Hey folks! Fireside this week. Next week, we’re going to start a two-part ‘Trip Through’ looking at medieval martial poetry, first by the 12th century Occitan troubadour Bertran de Born, and then by the sixth century Arab warrior-poet Antarah Ibn Shaddad.
This week, musing on a topic I get asked about quite a lot: the potential for historically set gaming in developing a deeper understanding of history. I might delve into some aspects of this topic as full Collections later, but I figured it made a good one to ‘think aloud’ on for a week as well, given that I am both a teacher of history and a player of video games.
Let’s start with the disappointment: I don’t think games are necessarily very useful in the way that people generally think about the question, in terms of providing a way of gaining the information base to support historical analysis (the facts of history). The thing is, if you already know that information, a lot of historically set games can have an added joy – the experience, for instance, of navigating Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey‘s Athens by memory because you already know its classical layout (“ok, so I pass the monument for the eponymous heroes, then take a hard right up the Panathenaic way to reach the foot of the Acropolis…”) and so on. It’s the joy of seeing something you know in books rendered alive before your eyes – when it’s pulled off well, it really is marvelous.
But so much of that historical background data is going to be either interpolated guesswork (by non-historians, to boot) or simply made up to fit gameplay rather than historical accuracy that if you don’t know all of that background first, the amount of history you can get is pretty limited, because you just don’t know what is accurate and what is made up (a problem, I might note, with most of getting ones history from pop-culture). At best, it provides the origin point for a profitable wiki-walk or library trip. And that’s not nothing, mind you, but it hardly capitalizes on the unique interactive nature of games. A film or book can do the same.
What I think games can do well – although few try – is get a player to think deeply about the problems and potential solutions of people in the past. It’s a unique power, because a game can put you in the shoes of someone making decisions and force you to think through those same decisions as they would. But to do this, the game needs to be pretty carefully crafted and constructed (or get very lucky). One example of this is Banished, a city-builder – if you have never really considered the challenges of pre-modern agricultural subsistence, Banished will make you think about it. The yields are a bit too high (you can support too many non-farmers with too few farmers, the zone of comfort, especially for a mature town, is much too large), but they’re not as ludicrously high as most city-builders and the game can illustrate some of the low-productivity traps in a subsistence economy through the tools and education mechanics (it is possible for inexperienced players to get trapped in a situation where their farmers, lacking tools and education, are too inefficient to support the necessary surplus to support the smiths and teachers to gain tools and education. Such capital gaps are a common feature of low subsistence agriculture productivity, though the capital is typically not tools or education, but plow animals, tractors, manure/fertilizer and in dry climates, wells; the term for this is sometimes a ‘low equilibrium’ because the system is stable, but at depressed productivity). The process of getting the agriculture base to support anything that isn’t bare subsistence can bring home some of the challenges in getting the organic economy to support lots of any kind of activity that isn’t subsistence (like military activity, or lots of non-agricultural production, though, alas, Banished has little of this to do).
But I think one of the best examples of this kind of video-game learning is Europa Universalis IV (a strategy game where the player plays as an early modern state from 1450 to 1700 or so) – not for the details of the historical setting (although EU4 is actually a pretty solid introduction to the geography and major players of the early modern period, so long as it leads to further reading) – but as an introduction to systems of inter-state relations. Because – for all of its necessary simplification and gamification of early modern geopolitics – the game provides an enlightening sort of natural experiment in both systems of interstate anarchy and systems of hegemony and even balance-of-power politics.
(As an aside: I am leaning here on the work of Kenneth Waltz (esp. “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory” in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18.4 (1988), for systems of interstate anarchy and the normality of war. On these systems in the ancient world, I highly recommend A. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War and the Rise of Rome (2009) and Rome Enters the Greek East (2012); see the end of this Fireside)
In very brief, we might break down all of the possible interstate systems this way (the terminology I’m using comes from neo-realist IR theory): there is the normal system, interstate anarchy, where no outside body governs the rules between states. Anarchy is by far, above and away, the most common international system, historically. It is the default. The next most common is hegemony, where one state dominates the system and sets the rules for everyone else in its own interest. Next, you have situations of balance of power, either as a concert of many powers or a cold war between two, where the anarchy is shaped and often frozen by the interaction of several large competing blocs each centered on a great power. Finally, we might imagine a system of international law, where states collectively avoid anarchy by setting rules between them (Waltz and Eckstein are both quick to note: no such system has ever been successfully implemented, and there are no good omens for its success in the near future).
EU4, over the course of a few games (it is meant to be played multiple times as different early modern states) does just a brilliant job of dropping the player into these systems and forcing them to think about the priorities that states have within them. Play a game as one of the mid-sized or small European states outside the Holy Roman Empire (Burgundy, for instance, or Brittany) and the pressures of interstate anarchy hit you almost immediately. Even if you have no dreams of conquest and empire, even if the state’s only goal is to survive, you rapidly find that you have to act in certain – often quite amoral – ways. After all, you have expanding neighbors and if you don’t become more powerful, they’ll eventually expand into you (in the case of Burgundy, the game is a breakneck race against France – fall behind and you’ll be absorbed. But keeping up requires you to to conquer smaller states yourself to get the resources to fend off France – who is in turn racing to hold off England, Spain and Austria; eat or be eaten).
The irony becomes that, to merely survive in conditions of interstate anarchy, it becomes necessary to ‘get big’ and thus imperil the survival of all of your neighbors. The term in IR theory for this is the security dilemma, where actions that a state takes to try to improve its security necessarily reduce the security of its neighbors and rivals, leading them to respond the same way. In EU4, this produces an almost instinctive and brutal arms-race where every state is seeking the funnel every resource it has back into military power in order to keep enough of an advantage to stay ‘safe.’ That military power is then used to expand in order to get more resources to repeat the process (resources -> military power -> expansion -> resources -> military power, repeat) as rapidly as possible to try to ‘stay ahead.’ Which in turn, forces everyone else to do the same.
Because every innovation (technology, reform, and so on in the game) that makes a state better at this sort of warfare falls into the security dilemma, states tend to increasingly resemble their competitors in the system, what is called convergence in systems of interstate anarchy. States which fail to converge on successful models fail and are removed (see: Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of). This becomes most obvious playing as a non-European, non-Chinese middle power – survival means replicating European-style expansion in your backyard to get big enough to resist the Portuguese/Spanish/British/French/Dutch when they inevitably arrive in the mid-game.
Sheltering beneath a great power is an alternative, but that means giving up control of your destiny, and may be road to absorption anyway (through diplo-vassalization-and-annexation, or simply because it is easier for a great power to sell you to get out of a bad war than it is to give up any of their own territory). As the competition intensifies, the various evils that we generally think of in moral terms – aggression, imperialism, colonialism – may be the only route to survival.
But there are two places where the dog-eat-dog savagery of interstate anarchy doesn’t hold: the Holy Roman Empire (HRE for short), and the orbit of the Ming Dynasty. In the case of the Ming, the tributary mechanic provides a neat example of hegemony in action: the states around Ming are all (or nearly all) likely to be tributaries to the (much stronger) Ming dynasty. Because Ming will (generally) protect its tributaries, the competition is much less fierce (although tributaries can, I think, prey on each other, but Ming is likely to work to break up any tributary that gets too strong). At the same time, playing as one of these tributaries you immediately see the problem: Ming is your protector, but also itself a danger and an obstacle to increased long-term safety. Consequently, the tributaries tend to be a band of jackals, preying on each other and outsiders, but just waiting for the Ming to weaken, at which point they’ll all strike at once or in quick successions (what the community calls ‘Mingsplosion,’ – I am eliding a few more mechanics in that). Hegemony is unstable if the leading power doesn’t maintain strong military dominance.
Meanwhile, the HRE looks like a system of international law. There are rules! Wars of conquest are ‘illegal.’ But weaken the emperor (either from outside by war, or be electing a weak state as emperor) and anarchy reasserts itself (as the weak emperor can no longer maintain the system) and the dozens of small states of the empire devour each other in a desperate race to be the handful of survivors: international law is revealed as just the mask that imperial (typically Austrian-Hapsburg) power wore. A lesson, perhaps, to those who think the international system would survive in the absence of its current hegemon. Should the emperor weaken (and the mid-game Protestant Reformation is tailor-made to cause this to happen), conditions of interstate anarchy reassert themselves, resulting in an often terrifyingly rapid consolidation of the imperial states into a handful of larger powers.
As a game drags on and the European empires (I am including in that group the Ottomans) expand, anarchy is steadily replaced by a fragile balance-of-power politics: nearly all of the smaller states are attached to the major powers (with colonial subjects of European powers replacing many of the independent states of the New World) or absorbed. Those powers tend to split into alliance systems as the game goes on, which leads the chaotic free-for-all to turn into a series of longer relative peaces, punctuated by massive wars between alliance systems.
There are problems with the simulation, to be sure. The AI players don’t align away from a ‘winner’ as quickly or as strongly as they should, which means that once the balance of power becomes lopsided in the late-game, it generally doesn’t self-correct but instead snowballs into a monopolar global hegemony (which, to be fair, is a thing that happened in 1991, so it’s not unheard of, but it’s not quite common either and didn’t happen in this period). And the system really is best adapted to the realpolitik of the early modern period (you can see the same system struggle to create a convincing simulation of the both more norm-driven and also often more ‘limited’ warfare of the Middle Ages in Crusader Kings; the model just doesn’t quite fit as well for the period, though CKII is still neat, especially in how it represents medieval kingdoms not as states, but as collections of personalities). Finally, there are some troublesome assumptions being made about the nature and relative balance of European and Asian military power (though EUIV is better, in this regard, than EUIII, it still feels based on the ‘military revolution’ was it was understood about 30 years ago).
Where I think this is useful as a teaching tool is that it answers a lot of the ‘why don’t we all just get along’ sorts of questions as well as serving to clarify thinking about a lot of the less savory institutions (colonialism, imperialism, slavery) which existed in the brutal security dilemma of interstate anarchy (it might also make us question if these scourges are really banished, or merely sleeping until the next period of interstate anarchy). You can tell someone that non-aggression is a hard decision to make in these circumstances, but it often doesn’t sink in without experiencing the it. And, crucially, while the AI’s expansionism is effectively hard-coded, the player’s response to it is not.
(As an aside: the next chronological game, Victoria II, in its rarely played late-game, also provides an incredible counter-point to all of this as, post-1900 or so, war stops paying. It becomes so big and so destructive compared to the resource gains that assuming you already have a decently large population base, it’s better for your position to avoid as much of the big late-game mega-wars as possible. Which is, in the event, what seems to have happened historically, see Gat, War in Human Civilization (2008), war became more destructive than the potential gains – which may be why, on a per-capita basis, we have less of it now. Also, Paradox: make Victoria III you cowards!).
On to the recommendations.
First off, I want to highlight a really interesting set of inscriptions put together over at Sententiae Antiquae (who, if you are not following them on twitter, @sentantiq, you are missing out). It’s a set of Roman epitaphs to and by wives (translated by Brandon Conley). They are some of the most bittersweet readings. I suggest it because it’s a really striking reminder of everyday life and also that people in the past were human. Also – texts by and about women! This sort of material – which often lurks in collections of inscriptions that the average person has little access to – is so important for getting a real sense of the Romans (or any people in the past). Though I do wish at least one of the epitaphs for a wife had the standard Latin ‘lanam fecit’ (‘she spun wool’), as, in my experience that is easily one of the most common terms of praise for Roman wives (which should give a sense of how important that activity was for the survival and prosperity of the household; one of my commenters has rightly noted that this phrase does feature in one of the epitaphs).
Naturally the book recommendation this week is one I suggested above: Rome Enters the Greek East, by Arthur M. Eckstein. It really poses two sets of virtues, for two different readers. For the reader largely unfamiliar with the debate on the nature of Roman foreign policy, Eckstein – in the process of driving his argument – presents a fairly detailed narrative of the circumstances of Rome’s entrance into the Hellenistic state system and the diplomatic and political concerns that drove it. For the reader who is familiar with that background, Eckstein’s book is both more challenging and more fruitful, because it offers a full-throated (and I think, ultimately successful) challenge to both the classic ‘defensive imperialism’ school of Roman foreign policy (from late 19th century scholars like Theodor Mommsen) and the revised ‘exceptional aggression’ school (though this thinking is mostly commonly associated with W. V. Harris, on whom NOTE, it really permeates most Roman foreign policy thinking from the 1970s until the present, but cf. E. Wheeler, “Methodological Limits” in JMH 57.1 and .2 (1993)).
Eckstein neatly knocks down both at once, using a mix of solid classical scholarship and modern IR theory (particularly neo-realist theory) to argue that Rome was neither ‘defensive’ in its imperialism, nor exceptional in its aggression. Rather Rome was merely the most successful aggressive state in a system that – under the pressures of anarchy – consisted functionally entirely of aggressive, predatory states. I have to admit, I’m partial here (this vision is a handy foundation for my own thinking), but I am quite convinced that – some reservations aside – on the whole, Eckstein has it right. In Rome was neither the good-hearted protector, nor the sole bully in a class of harmless sheep, but just the biggest bully in a class of bullies, large and small. My impression is that Rome Enters the Greek East is more obtainable than its precursor, Mediterranean Anarchy; I think most non-specialists will be fine merely reading the former, as both books develop on substantively the same themes. Both are worth a read, for the insights into states both ancient and modern.
Next week – some poetry about fighting.