settings options in CKIII started as player mods in CKII.

These mods are still constrained by who has the skill to make those alterations. Larger systemic changes, like a new economic system, would require exponentially more effort to implement and preserve a functional version of the games. But the possibility is there.

recent article in Game Studies argued for a new theoretical framework of representing historical games, one that moves “beyond an itemized list of the discrete atomic facts in a video game that are deemed accurate or inaccurate” and analyzes their procedural rhetoric. I’ve written this article as an effort toward that theory, but also to note its consequences. I’ve argued that CKIII is an orientalist simulation. It is a distortion of history.

Conversely, orientalist games can tell us a lot about what orientalist accounts of history assume and what arguments they make. As we analyze game mechanics, we must be ready for the representations we find there, pleasant or not.


This article was commissioned by Matt Margini. icon

  1. As in earlier Crusader Kings games, I continued playing following the legendary Magajiya Daurama’s familial dynasty after she was untimely claimed by the plague—blissfully ignorant of the precise federation of allied states that actually comprised Hausa society up into the 18th century.
  2. For a general discussion of European periodization, see William A. Green, “Periodization in European and World History,” Journal of World History, vol. 3, no. 1 (1992). For its limitations in describing even European countries, see C. Warren Hollister, “The Irony of English Feudalism,” Journal of British Studies, vol. 2, no. 2 (1963).
  3. Greg Koabel, “Simulating the Ages of Man: Periodization in Civilization V and Europa Universalis IV,” Loading: The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association, vol. 10, no. 17 (2017), p. 66.
  4. Tom Apperley, “Modding the Historians’ Code: Historical Verisimilitude and the Counterfactual Imagination,” in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, edited by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), p. 194.
  5. Apperley, “Modding the Historians’ Code,” p. 186.
  6. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978; Knopf Doubleday, 2014).
  7. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011).
  8. James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale University Press, 1998).
Featured image: Map of the game space in Crusader Kings III. Image credit Xbox Games