Collections: Teaching Paradox, Europa Universalis IV, Part I: State of Play

This is the first post in a series (I, II, III, IV) that will be examining the historical assumptions of Paradox Interactive’s grand strategy computer game set in the early modern period, Europa Universalis IV. And this series will in turn be part of a larger series looking at several of Paradox’s games and how they treat their historical subjects (I know, a series of series may be the most ACOUP thing ever). In any event, it seems appropriate to start with Paradox’s oldest and still flagship title, Europa Universalis and in particular with the fourth game in the series (the latest one).

I swear I hear the loading music just looking at this. Especially the big crescendo about 50 seconds in which invariably makes me reach for my speakers to turn the volume down at least a notch.

I particularly wanted to discuss Paradox’s games, as compared to other historically rooted games, because I think Paradox’s oeuvre is a particularly rich vein to mine. I have already heard from multiple college-level instructors that they have students coming into their classes specifically to learn the history behind these games, which in turn means that these games are serving to shape those student’s understanding of history before they even enter the classroom. Moreover, and we’ll get deeper into this as we go along, the very presentation of Paradox’s games, which use their efforts at historical accuracy as a key selling point, encourages players to think about them as exercises in history rather than just games.

But more than that, more than most historically set games, Paradox games are interesting because they are built with what I think is a detectable theory of history. Unlike other games which blunder through historical eras thoughtlessly, Paradox games, intentionally or not (in the event, I think it is clear from speaking with a couple of their developers, there is quite a lot that is intentional) have something to say about history. As we’ll see, some of that I’ll agree with and some of it I will disagree with, but the great value of Paradox’s games is that there is an ample theory of history to agree or disagree with.

Finally, I think the latest generation of Paradox games (Europa Universalis IV, Hearts of Iron IV, Crusader Kings III and Imperator) are particularly interesting compared to many of the older titles because of a change in design philosophy at Paradox over the years. The earlier Paradox games were often very much ‘on rails’ with certain historical events slated to happen more-or-less on time regardless of other factors or conditions, but more recent games have tended instead to remove the ‘rails’ and instead make those events subject to historical forces modeled dynamically in the games (and you can see titles like HoI3, EU3 and Victoria II as intermediate stages in this development; I should note we will be discussing Vicky2 in this series because some of its historical assumptions are fascinating and not at all because I want to bully Paradox into green-lighting Victoria III, but Vicky2 more properly belongs to the previous generation of Paradox games rather than the current one).

So we are going to approach this question from two related frames, first, what should the student of history be thinking about when playing Paradox’s games; what unspoken assumptions should they be aware of, or even forewarned about? And what of those assumptions are grounded in real arguments among historians (or, put another way, where does Paradox have its feet firmly in the scholarship in crafting its games)? And second, what ought teachers of history know about these games and take into account if they find themselves teaching students for whom Paradox is the historical ‘mother tongue’ and actual history only a second language?

Now obviously that is going to mean that we are going to be critical about these games, pointing out flaws and weaknesses (along with strengths) of their historical assumptions. I want to note at the outset then that I have played every main Paradox title (except March of the Eagles) since Hearts of Iron II (which released in 2005). So this critique comes from a place of appreciation for the series. Unlike some other games where it was the flaws that drew me to write a critique, the main reason I think critiquing Paradox’s oeuvre is their strengths as historical games whose assumptions are rooted in actual historical interpretations, even for their shortcomings. It is precisely because Paradox’s games are serious that I am going to subject them to serious historical criticism, which may at times be a touch harsh.

But first, as always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

(As a very niche note, Paradox’s business model involves moving out often significant expansions to their games on a regular schedule (anywhere from 1 to 4 a year, typically, with more recent titles settling into a consistent one-expansion-per-year rhythm), which means that their games tend to be moving targets in terms of criticism. I’ve played EU4 since release and so I am going to at some points offer comments as to the direction of the franchise in addition to its current state, particularly in cases where it seems that the developers are consciously trying to move the games towards addressing some of the critiques here. I should also note that I have not yet played the latest expansion to EU4, “Leviathan,” which appears to have been quite poorly received by fans in any event.)

Simulation of Power

First, we need to lay out quickly what the core of Europa Universalis IV (henceforth, EU4) is, particularly for readers who might be less familiar with it. 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).

The main playing screen of EU4 (with a small insert showing the great powers open at left). This is also a good map to really underscore the counter-historical potential of the simulation. Here, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, rather than falling apart, has emerged as a major great power dominating the southern Baltic.

It is worth noting here that, unlike many historical strategy games, there are no ‘minor’ factions in EU4 which are only played by the AI (though there are non-state peoples who are not played at all). While it is clearly the expectation that players will want to helm historically important, large states, one absolutely can opt to play as smaller, weaker states or states that were quickly absorbed historically. Any state on the map is playable. That is going to matter a fair bit that the game encourages players to see themselves not merely as the big, successful imperial states, but also as smaller, weaker states fearful of imperial neighbors (something we’ll return to next week).

Players don’t just make military decisions, but are also responsible for diplomacy (which, unlike in many other games, is not vestigial here – good alliances and friendly relationships are crucial to survival and the diplomacy system is fairly developed), public works construction and budgeting decisions. This is a game where choosing not to fight is often the correct choice (though war can be forced on the player by the AI). The player is also given significant control over the cultural aspects of their state, selecting ‘ideas’ for their state to adopt, which specialize it in various ways and give relevant bonuses; since not all ideas can be selected, the player is essentially choosing to focus on some aspects over others as a matter of policy and/or culture (we’ll come back to that). We’ll return to this next week, but the game has no explicit ‘win’ conditions, though many of its mechanics tend to push the player towards expanding state power, especially by expanding territory (that is conquest), so the most common way to play is to attempt the widest possible imperial expansion (though some players do intentionally focus on avoiding imperial expansion).

So, in essence, the player guides state actions through roughly 400 years of the early modern period.

Via the EU4 Wiki, a complete map of all of the playable countries in EU4, along with ‘uncolonized lands’ (in light grey). You can find a full, zoomable version here. The effort here to include and simulate the majority of the states of the period is really remarkable. Japan alone, for instance, contains more than thirty playable states at the 1444 start.

Centering the State

Now I want to stress something about that description because it is really crucial for understanding EU4 and how it views history. 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 – kings in this game come and go, often with little notice by the player except in how the minor differences in their abilities impact state strategy which transcends their reigns. Even complete changes in dynasties often pass without remark; I have had successions through distaff lines change my ruling house in games as Prussia or Burgundy and not noticed until decades later. Heck, even changes in government form are not meaningful discontinuities; transitions from kingdom to republic can be managed and while they can be disruptive they do not end the game. Playing as the Kingdom of France, the extinction of the French royal line and the transition into the French Republic isn’t a failure condition; indeed, it may be an intentional strategy for a player; in either case the state of France persists. Likewise, when playing France, you are not playing as the French – indeed, France starts with many provinces with French culture outside of its borders and control. This is a game about states, not nation-states; unlike in, say, Civilization you are not playing as a people, but as a political entity. 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. This comes out clearest in the way that the game treats non-state organizations: it either re-conceptualizes them as states, or reduces them to largely predictable, mechanistic systems to be managed by states.

Take, for instance, non-state polities (that is, people politically organized into things – like tribes – which are not states; for those who want a refresh on the distinction between states and non-state polities, check out this post, which covers states and state formation). EU4 takes some peoples who were not organized as states, like the Apache or the Pawnee or some of the peoples of the Eurasian Steppe and recasts them as states, albeit giving them government types (like ‘tribal council’) which point to the fact that they aren’t. Nevertheless, they behave like states because they play almost entirely like the other states in the game: they control clearly defined territories with a monopoly on the use of force in those territories and they act in complete unison under central direction and strategy, all of which is the definition of a state. Consequently, the complexity of non-state polities like these is just ironed away to make them all behave just like states, mostly to act as colonial foils and victims for the major state powers.

Here we are playing as the Comanche who, even in 1444, are presented as a united political entity with a single strategic direction and a single army (which is to say, as a state). By contrast, the territory around us, despite being inhabited by people who, historically would have had nearly all of the same political and social institutions the Comanche did, is simply ‘uncolonized land.’ We’ll get into it later, but that term is deeply unfortunate.
That said, it is a huge step forward compared to many games set in this period that Native American peoples are actually playable, although they are at a huge disadvantage which we’ll discuss in part 3.

Which is still better than the peoples the game does not convert into ersatz states. Populated areas of the world which aren’t covered by states are presented as ‘uncolonized’ provinces (literally, the in-game designation of these places is “uncolonized land” which remains a rather poor choice of phrasing), colored grey on the map (that is, they lack a ‘national’ color). The people in these places – and the game is careful to let you know there are people here; each ‘uncolonized’ province has a ‘population’ statistic which contributes to the development (see below) of the province once colonized – are entirely passive, unlike the states. They do not expand, make aggressive war, engage in diplomacy or anything like that. They exist to be settled upon or colonized and have no real chance of stopping that process once a state has turned their eyes upon them. These non-state peoples, rather than being converted into states, are treated as little more than soft gray clay, ready to be molded by the states around them.

Sub-state organizations get similar treatment, reduced to mechanics that are managed by the state. The roiling complexity of the Protestant Reformation, for instance, is reduced to a percentage chance that Catholic provinces spawn ‘centers of reformation’ which in turn begin converting adjacent provinces at a constant rate. In short, while the game features social change, religious change, revolution and upheaval, these sub-state (or international) movements are treated from the perspective of the state and its concerns.

Which brings us to the first big historical assumption that Europa Universalis IV essentially ‘smuggles’ into the game as an unstated consequence of the game mechanics: in EU4 history is the story of states. Now this isn’t an invalid way of teaching history, to be clear! I have history courses in my back pocket that I teach which are absolutely political histories focused on the structures and fortunes of states! Indeed, history as the history of states is arguably the oldest form of history (depending on what we think of Herodotus’ history-as-ethnography approach). But it is hardly the only form of history and I don’t think I would ever teach a pure political history course which never delved into realities below the level of state policy; that sort of relentlessly singular focus is sometimes appropriate in scholarship but hasn’t been current in teaching for many decades now (and for good reason).

Now to be clear, EU4 is not a history course and I don’t think the frame they’ve adopted is necessarily bad. This is a game about states. That’s a fair game to make the same way there are games about sports which don’t demand you manage the concessions stand or parking-availability and games about running companies which don’t demand you manage very much those companies relationship to states. And again, the history of states is a valid historical lens to adopt; states, by virtue of being big, powerful institutions, can have big, powerful historical impacts. But this specific frame is something that a player really needs to be aware of when using EU4 to think about history, particularly because (and we’ll come back to this concept later) the tremendous persuasive power of a simulation.

But before we get to that, I want to expand on some of the ways that EU4‘s focus on states distorts its image of history. We’ve essentially now discussed how that vision of history tends to hide the agency of things which are not states (institutions, peoples, polities, movements, etc), but it also tends to wildly overstate the power of states. And it begins with the state’s power to see.

Blinded Like a State

One facet of this expression of state power (and player convenience) is the absolutely vast amount of information the player has. While the actions and situation of foreign states may be, to a degree, hidden (although the player still has far better information on relative military and economic strength, to the point of knowing, down to the last man, how many men in service and liable for conscription every single state has at any given time), the player has effectively perfect information about their own state.

Look at all that province information (on the bottom left). Also, this screen is a great example of just how much EU4 is willing to simulate very small states. While I am playing as the midsized Duchy of Burgundy, you can see the little Dutch states and the even smaller states of the Holy Roman Empire as well.

Every state, no matter how limited its administrative capacity, can with a click look at a province and see its development (which replaced population in previous games), tax, production, trade value, local culture, local religion, notable public buildings, available manpower, precise supply limit, trade power, the major local product, how much is produced and where those goods flow. The state has precise knowledge at all times of how much manpower they have available state-wide, how many sailors, exactly how much money and so on.

These were things that pre-modern states generally did not know! Indeed, modern states can often only estimate these sorts of things in very broad strokes!

James C. Scott, in Seeing Like a State (1998) – itself long overdue for a fireside recommendation – takes up this issue of legibility directly. Scott notes that human societies are not generally, by their nature, ‘legible’ or ‘visible’ to states. Humans are hard to keep track of; they move, marry, have children and die. Consequently, Scott documents the lengths some states (the book is organized as a series of case studies) have gone to in order to render those people legible. Scott notes that such efforts by states are often very disruptive, sometimes even violent, for the actual people being ‘made legible’ to the state, as counting and organizing them often means intruding on their lives, reorganizing communities and disrupting traditional patterns of life. Moreover, even once this process was done, what the state had gained was often the illusion of knowledge, possessing lots of uniform statistics which did not show important local knowledge about conditions on the ground (leading to things like, for instance, the failure of efforts at massive, state-run farms; farming is a very localized thing and the absence of local knowledge of seasons and soil conditions often produced catastrophe).

One example Scott uses early in his book is illustrative to how these processes went. In late 1700s Prussia, the state owned significant amounts of forestland, the logging of which generated revenue to the state. In an effort to maximize this revenue in the long term, the Prussians embarked on a program of carefully measuring their forests, classifying trees and recording them. That effort created a demand for forests that were easier to record (and thus easier to calculate revenue maximizing utilization), so the forests were transformed into artificial grids of trees, using just a handful of tree species in neat rows which grew to more or less uniform heights. The unreadable variety of actual forests had been rendered into a readable, regularized artificial forest which could be understood as easily from the forester’s ledger as from the forest floor itself. But that very process of regularizing the forests had unintended consequences. It disrupted the small ecological processes which enabled the forest to renew itself after cutting, such that, a century in on the project, the Prussian forests began to experience Waldsterben (forest death). Trees died, production shrunk and efforts were then put underway to create virtual, artificial ecologies to replace the more robust ecologies that systematization had destroyed, often with only limited success.

But early modern states weren’t merely systematizing forests to render them legible, they were systematizing everything to render it legible to the state – not merely trees but also farms and also farmers, also burgs and burghers. Rather than disrupting natural ecologies, they disrupted natural communities, often to the frustration of the people who inhabited those very communities. All of this was simply an effort to see the countryside the state in theory controlled but in practice had only ever controlled very incompletely and to render that countryside understandable to state bureaucrats and advisors in far away capitals and administrative centers.

(Note that all states engage in these processes to a degree and you find efforts to create legible societies even in ancient states. What changes in the early modern period is that the level of state capacity, at least in Europe (because other areas of the world had high state capacity in much earlier periods) rises tremendously, making radical efforts at social state-legibility possible.)

In addition to clicking on individual provinces, the player has access to the ledger, a vast compendium of statistics on all of your provinces and indeed also rival countries. The game updates your ledger on every tick (that is, each in-game day), so this information is up-to-date within 24 hours, which is an absurd level of precision even for modern states!

States in EU4 seem to have none of these limitations, at least at first glance, as they have perfect information about the production and revenue capabilities of all of their provinces. It could be argued that the process by which the player develops provinces in their state reflects this process of legibility, such that when the player clicks the button to spend resources developing the tax base, or production or manpower of a province what they are actually doing are things like registering households for taxation and conscription or seizing and privatizing common land (a process known as enclosure) to render it liable for taxation and so on. But the game doesn’t say this and the little sounds the game plays when you do this (jingling coins, sawing boards and hammers pounding anvils) implies that we are to understand what you are doing is more akin to constructing infrastructure. But these are early modern states, not modern states – they aren’t (for the most part, this sort of thing is complex) widening the tax base through industrialization or infrastructure, but through exactly the disruptive processes of increasing state ‘legibility’ that Scott outlines. Yes, this is a period (in Europe) of rising urbanization and population growth, but not generally as the result of state action.

Moreover – and this will be a frequent refrain for this series – the player is given no sense of what impacts these decisions have on regular people. Because the game is focused on states the only impacts we see are impacts on states. Increasing ‘manpower’ costs a resource (‘military power’ generated by the ruler and advisors and reflecting the state’s administrative capacity for this sort of thing) and provides an unalloyed good to the state (increased military manpower). What we do not see are the royal inspectors going house to house signing up (and in some cases, violently impressing) newly legible peasants for military service from which they will likely never return. We do not see peasant resistance to being made newly legible for new (or old) taxes which might push them into misery (this interaction, where increasingly effective taxation of the lower classes lead to economic misery was a key contributor to the discontent that produced the French Revolution). We hear a happy sound, and our state now has more power and it seems like everything is good because everything is good for the state. The consequences of state action on real people are never brought meaningfully before the player’s eyes in direct response to that player action (hitting the development button does not, for instance, stoke unrest or have a chance of trigger negative local events).

There is no sense that sometimes increased state power is actually bad for the people that the state nominally protects or works for, even though as Scott points out with case study after case study, historically rising state administrative capacity could be very bad (though it could also be quite good) for the subjects of those states. Instead, these interactions are viewed entirely through the state’s eyes, where increased legibility leads to increased state power, which is good. There are no costs or tradeoffs.

Another ledger screen where I can see the exact military composition of my rivals and neighbors down to the precise – to the last man – number of men eligible for conscription in each country. That is information that effectively no state in this period would have about themselves, much less about their rivals.
(To be clear, I understand the gameplay reasons why this information is made available, I just want to note how ahistorical it would be to actually be this well informed. Many pre-modern and early modern and even modern states went to war with barely any idea – or wildly inaccurate ideas – about the manpower reserves of their soon-to-be enemies.)

Ministry of Culture

One of the consequences of these limitations in state power and legibility historically (and a conclusion it is hard not to draw from a reading of history) is just how limited the power of states is to change underlying cultures intentionally. Alexander’s efforts to institute Achaemenid court ritual and to have his Macedonian officers mingle and intermarry with Persian nobles didn’t stick. Augustus, for all his efforts, didn’t manage to get the Roman elite to reproduce themselves or stay married. Sustained efforts by the Soviet Union over seventy years to drive the Orthodox Church (and other religions as well) out of Soviet society largely failed, despite the vast power of the Soviet state. Examples of these sorts of failed top-down cultural initiatives are practically endless; it is very hard for states to intentionally effect mass cultural change by main force as an intentional policy. There are some exceptions, of course; states are, for instance, generally effective at getting people to learn new languages (but much less effective at getting them to abandon old ones). But overall, state efforts to mold culture tend to be long and difficult and still yield disappointing results.

By contrast, because of the strong focus in EU4 on history as a story of state action, the state is made the main director of most cultural change and moreover given tremendous agency over such change to the point of often obliterating the agency of other groups. This is perhaps most obvious in the tremendous control the player is given to make decisions that we might understand as changes in the culture of their state. This is perhaps clearest in two areas: ‘ideas’ and province culture.

‘Ideas’ in EU4 define the different capabilities and specialties of states. As the game progresses, the player is given a number of slots (eight, eventually) and they can chose an ‘idea group’ for each (out of 18). Each idea group is essentially a cluster of bonuses representing the increased effectiveness of the state in some specific kind of activity. For instance, the ‘Trade’ idea group makes the state better at profiting from trade, while the ‘Offensive’ idea group makes the armies of the state better at offensive warfare and so on. Because there are more idea groups than there are slots for idea groups, the player is essentially being asked to specialize their state, to decide what things it is good at, at the cost of being less good at other things.

It says something about the focus of the game that fully one third of the ideas are focused on military affairs, while entire sections of the game like trade and religion get just a single idea group. As we’ll see next week, for a game about early modern states, that focus isn’t unreasonable, but it is worth noting.
Here you can see the entire set of ideas (some countries may have slightly different idea group sets, but only slightly). The row of 7 icons below each idea group name represent different bonuses unlocked within that idea group; the light-bulb at the end is the bonus given for unlocking the entire group. The tooltip notes that idea groups can be combined to unlock powerful policies.

(Each state also has a ‘national idea’ group, a set of bonuses unique to them, which generally go towards whatever that state was well known for. So for instance Dutch ideas carry heavy trade bonuses, French ideas have bonuses to manpower following on the historical levée en masse, the Manchu have large bonuses to aggressive warfare and so on. A major part of strategy in the game is coming up with an overall strategic which harmonizes a state’s national idea group with the later idea groups taken)

Some of these ideas are things like having a national bank or a formalized officer corps which do fit within the space of state action and speak to the configuration of the state. But most of the ideas in question are much more broadly cultural, including things like ‘Nationalistic Enthusiasm,’ ‘Humanist Tolerance,’ ‘Print Culture,’ and ‘Shrewd Commerce Practice.’ And the very fact that these things are ideas rather than institutions – you are not adopting a specific structure of government, but rather the idea of that structure of government is percolating through your society (there is a separate mechanic for enacting ‘policies,’ which are enabled by having several compatible ideas) – speaks to the degree to which what the player is actually doing is shaping the culture of their state.

And certainly it is possible to look back and see that different states were differently able at certain tasks. It is dangerous to oversimplify here and end up reducing complex states and societies into stereotypes caricatures of themselves, but the idea of a game simulating states that, being excellent at one thing are less excellent than their contemporaries at other things makes sense. What is really ahistorical here is the degree of state control. It is safe to say that the Dutch Republic (remember, states, not peoples, so the Dutch Republic, not the Dutch), for instance, rather more competitive in trade than many other states. In the game, this is modeled by the confluence of Dutch ‘national ideas’ (which are themselves a choice; it is possible under the right conditions to ‘tag-switch’ and form different national configurations with different national ideas; the player must choose to form the Dutch Republic to get access to their ideas, as they don’t exist normally at game start) and taking the ‘Trade’ idea group (which anyone playing the Dutch Republic would have to be a very great fool not to take).

But historically, the prominence of the Dutch Republic in trade wasn’t just the consequence of state action (although certainly continued trade prominence was a major strategic goal of the state). It was a product of the terrain of the Netherlands (sitting at the mouth of a big navigable river that reached inland and provided a coastline with lots of good harbors), a product of the fact that the Low Countries had been an important region for trade (particularly in fabrics) for centuries, which in turn had shaped longstanding cultural assumptions and social structures in the communities of the Low Countries. And of course the historical timing and placement which put the Dutch Republic in the position of being a well-armed imperial state rather than one of the many more poorly armed or otherwise less fortunate states the Dutch would colonize or trade-with-and/or-exploit.

Now we’ve talked about elsewhere on the blog how preexisting social structures can influence things like military structure, but also economic patterns. While these deep structures in society do change, they change only slowly and at a pace generally too slow for states to plan around them. In short, the factors that made the Dutch prominent in global trade mostly weren’t strategic decisions made with centuries-long planning horizons, they were accidents of culture, geography and the moment. There is some of this in EU4 (though – and we’ll get to this in two weeks – it is handled rather more poorly than I’d like), but for the most part the game, in the interest of maximizing player agency (which is, after all, the fun of it), ignores these factors.

A game as the Netherlands in which trade is booming – you can see the state treasury in the top right, just to the left of the national banner where it reads ’62k,’ a nearly (but only nearly) unspendable amount of money.

(I should note, the specific school of historical thought that EU4 is not really engaging with here is called the Annales school. The Annales school of thought focused on the long run of history (la longue durée) which they argue is only briefly upset by sensational events but deeply shaped by things (‘structures’) like geography, climate and cultural assumptions (what they call mentalités). In this reading, kings and empires rise and fall – often quite quickly – but the slow work of these structures is more influential in the long run. EU4, understandably, does not want to trap players in circumstances deeply beyond their control where socially embedded institutions and assumptions (much less climate and geography) put the player ‘on rails’ and so the game minimizes the degree to which these concerns shape history. I should also note that, while Annales thinking is a very valuable tool in the historian’s tool box, it is by no means the only one. Sometimes kings and empires do last and do have permanent impacts on the underlying structures!)

Unimaginative Communities

EU4 likewise privleges state action as the primary motivator of culture change in another way: the culture of provinces. Each province has a primary culture, which in turn a member of a culture group (generally modeled on linguistic families). Each state has one ‘primary’ culture and some ‘accepted’ cultures, provinces of which provide full resources; provinces with other cultures suffer penalties to unrest, tax income, etc. There are a lot of assumptions packed into this system and we will be coming back to it later.

When a state absorbs provinces that are of neither an accepted culture or the primary culture, it has essentially three choices: first, it can simply tolerate the reduced revenue and resources and higher unrest from the province (not generally a good choice). Second, the player can spend resources (‘diplomatic power’ representing the cultural cache of the state) to add the culture in question to the ‘accepted cultures’ list for the state, presumably representing a decision to reach an official accommodation with the culture in question. But there are a sharply limited number of slots for accepted cultures, so developing a truly pluralistic society is generally impractical. The final option is to convert the province culture by expending diplomatic power, which changes the province’s culture to the primary culture. I want to focus on that third option.

There are two significant problems here. The first is that while the culture conversion button is presented as rather a good thing (it runs on diplomatic power, for instance, rather than military power, another comparable resource), the implications of what the rapid conversion (typically anywhere from 3-10 years) of a province’s culture means are left unaddressed. The game makes a happy little horn-call when you press the button and the conversion starts, with a little administrator figure appearing on the map with a progress bar.

EU4’s change culture button; when pressed it starts the conversion process with an upbeat musical note, leaving a small administrator on the map to mark progress.

The issue is, we know what trying to ‘convert culture’ on a province on that kind of time frame looks like, because the People’s Republic of China is literally doing that in Xinjiang right now and it looks like genocide and ethnic cleansing. But the player is never confronted with the implications of their choices; there is no reduction in the province’s development on account of the mass death or deportation and unrest doesn’t even go up during the process. The implication is that the forced cultural conversion of an entire province within a single generation by state action involves no coercion, no violence, no force, no death. Which is absurd and the game should be more honest about what that button ought to entail (and also it should probably require ‘military power’ not ‘diplomatic power’).

The second is that this process vastly overstates the ability of states, by direct action, to change underlying culture. Yes, what we might call cultural assimilation (though that term often doesn’t grasp the complex ways that cultural identities layer on each other so that a person might be, for instance, Roman and Egyptian and Alexandrian and Greek-speaking and Christian, to take an ancient example) does happen and it often happens in and around state borders. It is a long observed point that it is often states which create nations and only more rarely the other way around (although it does happen!).

But that kind of cultural expansion, when it isn’t accomplished through genocidal ethnic cleansing and replacement (and often even when those things are done which, and I want to be clear here, ethnic cleansing is bad and should not happen), is extremely slow. The process by which, say, the Latin language slowly spread out through the western parts of the Roman Empire took centuries to complete. These changes happen over generations, not years.

Now I understand what the game is trying to simulate. It is trying to simulate the emergence of modern nation-states, a real phenomenon that did occur in this period. It is easy for us to forget that the big national identities of western and central Europe (‘Spanish’ and ‘French’ and ‘German’ and so on) have not existed forever. Medieval France, for instance, had many ethnic groups – Franks, Occitans, Aquitanians, Bretons, Burgundians, and on and on – who spoke somewhat different languages and had meaningful cultural differences (and to be clear, these regional cultures mostly still exist, but now layered over with a common French identity because – once more with feeling – cultural identities are complex and layer over each other, not simple and exclusive). It was an important but slow process whereby those regional identities converged somewhat creating the big French national ‘super-identity.’ The same process happened in most of Europe’s large states in this period or following it.

(And I should note this process is not exclusive to Europe or to the early modern period. ‘Egyptian’ identity seems to have been a creation of the long periods of unified Egyptian rule c. 3200-500 BC; likewise Han Chinese identity, or the formation of an Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) identity out of originally five and later six distinct groups, to name just a few of a multitude of examples. Practically every cultural grouping larger than a few towns or villages is the product of these sorts of processes. That said, for reasons we are about to discuss, these forces get much stronger in the early modern and modern periods, worldwide)

Cultural conversion in progress (the appearance of the administrator official who marks the progress changes based on your state’s culture).

But they have the agency here all wrong. Here I think it is helpful to lean on B. Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983, also a classic which doubtless will make a fireside appearance at some point). Anderson argues that the real agent of this process in the early modern period is the combination of mass literacy (generally in the vernacular, that is local spoken, language rather than a fancy lingua Franca like Latin) with the printing press and the mass commercial literature it produced (expressed by Anderson more or less as the printing press plus capitalism) combined finally with the movement away from personal rule through hereditary monarchy and divine right that occurred with the Enlightenment.

And what I want to note here is that the only real state agency in any of that is that some states encouraged mass literacy in the vernacular through public education, using state resources to teach new generations a standardized version of the national language (which is why countries like France have government agencies which determine correct spelling and punctuation, rather than how countries in the Anglophone world leave that issue to endless, ineffectual bickering between writing style guides; this is not to say that Anglophone countries have never attempted to force people to learn English as a means of cultural erasure though). But the rest of it – the printing press and the mass commercial literature and even most of the drive for mass literacy – happen below the level of state activity and outside of the control of the state. This is perhaps most visible in Germany before the formation of the German state. Despite the lack of a united German state, the emergence of a common vernacular literature in German encouraged many German-speakers to see themselves (this is the ‘imagined’ in Imagined Communities – they are creating the community as an act of collective imagination; nations are, in this sense, socially constructed) as part of a greater German whole. Indeed, in the German case, it was the feeling of nationalism which led to the national state, rather than the other way around (to greatly simplify a very complex series of events). State power in these processes is often minimal, as attested to by the frequent failures of state efforts to culturally consolidate nations either at home or abroad.

Now I think that the folks behind EU4 are actually aware of Imagined Communities, because they have embraced part of his thesis: the ‘Enlightenment’ institution (more on those later), which appears around 1700 and requires the ‘Printing Press’ institution substantially reduces culture conversion costs and it isn’t hard to see how that fits with Anderson’s Enlightenment+Literacy+Printing_Press argument. And in earlier games (Europa Universalis III, in particular), the cultural assimilation process was bottom-up, uncontrolled by the player; provinces had a weighted chance to trigger a conversion event over time, leading to something closer to what we might expect: a slow, but steady drift towards a common ‘national’ culture so long as the same state controlled the space which, due to the weighting, accelerated with the Enlightenment (though I will say that probably this process ought to be more strongly connected to the printing press than the Enlightenment). In terms of modeling the limits of state power, EU4 is thus a step backwards from EU3 which was more prepared to admit that these sorts of processes existed largely outside of the realm of state action.

Nevertheless, if we are being fair, I understand from a game design point of view the desire to take a seemingly random and uncontrollable process and give the player a sense of agency and control. Games where you can control things are more fun, after all. Myself, what I might do differently here is instead of a ‘convert culture’ button which does the job in a few years or a couple of decades, I might have given the player an ‘encourage mass literacy’ policy which has the same effect, but over a much longer span of time and at a lower cost, but only works if unrest is kept very low (and then move the bonus to this from Enlightenment to the Printing Press institution, or give them both a bonus).

Invisible People

All of these problems together seem to have to have the same potentially bad tendency: they tend to obscure the consequences the player’s decisions have on real people, instead focusing on the impact that player decisions have on the power of the state. We’ll see that same tendency next week when we start to look at the political model that EU4 is built on, but it is worth stressing it here.

While EU4 does not have win conditions per se, it does have a ‘score’ which rates the player based almost entirely on the power of their state (split into administrative, military and diplomatic categories). There is no score for the quality of life in the state (interestingly, this is in contrast to te next game, chronologically, Victoria II, which does consider quality of life, in its own way; we will actually see that VickyII, while it has its own problems, resolves some of EU4‘s stickier issues due to its different focus), no prize for a player whose careful management encourages simple human thriving rather than vast empire building.

Moreover, not only does EU4 not confront the player with the human cost of theri decisions, but it goes further and often implies that no such human cost exists. The relentless march of state institutions, of state ‘legibility’ and state power, alongside the steady erasure (because while real cultural identities layer, in the game they do not) of local cultures in favor of overarching national identities are never even really implied to create real human suffering. They result in more power and glory to the state and so ad maiorem patriae gloriam they are uncomplicated good things. In a handful of cases, the march of state power can produce random events which begin to suggest the unmooring of traditional societies, but the game invests these with no amount of perceivable consequence; the events are just that, random events, not direct results if your policies.

The result is a game that plays as a love letter to state power. More state power is always better. And while that does fit with a particular vision of how states work (which we’ll talk about next week), the opportunity to stress the real and sometimes enormous human cost that attitude can cause is mostly lost here.

And so 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 that the state is encouraging cultural convergence, or rendering the countryside more ‘legible’ in order to extract more manpower for one more apparently endless war (mostly misery, in the event; in the latter case this was exactly one of the pressures that led to the French Revolution).

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. These processes – the steady increase of state power and capacity and the emergence of national imagined identities – were very real historical processes that really did happen and really do shape our modern world in profound ways. I applaud the folks at Paradox for making such an effort to try to model those processes, even if in some cases they fall short. But I would suggest for the student looking into this to ask some hard questions about the costs and tradeoffs of those processes. The modern world is, I think, mostly a good thing, but it came with some catastrophic birthing pains. I’ve already suggested two good starting places, but to reiterate them, you might begin by reading J.C. Scott, Seeing Like a State (1998) and B. Anderson, Imagined Communities (1983).

Next week, we take a turn and look at war, diplomacy, war, politics and war. Because the world of Europa Universalis IV is a very violent place and that’s actually a point where I think Paradox has the history right in very interesting ways!

156 thoughts on “Collections: Teaching Paradox, Europa Universalis IV, Part I: State of Play

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