Empires in the "Game-Over Era"

Videogames and the question of historical narrative

Date: 1 September 2017, 01:30–03:30

Venue: Corvinus University, Fővám tér 8, room 397



Thanks to diverse and incisive research conducted in response to the so-called ‘new imperial studies’, it is now a common belief across the board that in the past half a century or so our everyday relationship to and encounters with ‘empire’ and (post)colonial heritage have changed almost entirely. On the one hand, the contemporary experience of, retrospection over, and re-imagination of empires in the former colonies has opened spaces for the colonized to record the otherwise unheard or suppressed ‘subaltern voices’ and to open doors to archive-worthy evidence which were formerly doomed to transmute into dust. On the other hand, in the so-called metropole, unprecedented geopolitical ruptures, disruptions in the colonial economic (im)balance, and new forms of relating to, representing, and imagining the colonial identity have altered the perspectives and experiences of empire and the force behind it.

The panel entitled Empires in the ‘Game-Over Era’: Videogames and the Question of Historical Narrative seeks to investigate this changed everyday experience and exposure to the historical notion and institution of empires, and the consequent changes in the definitions and applications of the term in our post-colonial, ‘game-over era’ through focusing on the various medial, rhetorical, and historical aspects of an increasing body of history-themed videogames which have, for the past two decades or so, dealt with empires in one way or another. The particular nature of these videogames—sites where historical narratives come under challenge by producers and gamers and where the borders between historical fact and fiction get blurred—have drawn a group of young as well as established historians to ask apropos micro- as well as macro-level research questions in relation to the question of empires and historical narratives:

- What functions does history perform in the popular historical imaginary of gamers?

- What are the definitions of empire in its popular forms, e.g., in history-themed videogames?

- How do gamers’ personal affinity to an empire (being an Indian Hindu adolescent) and the historical moment at which they play (peak of the ‘War on Terror’ hysteria worldwide) affect their relationship to games and to historical narratives which function as the games’ backdrop?

- How do these factors change the gamer’s choices and adopted strategies in the games?

- How does ‘playing an empire’ change the gamers’ relationship to the (post)colonial heritage?

- How does relating to empires in our game-over era through videogames change/reinforce/cleanse/dismiss/renew existing imperial myths?

Asking these and similar questions, this panel offers a podium for historians interested in videogame cultures to discuss the immense potential of videogames in reminding historians of the necessity to reflect upon the tenacity of grand historical narratives, to zoom in and investigate close relationship of individuals to and roles in imperial past and imperial present, and to evaluate the nature and limits of ‘historical source’ and ‘historical evidence’.


Mahshid Mayar (Bielefeld University)


Federico Peñate Domínguez (Complutense University of Madrid)

Robert Heinze (University of Bern)

Wolfgang Manfred Egner (University of Konstanz)



Federico Peñate Domínguez: Faith and Gunpowder: Myths regarding the Spanish Empire in Civilization Z and Europa Universalis IV

My proposal seeks to shed light on the myths and narratives relating the Spanish Empire in videogames. Especially how game mechanics and aesthetics make claims about Spain’s colonial past, reinforcing certain perceptions of history made both by academics and popular memory. Most of these historical games are developed, produced and consumed in the Western world and are nurtured by narratives developed for centuries, often originating in the Black Legend, but also inserted in a grand narrative of progress and western domination of the world. I have chosen Sid Meier’s: Civilization V (Take-Two Interactive, 2014) and Europa Universalis IV (Paradox Interactive, 2013) as a comparative case study, because both are conceptual historical simulations that share a common, constructionist discourse (Chapman, 2013, 2016). However, despite their similarities they address their historical background in different ways: while Europa Universalis IV, a Swedish game, seeks the most accurate mediation of the Early Modern period, Civilization V (developed by a North-American studio) shows a simplified version of the past that highlights elements often associated to myths and popular history. Bearing these facts in mind, I will try to explain the position of Spain in the discourses of historical empires videogames articulate and its relation with more traditional narratives".

Robert Heinze: Deconstructing the procedural rhetoric of Empire in ‘Sid Meier’s Colonization’ through Mods

In 2008, Firaxis published a long awaited successor to its 1994 surprise hit, "Sid Meier's Colonization". The game, "Civilization IV: Colonization", presented a sanitized version of US history in which slavery didn't exist (except for one binary choice towards the end of the game) and Native Americans were reduced to a simple game mechanic, waiting to be exploited by the player. While the first iteration of the game had been met with great critical praise and would remain popular with "Civ" players for years to come, its updated edition ("Civilization IV: Colonization"), disappointed fans who felt it didn't stay true to the original and collided with a radically changed media landscape (and public discourse), which in parts sharply criticized its glorification of US colonization and the frontier myth.

However, not only had the games media and its discourse changed, but so had the distribution systems of video games and their relation to the audience. Civilization IV allowed players to change everything from graphic assets to rulesets and create modifications which, in turn, could be downloaded and installed by other players. By the time of the second Colonization spin-off in 2008, a vibrant modding scene had developed around Civ IV. Modders went to work on the new game and created two complete overhauls: "The Authentic Colonization" (TAC) and, based on TAC, "Religion and Revolution" (R&R). Both tried to recreate some of the original Colonization while also making the game more faithful to history.

Changes in technology and consumption enable a wider public to take part in the production of these narratives. Modders discussed controversially whether slavery should be a part of the "authentic" version of the game, and how to implement it in a way that made the game still "fun to play" while not shying away from the darker aspects of America's history. As one modder put it: "Don't agree with slavery? That doesn't mean you should ignore it by playing a game that creates a false reality of its absence."

Based on an analysis of the game's procedural rhetoric, its modifications and forum threads that document the debates around its development, the paper will discuss the interactions between games and their players and how historical narratives are constructed in this relationship by comparing the different versions of the game and its mods and hightlighting the way an international team of modders reflected on the narratives of the colonization of the Americas and how to translate them into game mechanics.

Wolfgang Manfred Egner: Bringing Marx’s Theory back by playing Empire

Games as a cultural phenomenon are as old as human society itself. The new media created new kinds of games in which whole new virtual worlds come into existence. Many of these games either take place in historic empires or give the players the opportunity to create empires themselves. Especially in historical strategy games it is a common theme to enlarge a small political unit to a mighty empire or civilisation. Most parts of such stories are not told by a traditional narrative but the game mechanics. Game developers often change what they imagine as historical reality, to improve the game experience. One example is the game “Victoria II” about the colonisation of Africa. The developers decided to build the game mechanics after the Marxist Theory, because in this way colonialism could be designed as profitable business. Without knowing most of the players will experience colonialism from the viewpoint of a fragment of the theory of Marx. Possible consequences on historical knowledge of such representations will be discussed in this talk.

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