This feature is part of our special series on History and Games.
Cortez landed at the Aztec city of Vera Cruz with only a few hundred conquistadors, but with the aid of superior weapons and diplomacy, he soon had Montezuma crying in his chocolate. The Aztecs were deposed before they could learn the technology of the Spanish.
[Sid Meier’s Civilization. Manual (Microprose 1991), p. 7.]
Nobody reads manuals. They can be quite boring, and time-consuming as well. So what should a game designer do to keep players both happy and well prepared? First, you put them in control (or at least, give them the illusion of control), and second, you put them in a manageable environment. If you want to secure the manageability of a game you can mitigate random and potentially uncontrollable events by fixing them algorithmically to a clear path. Then tell the player how this path works, and pre-construct the scenario. Well done! You now have a tutorial. Problem solved; a manual is no longer needed. And this solution is applicable to each and every type of game.
In fact, pretty much everything is up to you. […] That’s one explanation for the game’s addictive quality. You are in charge – not the computer. Your civilization rises or falls according to your wisdom or folly. It’s good to be ruler! Good luck, and enjoy.
[Sid Meier’s Civilization IV. Manual (Firaxis/2K Games 2005), p. 5.]
But why stop here? The tutorial solution is applicable to types of events suffering from being difficult to control and subject to time-consuming, tedious procedures, too. In historicizing strategy games,1 this goes in particular for the field of diplomacy.
Although strategy games acknowledge diplomacy as an integral part of the challenges they offer, they nevertheless suffer from serious weaknesses in representing diplomacy. They do feature it, of course, but those who built these games treat diplomacy in much the same way they treat manuals (which these games of course also have): as more of a liability than an asset. Even the best of them cannot offer an artificial intelligence you could meaningfully negotiate with. Sid Meier’s Civilization IV acknowledged this problem in a kind of apology for the shortcomings of the brand’s earlier episodes in this area (although to be able to reach and enjoy this passage it you first had to read through 180 pages of manual):
A problem that diplomacy suffered from in previous Civ games was a lack of motive – it often felt quite arbitrary that one civilization might like you while another hated you. Religion provides a useful back-story to give diplomatic dealings more logic. Choosing a different state religion than your neighbor may lead to animosity and possibly war.
[Sid Meier’s Civilization IV. Manual (Firaxis/2K Games 2005), p. 181.]
Random factors minimized: check; manageability enhanced: check; making players feel in control: double check.
To get a glimpse of how the in-game representations of diplomacy, poor as they were, evolved over time, it pays to invest some slightly boring hours into reading… manuals. The somehow surprising result: there is indeed a clear line of evolution and standardization of in-strategy-game diplomacy.
In the beginning of strategy game development there were multiple approaches to the problem. Still an outstanding case is Balance of Power of 1984/5,2 in which players direct the USA during the Cold War and have only diplomatic options at their disposal — if the situation escalates into war, you immediately lose the game. It featured a rather more elaborate list of diplomatic options than other, later games, but its development seems to have foreshadowed the path along which strategy games would evolve. Its sole developer Chris Crawford decided to exclude diplomatic trade options like sanctions or embargoes: “The problem with trade is that it’s slow and undramatic.”3 And although Balance of Power was a huge success in its day and was followed by a sequel in 1990, it was a 1991 title that would become the paradigm for in-strategy-game diplomacy as it was much stricter in cutting the slow and undramatic parts out of it. The diplomacy framework introduced by Sid Meier’s Civilization — to be exact: as introduced from Civ III onwards — served as blueprint for many other historicizing strategy games. Paradox’s Europa Universalis,4 Hearts of Iron,5 and Victoria 6 series feature it, as well as Sega’s Total War titles.7 The standard which evolved this way essentially comprises three features:
- Diplomats are converted into an in-game currency. The people whom you as a ruler employ to actually perform diplomatic activities are only represented by a number, level or score of diplomatic points you may use to buy or not to buy these activities with.
- All negotiations are bilateral only. You never get to negotiate with more than one party at one time. You may not even run several bilateral negotiations simultaneously to make up for that.
- A pre-structured corridor of tradeable items governs all attempts to engage diplomatically. There is only a limited number of options you may include into talks, and moreover the range of possible subjects of talks is curtailed to peace treaties plus a bit of economic and scientific pressuring.
All three serve to mitigate random, potentially uncontrollable events by fixing them algorithmically to a clear path — skipping all intermediary instances; only two parties to a deal — pre-constructing the scenario — limiting scope and content of deals — and telling the player how this path works (well, at least in the manuals). Civilization VI even felt the need to include a warning concerning outcomes unforeseen: “Your rivals, like human beings throughout history, will not always act rationally. They might start wars on the slightest pretext or demand exorbitant payments for peace treaties. Sometimes they’re bluffing.”8 During negotiations?! Shame on them!
Well, the good thing in this is that these games will never bother you with something like, say, TTIP. The bad thing is that they won’t do so because they simply can’t. Any diplomatic agreement like TTIP is completely outside their representational limits for diplomacy. Of course you might turn this down as not part of the problem at all, as I promised to talk about historicizing games — and, whether you wish for it or not, TTIP is not history yet. But think of other events which could also never be represented within such a framework, events which are of a more historical nature. The 1492 Treaty of Tordesillas, for instance, in which Portugal and Spain delineated their spheres of influence outside Europe, trying to partition the world: Dealing with territory not yet belonging to any of the parties — impossible; trilateral, because drafted under papal mediation — impossible, too. The treaties of Münster and Osnabrück constituting the Peace of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years’ War: including way too many parties — impossible; dealing with issues of religious toleration — impossible. The Roman Treaties establishing the first precursors to the European Union: Apart from the number of parties, a treaty establishing a trade and customs union in selected economic sectors — don’t even dream of it. The 2+4 negotiations leading to German Reunification and constituting the peace treaty with Germany for World War II: the same issues, too many parties involved and things negotiated from off the tradeable items list. You could play this game endlessly. Even those historical treaties that were truly bilateral always included propositions not covered by the list of tradeable items.
Yet nobody seems to care very much: player communities’ complaints are scarcely audible if there are any, there is no competition among modders for the best diplomatic features, and reviewers normally side-line this issue. Even historians dealing with the topic in many cases do not even mention the, let’s say, small disparity between in-game and real-world diplomatic processes9 – although, following Adam Chapman, “decisions regarding the actions that will be allowed to be taken by and constrictions that will apply to the player, the ‘affordances’ of the environment, are a huge part of meaning-making in this type of history.”10 From the developer’s perspective this disinterest seems all too clear, a natural consequence in line with Crawford’s decision on trade:
Nevertheless, strategy games tend to reward aggressive measures more than they do peaceful ones because war is easier to model, and more exciting to watch, than diplomacy. The consequences of war are presented as less dire than they are in the real world, and the goal of the game is often domination of the world, not peaceful coexistence.
[Ernest Adams. 2014: Fundamentals of Strategy Game Design, e‑Book: New Riders]11
Sid Meier’s Civilization II was something of an exception: one of the few games featuring special diplomatic features for multi-player games, as opposed to outsourcing these activities to out-game channels like messengers or chats running simultaneously. These extended rules consciously tried to capture at least a part of the flexibility and randomness of human-to-human negotiations and to translate them into the language of the game. Civ II even allowed for in-game bugging other player’s diplomatic communication channels:
If you move a diplomatic unit into the capital city of a civilization ruled by a human player, the usual menu of missions has one extra option–Spy on Chat. […] As long as the tap remains active, copies of all of that player’s incoming and outgoing chat messages are sent into your chat window. This continues until the tap is noticed and traced to the listening post.
[Sid Meier’s Civilization II: Test of Time. Manual (MicroProse 1999), p. 132.]
Unfortunately, this concept was not developed further in the series’ later titles — the basis for the evolution of in-strategy-game diplomacy was Civ III, not Civ II. According to its designers, Civ III had a clear purpose in linearizing possibly random factors of the game environment: “‘The fun in Civilization often comes from imagining a plan, executing it, and then reaping the rewards. At every step, the fun works because the player understands what his and her choices are as well as their ramifications. Randomness just tends to muddy this process”.12 Later installments of the series therefore provide rather less than more freedom in this sector, regardless of the enlarged list of tradable items. Civilization VI even fixes a restriction period for player decisions:
Note: You cannot offer peace until 10 turns after a war was started. Also, once you make peace, you cannot declare war with the same Civ for an additional 10 turns.
[Sid Meier’s Civilization VI. Manual (Firaxis/2K Games, 2016), p. 145.]
Before starting to complain about this ahistorical fashioning of representations of history within games from an academic history perspective one should perhaps take a step back and have a look at the situation within the discipline. Diplomatic history is clearly not the most popular field among the historical disciplines either. And while games’ producers do have a very good excuse for implementing weak diplomacy within their games — to build an AI that creates a sufficiently demanding bargaining situation to simulate a human antagonist does pose a serious programming problem — historians have not. While it would be all too easy to suppose both phenomena to be directly related, it is interesting to ask if there might be an underlying dynamic both might be retraced to.
Diplomatic history (old-fashioned style) involves a lot of plodding through — sometimes quite boring — administrative and legislative documents in archives and editions. Fortunately many of these have already been collected and edited, although some of these collections have become as unwieldy as to stifle much of an enthusiastic historian’s spirit of discovery. The Acta Pacis Westphalicae, gathering the proceedings around the Peace of Westphalia, currently run to 37 thick volumes in two series. Add to these publications such as the Consolidated Treaty Series which runs to 231 text volumes of treaties between countries and organizations all around the globe, not to mention about 30 volumes of indexes and registers — and then realize that you haven’t even begun to search for materials online or digitized. And, what’s more, many of these materials are written in dry juridical or technical prose, detailing instructions on minor issues long forgotten in termini you don’t even find in specialists’ dictionaries. Yet this cannot account for a — at least perceived — disinterest in this field of history, let alone provide an acceptable excuse. Hurdles like these are part of the bread-and-butter business of historians in every kind of research.
I would rather suggest that both phenomena may be traced back to complexity management — or perhaps complexity avoidance management, to put it more aptly. Focusing on the processes leading to war rather than those that establish peace, on conflicts and the breakdown of orders rather than on the regulations trying to build up order signals the same: The trajectory leads from states of higher complexity to those of clearer demarcations. The simplifying tendencies underlying many theoretical approaches in such studies — seeking out the one crucial reason why things went the way they did — add to the analytical toolbox we have at our disposal in much the same way as new options to the list of tradeable items. And in much the same way as players, historians don’t complain; we are trained to seek out complexity to reduce it, not to complicate the material we find even more.
There seems to be something like a co-evolutionary tendency between two phenomena, one popular and one academic: nobody (really) cares about negotiations in the end, a few exceptions granted. So why am I still uncomfortable with it?
The reduction of diplomacy in historicizing strategy games as sketched out so far follows a compelling internal logic. Players are given a toolbox in the form of a tradeable diplomatic items list, and all factors that might induce randomness and uncontrollability are hedged in, if not cut out altogether. This serves on the one hand to provide players with a pleasurable experience through providing them with a feeling of agency in giving them control over events which by their fast-and-catchy nature can immediately be understood as important. On the other hand it helps to determine the status of the AI parties within the game. Although they are staged as digital rivals — whom human players might apprehend as their digital equals in terms of pursuing distinct internal needs, intentions, and goals — they really are not. This can be nicely demonstrated by the example of in-game diplomacy renditions. The AI parties are not so much opponents as they are obstacles whose only function is to hinder players in achieving their goals. They might seem to act as opponents but really are nothing but clever hindrances to the players’ objectives. As such, they are not the players’ equals but their inferiors; they don’t have any goals or intentions of their own. Therefore they cannot be meaningful partners in diplomatic negotiations — and need not be provided with the tools and capabilities that would be necessary to make them behave as such. This of course reduces in-game diplomacy in an ahistorical way, but lets players experience their actions as both immediately meaningful and powerful and thus simultaneously caters to the producers’ limitations and the audience’s expectations. After all, it is not genuine history that’s wanted but something that provides historical flair; not ‘real’ but ‘real enough’.13 That the player-historian has to observe these developments with a sense of discontent is no problem: in the end, nobody cares.14 Not even historians themselves.
- All games which consciously make use of historically fashioned elements, whether in design or content, may be called ‘historicizing’ as they are made to evoke imaginations of historical phenomena. [↩]
- Balance of Power [Mindscape: Apple Macintosh, Amiga, Atari ST, Apple IIGS, MS Windows, MSX, 1985]. [↩]
- Chris Crawford. 2003: On Designing the Game “Balance of Power”, URL: http://www.peachpit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=99710&seqNum=1, p 2. [23.01.2017]. [↩]
- Cf.: Europa Universalis. Manual [Strategy First/Paradox Development Studio 2001], p. 15–46; Europa Universalis II. 1419–1820: The Struggle can begin. User Manual. [Strategy First/Paradox Development Studio 2001], p. 55–59, 68–72; Europa Universalis III. Manual [Paradox Interactive, 2007], p. 60–85; Europa Universalis IV. Manual [Paradox Interactive 2013], p. 33–46, p. 72. [↩]
- Hearts of Iron II Manual [Paradox Interactive 2005], p. 6–7, 45–50; Hearts of Iron III. Manual [Paradox Interactive 2009], p. 22–24, 36–39. [↩]
- Victoria. An Empire Under The Sun [Paradox Interactive 2003], p. 32–33; Victoria – Revolutions. Manual [Paradox Interactive/GamersGate 2006], p. 39–41; Victorica II. Manual [Paradox Interactive 2010], p. 74–82. [↩]
- For two thematically and chronologically quite distant examples cf. Rome – Total War. Manual [Creative Assembly/Sega 2004], p. 16, 39–42, and Empire: Total War. Manual [Creative Assembly/Sega 2009], p. 25–34. [↩]
- Sid Meier’s Civilization III. Manual [Infogrames 2001], p. 136. [↩]
- Cf. Paul Christesen, Dominic Machado. 2010: Video Games and Classical Antiquity, Classical World, DOI: 10.1353/clw.2011.0000; Alex Burns. 2002.: Civilization III: Digital Game-Based Learning and Macrohistory Simulations, Australian Foresight Institute/Disinformation®, URL: www.alexburns.net/Files/CivilizationIII.pdf [12.12.2016]. [↩]
- Adam Chapman. 2013: Is Sid Meier’s Civilization history?, Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, DOI:10.1080/13642529.2013.774719; URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13642529.2013.774719 [12.12.2016], p. 8. [↩]
- see URL: https://books.google.de/books?id=HLKhAgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=de&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=diplomacy&f=false (23.01.2017). [↩]
- Soren Johnson as quoted in: Gerald A. Voorhees. 2009: I Play Therefore I Am. Sid Meier’s Civilization, Turn-Based Strategy Games and the Cogito, Games and Culture, DOI: 10.1177÷1555412009339728, p. 266. [↩]
- cf. Sun-ha Hong. 2015: When Life Mattered: The Politics of the Real in Video Games’ Reappropriation of History, Myth, and Ritual, Games and Culture, DOI: 10.1177÷1555412014557542, p. 36–38, and Tobias Winnerling. 2014: The eternal recurrence of all bits. How historicizing video games’ series transform factual history into affective historicity, eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture, URL: http://www.eludamos.org/index.php/eludamos/article/view/vol8no1-10, p. 154. [↩]
- The concluding proceedings of a long-running German research-project into strategy games, for instance, do not even feature diplomacy: cf. Diskurse des strategischen Spiels. Medialität, Gouvernementalität, Topografie. 2014, ed. by Stefan Böhme/Rolf Nohr/Serjoscha Wiemer, Münster: LIT. [↩]
I enjoyed this discussion of conventional “diplomacy” in games. In part that’s because I share the opinion that what passes for diplomacy in games is extraordinarily constricted (even if you see them as games and not simulations) versus the range of possible actions.
This actually made me grumpy enough a couple of years ago to start working on a game of my own to address this gap. Since then I’ve bogged down in the mechanics of representing just the kinds of features you describe, primarily multilateralism and a non-fixed palette of negotiating options.
I’m still trying to think my way out of this. Your article is a satisfying suggestion that I’m not entirely incompetent; it’s sort of a hard problem. :)
I’d be interested in reading any follow-ups that consider ways in which these design challenges might be addressed. In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to write this piece. (Note: I found my way here via a tweet from Chris Bateman.)