Nobody Cares About Negotiations 1

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.

  1. 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. []
  2. Balance of Power [Mindscape: Apple Macintosh, Amiga, Atari ST, Apple IIGS, MS Windows, MSX, 1985]. []
  3. Chris Crawford. 2003: On Designing the Game “Balance of Power”, URL: http://​www​.peach​pit​.com/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​.​a​s​p​x​?​p​=​99710​&​s​e​q​N​u​m=1, p 2. [23.01.2017]. []
  4. Cf.: Europa Universalis. Manual [Strategy First/Paradox Development Studio 2001], p. 1546; Europa Universalis II. 14191820: The Struggle can begin. User Manual. [Strategy First/Paradox Development Studio 2001], p. 5559, 6872; Europa Universalis III. Manual [Paradox Interactive, 2007], p. 6085; Europa Universalis IV. Manual [Paradox Interactive 2013], p. 3346, p. 72. []
  5. Hearts of Iron II Manual [Paradox Interactive 2005], p. 67, 4550; Hearts of Iron III. Manual [Paradox Interactive 2009], p. 2224, 3639. []
  6. Victoria. An Empire Under The Sun [Paradox Interactive 2003], p. 3233; Victoria – Revolutions. Manual [Paradox Interactive/GamersGate 2006], p. 3941; Victorica II. Manual [Paradox Interactive 2010], p. 7482. []
  7. For two the­mat­i­cal­ly and chrono­log­i­cal­ly quite dis­tant exam­ples cf. Rome – Total War. Manual [Creative Assembly/Sega 2004], p. 16, 3942, and Empire: Total War. Manual [Creative Assembly/Sega 2009], p. 2534. []
  8. Sid Meier’s Civilization III. Manual [Infogrames 2001], p. 136. []
  9. 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/​F​i​l​e​s​/​C​i​v​i​l​i​z​a​t​i​o​n​I​I​I​.​pdf [12.12.2016]. []
  10. 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. []
  11. see URL: https://​books​.google​.de/​b​o​o​k​s​?​i​d​=​H​L​K​h​A​g​A​A​Q​B​A​J​&​p​r​i​n​t​s​e​c​=​f​r​o​n​t​c​o​v​e​r​&​h​l​=​d​e​&​s​o​u​r​c​e​=​g​b​s​_​g​e​_​s​u​m​m​a​r​y​_​r​&​c​a​d​=​0​#​v​=​o​n​e​p​a​g​e​&​q​=​d​i​p​l​o​m​a​c​y​&​f​=​f​a​lse (23.01.2017). []
  12. 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. []
  13. 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. 3638, 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​.elu​damos​.org/​i​n​d​e​x​.​p​h​p​/​e​l​u​d​a​m​o​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​v​i​e​w​/​v​o​l​8​n​o​1​-10, p. 154. []
  14. 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. []

Tobias Winnerling

About Tobias Winnerling

Tobias Winnerling holds a PhD in History, focusing on Early Modernity, History of Knowledge , Global History, Theory of History, and… Games and History for a change. Unfortunately, this leaves no time for any serious play, so he has to write about it.

One thought on “Nobody Cares About Negotiations

  • Bart Stewart

    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.)

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