Saturday, November 10, 2018

Alternate Histories, Part 2c: No, Really, I'm Just Making This Up As I Go

The state of Europe in 1880.

Shit I Don't Really Know, But Can Fake, Part I: How's the Game Going?

It is on its face absurd that the crisis over the Panama Canal Company could by itself lead to the largest and bloodiest war the world had ever known. That the two-headed monster of Boulanger and Déroulède would make their usual hash of things was no surprise. That the Panama Scandals would bring about the peaceful downfall of a government which, after regaining Alsace-Lorraine, had no further reason to exist, might have been predicted. That the departure of the pro-British Boulangists, combined with the refusal of the Colombian parliament to approve the sale of the canal concession to Britain, would pit France against her traditional enemy is perhaps understandable. The American invocation of the Monroe Doctrine is practically reflexive. But without recourse to other causes, Britain's insistence on backing the cause of Panamanian separatism to the point of worldwide destruction makes absolutely no sense.

It is to this end that we must go back to the beginning of this work. Every aspect of the global stage must be understood in terms of the Great Russo-Turkish War of 1873, which brought a decisive answer to the Eastern Question and an even more decisive end to the last traces of the Congress of Vienna. The nationalist movements of the Balkans seemed now to be resolved. Russia and its allies had gained complete dominance over the Balkans, and with it, unhindered access to the Mediterranean. Constantinople was now Tsargrad. With the Tsar's greatest ambitions achieved at a relatively low cost, the time seemed right for peace and rapprochement between the Great Powers.

For a time, it must have seemed that such a state of affairs would endure. Britain and Russia would sign a treaty of mutual defense. Though this closeness lessened after the Russian Revolution of 1884, there would be peace among the Great Powers for more than twenty years. But already the groundwork for the next war was being laid, and the three central questions that turned the Panama Crisis into the Great War were now being raised.

The first of these questions stems from the ethnic and border conflicts which arose immediately among the newly-minted Balkan states. We might call this the Balkan Question, or (following Hobsbawm) the Second Eastern Question. It may be simply stated as follows: How shall the ethnic and national lines of the new Balkan nations be drawn, and where shall the demarcation line between Russian and Habsburg domination be drawn?

The subset of the Balkan Question that raised itself most quickly was the border in Thrace. The Greeks quickly realized that Russian demands for an allied port on the Mediterranean would lead them to back Bulgarian claims to Thrace and Macedonia over their own. They would throw their hats in with the British, even forming a short-lived alliance with the Turkish Republic, in multiple failed attempts to seize Thessaloniki. It would not be long before Piraeus would become a Royal Navy port of equal importance to Alexandria, and the declaration that Macedonia was an inseparable part of Greece's history and heritage became boilerplate British policy.

Alexander I, King of "Yugoslavia"
The more complex and significant crisis would emerge in the South Slavic lands. King Alexander I of Serbia was a staunch ally of Russia. Believing that the collapse of the Ottomans meant that the pan-Slavic moment had come, he declared that his now-enlarged kingdom would henceforth be known as Yugoslavia. This name carried with it obvious territorial claims on Austro-Hungarian land. However, Austria-Hungary had not sat idly as the new borders of Europe were being drawn. From the old Bosnian lands, a new Austrian client state called the Kingdom of Bosnia and Herzegovina was formed which would exist in personal union with the Habsburg crown. The new borders of "Yugoslavia" would extend no further than Montenegro.

This decision, made behind the Serbs' backs, infuriated the king and severely strained relations with Russia, particularly in the early postwar years when still-Tsarist Russia maintained warm relations with the Habsburg Monarchy. Indeed, Yugoslavia would even declare war on Bulgaria (and its Russian allies by extension) in a failed attempt to claim Northern Macedonia.

In time, however, the Karadjordjevic dynasty would remember their longstanding friendship, and the crisis would settle into a slow-boiling debate over how the South Slavic peoples should govern themselves. On one side were the Yugoslavists, who favored an independent, unified state for all Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats, and Slovenes. This faction, for obvious reasons, found much support from the Russians, particularly as the new Russian Republic grew more conservative and nationalist in character. On the other side were the Austroslavists, who sought instead greater cooperation and autonomy within Habsburg lands. This was a more viable and popular alternative than it may have first seemed. The Habsburg Monarchy had become considerably more liberal and willing to delegate regional authority since the Austro-Hungarian Compromise. Many were much more willing to take their chances working through the system than risking their lives and homes for a Serbian monarch they weren't certain they could trust. Even as early as the Frankfurt Assembly of 1847, the Czech Austroslav František Palacký famously declared that "if it were not that Austria had long existed, it would be necessary, in the interest of Europe, in the interest of humanity itself, to create it.”

Unfortunately, the attitude of Vienna and Budapest toward Slavic nationalism was rather more ambivalent than this. Although the Emperor-King Franz Josef had been convinced that constitutional monarchy was the way forward for a large and diverse empire, he and his government still considered the nascent movement a threat to the state. The autonomous state of personal union for Bosnia was abandoned in 1893 in favor of a state of condominium between Austria and Hungary, albeit with representation for the Bosniaks in both diets. Some abandoned the Austroslav political project altogether, while others redoubled their efforts. But the Russians would formally protest this arrangement, declaring it to be "another in a long line of Habsburg encroachments on Slavic liberty." From here the rhetoric would only intensify, between Austria and Serbia, between Austria and Russia, and between Slavs and other Slavs. In 1905 small uprising by a militant group called the Black Hand arose in Sarajevo. It was swiftly crushed, an act greeted by yet more Russian protests.

"Distribution of the Races of Austria-Hungary," from the Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1911
The second of the questions of the Great War, which I have termed the Mitteleuropa Question, overlaps greatly with the first, and differs from it mainly in terms of geography. This question concerns the fate of certain ethnic enclaves within the Central European portions of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the ways in which they overlapped with the interests of the powers involved. To a lesser extent, it also stems from the very different ways in which Russia and Austria-Hungary conceived of federalism.

Romanian claims on Transylvania, Banat, and Crisana in fact predate 1875, dating back to its formal declaration of independence after the Russian victory over Britain and its allies in the Caucasian War. Southern Transylvania was successfully incorporated into Romania in 1858. But the final defeat of the Ottomans turned the focus of Romania squarely toward Austria-Hungary, and vice versa. Even as the Turkish War was still being fought, Austria was quietly re-seizing South Transylvania. Soon after, a tense peace was established. Demonstrations from ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians in the region remained peaceful, for now. But no one on either side of the border would ever forget it.

More difficult were the issues of Galicia and Poland. Galicia and Lodomeria were Habsburg lands in which ethnic Poles, Ukrainians, and Ruthenians lived. Many Russian politicians of the Slavophile coalition, which was for some decades the governing party of the Russian Federative Republic, therefore considered them to be rightfully Russian territory. On the other side of the border was the former nation of Congress Poland. The Russian-ruled Polish lands had briefly been independent following an intervention by the Germans, but the Tsar had reconquered them in 1865. An independent Poland would make a valuable ally to any of Russia's enemies.

Exacerbating this issue is the fundamentally different view these two nations took of ethnic minorities. During the Slavophilic era of the Russian Federative Republic, the federation was considered primarily to be an incorporation of Greater Russia. The Belarusians were the White Russians, the Ukrainians were the Little Russians, and the Poles could just shut up and do as they were told. Federalism was simply a means to administer to peoples who were rightly ruled from Petrograd. Though the Slavophiles were no longer in power when the Great War broke out, traces of this attitude remained even under the Menshevik government, which granted Poles the vote.

By contrast, federalism in the liberal period of Habsburg rule was considered a kind of function of noblesse oblige. The person of the monarch, that ancient institution which had endured for centuries, was what held the empire, and indeed all of Europe, together. It was not some cultural blood quanta that held a people together, but the tradition embodied by the monarch himself. It was therefore the foremost duty of the Emperor-King to hold these people together. The Russians, with their imposition of nationalistic fantasies of Slavic blood and Orthodox religion upon a Catholic people, were not good stewards of the Polish people. Clearly a change in leadership was needed.

Concurrent with and inseparable from these issues were the struggles in Northern Italy over Genoa and Venetia. However, as Italy was not a participant in the Great War, these are mentioned only briefly for the sake of completeness.

The Middle East and North Africa in 1918.
The third and most pertinent of these questions stems from the international crises that sprung up in and along the periphery of the former Ottoman Empire. It is in this question in particular that we find the deepest roots of the war. Past historians have often called this the Arab Question, but Arab nationalism constitutes only part of the scope of this decades-long struggle. Given the central status that the link to India held in British foreign policy, and how directly all of its facets stem from it, it is only fitting to call this the Suez Question, or perhaps the Third Eastern Question.

In the immediate aftermath of the Treaty of Ankara, two actions occurred, both equal and opposite reactions to the Ottoman Crisis. First, Yohannes IV of Ethiopia, claiming (probably not incorrectly) that the Ottomans could no longer adequately protect pilgrims from brigands, invaded and seized the Hedjaz, Transjordan, and Palestine, installing a protectorate with Hashemite ruler in the former two provinces, and "restoring" the Solomonic dynasty's direct rule over Jerusalem. At nearly the same time, Britain seized on the unrest that had overtaken the debt-ridden Sultanate of Egypt and occupied it, making it a British protectorate in all but name.

The cultural and political consequences of these events were almost incalculable. Spain, which had long been France's partner in the region, found this unacceptable, and tried in vain to dislodge the "savages" from the Holy Land. The responsibility of defending the Christians of the Holy Land should fall to the traditional Catholic powers, they argued. Britain's concerns were more nakedly pragmatic. These Ethiopians could not have acted on their own. There was another power at work.

In fact, Yohannes had acted on his own initiative. Such a brazen act was not in keeping with Russia's post-Ankara diplomatic stance, which sought to enforce the new borders in the Balkans but take no other action that could effect a war among the Great Powers. Nevertheless, it was no secret that Ethiopia had received much assistance from Russia in the years following Britain's infamous Abyssinia Expedition, particularly in the form of modern arms. The Russians had been the first in all of Europe to look at Ethiopia and see something other than a land of savages to be conquered and exploited.

Their motives had been far from pure and cosmopolitan, of course. A regional ally in the Horn of Africa would make a valuable counterbalance to Britain, after all. What's more, their acceptance and admiration of Ethiopia's culture was heavily qualified, and stemmed from the position that Abyssinians were best considered a Semitic people, separate and distinct from the rest of their benighted continent. As it turns out, upon closer inspection, the Abyssinians were white after all. (This view of Ethiopia as a quasi-Arabic ruling-class enclave surrounded by black African subjects has remained as persistent as it is inaccurate).

The contemporary writings most illuminating of this view are the field journals of the Russian cavalry officer Alexander Bulatovich, who had traveled among the court and with the armies of Yohannes. Though not a professional anthropologist by any stretch, he made careful note of what he observed. In the Amhara and Tigrayan he saw much for the Russian to admire and recognize. They kept to their traditions, but remained adaptable. They had held strong against numerous implacable foes. Most importantly, they were Orthodox Christians (albeit Coptic and not Eastern). In the Oromo he saw an independent, bellicose, and rustic people that were nonetheless incorporable into a civilized society, not unlike the Cossacks. Indeed, these Russian traits were not their only bona fides for honorary whiteness:
If I allow myself a rather free comparison, this is how I would characterize the Abyssinian. He is talented and receptive, like a Frenchman. With his practicality, with the way he deals with those he has conquered and his governmental abilities, he is like an Englishman. His pride is like that of a Spaniard. By his love for his faith, his mildness of character and tolerance, he is like a Russian. By his commercial abilities, he is like a Jew. But in addition to all these characteristics, he is very brave, cunning, and suspicious.
These characteristics, he argued, made them ideal candidates for regional hegemony.
I think that having become acquainted, just in my short overview, with their faith, morals, customs and governmental structure, no one should have the slightest doubt that the Abyssinians are an old cultured race. ... They are surrounded by savages.
It was clear what Russia would stand to gain from such an arrangement. Bulatovich made no attempt to hide it: "To help the enemy of our enemy, to make him as much stronger as possible -- that is our goal in Abyssinia."

Such visitors as Bulatovich had taught the emperor much about what the ferenj found impressive. So when Yohannes IV, King of Zion and King of Kings of Ethiopia entered Jerusalem, he did so in grand splendor, flanked on all sides by well-dressed troops with modern rifles, by men carrying banners, and court musicians. Most importantly, he sent for reporters and photographers from the Times, among other newspapers. Only a little more than a dozen attended, but Yohannes's remarks to the assembled media were the first address of its kind by an Ethiopian ruler.

This flashy show of modernity was more than enough to do the job.  Indeed, the next few weeks saw the West grow flush with a kind of Solomonic fever.  Even the Emperor's name drew breathless remarks - perhaps the legend of Prester John had been true after all.  Some even assigned a millennarian meaning to the event. Word quickly spread among the plantations of America, and Ethiopia acquired a religious significance during the second, postbellum wave of abolitionism (helped considerably by his immediate announcement that slavery in Ethiopia would be abolished).  It would not be until after abolition was achieved in the early 20th century that the American government would begin to shed its hatred and suspicion of Ethiopia, whose very existence challenged one of the central premises on which it stood. But regardless of whether he was loved or hated, it could not be denied that Yohannes IV was at this point the most-discussed monarch in the world.

The cream of the Ethiopian Imperial Army on the march
during the Bengal Campaign. The Battle of Jessore
would be the bloodiest of the war, and continues to haunt
Ethiopia's national memory.
More importantly, this glorious, easy victory planted a seed that would grow in the imperial imagination over the coming decades: the idea of a grand, manifest destiny for Ethiopia. Once more, as in the days of the Kingdom of Axum, the House of Solomon would stretch across the Red Sea into Yemen. Soon they would strike north at the British themselves and free the beleaguered Coptic Patriarch, bringing the whole of the Nile Basin under control. All sons of Ham and Shem would bow to the Negusa Negast. As industrialization brought about unrest and disruption of the old ways of life, and as Marxist pamphlets circulated among the Oromo factory workers and day laborers who brought their egalitarianism to the workplace, Ethiopia needed a central purpose around which all men could rally. The promise of glory for household, luba, and nation was one that could unite men of all ethnic backgrounds.

Of course, control over the world's most important trade routes and oil fields certainly wouldn't hurt either.

As the shine of their entry onto the world stage faded, the gulf between Ethiopia's ambition and the perception of the outside world widened. Even as the nation shifted ever further toward modernity, Ethiopia was perceived primarily as an extension of Russian imperial ambition. They may not have needed the guiding hand of the enlightened European powers to civilize them, but they weren't all the way white.  Colonial ventures in Persia and Manchuria did much to secure new resources for their fledgling industry, but that these new concessions bordered Russia did not escape the world's notice.  As the decades passed, the chip on the Emperor's shoulder grew larger than the highest peak in the Semiens.

Meanwhile, Arab nationalism was now even more divided than Slavic nationalism. Those who desired a caliph were split between the Hashemite king with his Russo-Ethiopian support and the British-backed House of Saud. Still others rejected both and sought a republic. Demonstrations and uprisings were a regular occurrence in all states within the region.

The British, of course, were cognizant of the danger to the Suez Canal zone. In addition to working to defend their route to India, they now sought a backup plan. With the French crisis in Panama, they seemed to have found it. If all else failed, they could sail to India via the Colombian route. By smashing the Russian presence in the Balkans and the Middle East, and either crushing the Arab revolts or installing the Sauds as puppets, the British would seek to control their possessions, by hook or by crook. As Austria-Hungary sought to defend against the same enemy and Ethiopia longed to make a name for itself as a nation, these barely-related national, regional, and imperial crises would snowball into history's greatest war.

No nation involved would ever be the same.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Alternate Histories, Part 2b: I Still Have No Idea What I'm Talking About

Hot Take: Stone Age Teddy Roosevelt would be fucking dead before he turned 25.  Motherfucker would get straight up trampled by a mammoth after running out of breath.

Shit I Don't Know, Entry #2: Who's Playing This Game?

In most 4X games in which the player controls a nation, that nation's identity, attributes, and associated play style remain static and constant. Rather than a contingent cultural and political reality that arises from particular circumstances, the nation is an eternal reality. It will often have a set of statistical bonuses or accompanying debuffs, or a unique unit or building it can construct once the correct technology has been researched, simply by virtue of being itself. The nation exists at the beginning of the game, and barring conquest by another nation it will exist at the end. Every player who chooses "America" begins history with the founding of Washington in the year 4000 B.C. Where did these people come from? Are they white? Patawomeck? Who is this Washington they named their settlement after? It's not important; welcome to the United Neolithic States.

This works fine for a Civilization game, but for grand strategy, it just won't do. And it especially won't do for a game like Victoria II, which attempts to draw from a more sophisticated, materialist version of Video Game History™. This is a game in which the names, flags, and borders of its states must necessarily change with astonishing regularity, and in ways that are historically contingent without being pre-ordained. Prussia, or perhaps Austria, becomes Germany. Sardinia-Piedmont, or perhaps the Two Sicilies, or perhaps the Papal States, becomes Italy. Or perhaps neither of those states comes into being. New countries are carved from the carcasses of moribund empires, imposed from without and from within.

What, then, are the in-game forces that govern these processes? As you would expect, nationalist movements are partially determined by the POP system. Every POP group has an associated culture group. In Ethiopia, for instance, one might have a POP group of Oromo craftsmen working with a group of Tigrayan clerks in a factory owned by Amhara capitalists. Each country, in turn, has at least one culture designated as its primary culture, and may have one or more accepted cultures. Status in one of these groups has a significant effect on POPs' beliefs and behaviors. Primary culture POPs are more likely to support residency for non-primary culture POPs, while accepted culture POPs are more likely to support limited citizenship (which, for instance, allows accepted culture POPs to vote if your country allows elections). Primary culture POPs are also much more likely to promote to capitalists and other upper-class strata. Non-accepted POPs with high literacy, good living conditions, and few reasons to complain will tend to assimilate to an accepted culture, unless there exists a nation with their culture as its primary culture which holds cores on that province. Meanwhile, literate, high-consciousness POPs of a non-accepted culture are likely to see their militancy increase if their rights are not granted.

It is in militancy that popular nationalist struggle manifests. High POP militancy, whether caused by poorly-treated minorities or otherwise, can lead to nationalist revolts in provinces marked as the core territory of other nations, regardless of whether or not they presently exist as a state. If not suppressed in time, the rebels will break away to form their own country.

Victoria II's approach to nationalism has several strong points. Because it is tied to the POP system, a dynamic system with firm ties to the political and economic realities of the nation's citizens, it is able to reflect at least a few of the fluid realities of nationality and race. The economic and political advantages that the wealthy enjoy from structural racism receives some acknowledgment in the game's mechanics.

Its shortcomings aren't hard to spot, though. Though POPs shift dynamically between cultural groups, these groups are still themselves statically defined categories. New cultural groups do not emerge over time the way the Amhara did, and certain realities - for instance, the cultural differences between different American immigrant groups, even many of those now classified as "white" - cannot be reflected, as all of them are simply assimilated into the "Yankee" or "Dixie" group. Neither can any of the other numerous qualitatively different experiences held by members of cultural minorities or diaspora.

Indeed, a POP's culture group fails dramatically at capturing anything qualitative at all. Rather than a loose and dynamic group of linguistic and religious similarities interacting with ever-changing ritual, social, and political habits and practices, culture groups are not much more than a label you slap onto a POP group. Practically speaking, a country with English as a primary culture and Welsh and Anglo-Irish as accepted cultures doesn't function differently than a country with Amhara as a primary culture and Tigrayan and Oromo as accepted cultures. The only thing of consequence it influences is the degree to which the POPs feel they fit into the state you've created. In effect, the static pieces on the board of Video Game History™ have simply been hidden where the player can't see them very well.

Pictured: The soul of a Frenchman.  It's in one of those pie charts somewhere.
"Core" territory is another mostly immovable element of the nations of Victoria II. Though there are ways for the territorial definition of a nation to change - either by decision or by random event in non-core provinces with a sufficiently high number of accepted culture POPs - this is for the most part hard-coded into the game from the start, just like the culture categories in general. And unlike the class categories, which reflect actual economic relationships within the game, the culture categories exist simply because they do.

All of these issues are excusable. Abstractions are unavoidable in any video game, and it is difficult to imagine a better way of doing this within Victoria II's system. And in many ways, the relative breeziness of Victoria II's nationalism system works in its favor, serving more than anything else as pretext for existing states to declare war and assert their power. We know, both from history and from the game itself, that the nationalist movements of Europe and elsewhere cannot be separated from the history of imperialism.  What's more, many nationalist movements have lumped together millions of people who had little in common.  Italy formed despite the fact that there was no such thing as an Italian cultural identity.  But Italy still exists today, and as a result, so do Italians.  Yugoslavia formed from a notion of South-Slavic unity that all involved thought was pretty clear.  Turns out it wasn't and now Yugoslavia's gone.

But perhaps I should start by doing for my readers what I've been doing for my viewers for some weeks now: a demonstration.  One of the most popular activities of the Paradox fan community is the writing of what are called "After Action Reports." These are, effectively, narrative screenshot Let's Plays. They are often written from an in-universe perspective in the style of popular history books, and feature accounts of the events of the playthrough interwoven with flavorful details and embellishments that the game itself does not describe. The names of political leaders, as well as historical rationales for the sometimes-irrational behavior of the AI and the sometimes-gamey behavior of the player can be explained away if the writer is creative enough. It can sometimes be difficult to tell which details occurred in the game itself, which details stem from real life history, and which are an inventor of the author.

It is in this spirit that I shall present to you an excerpt from that well-read and well-loved classic of popular scholarship, Origins of the Great War: 1875-1917, by Merid Wolde Aregay.


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Alternate Histories Part 2a: I Have No Idea What I'm Talking About

King Solomon greets Queen Makeda of Sheba


Shit I Don't Know Entry #1: Where Are We?

Here I must confess as to the greatest difficulty I face with a project that deals extensively with Ethiopian history: if you held a gun to my head, I would not be able to give you a concise, coherent definition of what Ethiopia even is.  The concept of the nation in general is a nebulous one that at even its most vivid doesn't come close to approaching a science.  National consciousness is therefore one which a historical materialist must regard with healthy skepticism, even when it accompanies a struggle for liberation against colonizers.  It certainly isn't a sufficiently robust concept to be the sole basis for the authority of a state.

You will note that I have elected not to take the coward's way out by appealing to a dictionary definition of the word "nation."  There are two reasons for this: first, it's a hacky, middle school essay-ass way to start off an article.  Second, I can't find a single definition of the word that cannot be disputed for some ideological reason or another.  Most center around the existence of linguistic, religious, cultural, or other historical commonalities by peoples within a contiguous area, but bright-line requirements that separate nations from mere states are hard to come by.  This is perhaps something I ought to have considered before I decided to make nationalism the second topic for this series, because Ethiopia's history as a nation is a messy subject even by these standards.

There have, of course, been humans in Ethiopia for nearly as long as there have been humans, with the arrival of Homo sapiens proper dated to over 200,000 years ago.  Most of the population of the Horn of Africa today descend from toolmaking cultures who lived around 12,000 years ago.  These people likely spoke a proto-Afroasiatic language and indeed may have been the progenitors of that entire language family.

The Church of Saint George in Lalibela,
one of many monolithic churches carved
from hillsides during the Zagwe Dynasty.
The earliest known state to emerge was the Kingdom of D'mt around the 10th century BCE.  The people of this kingdom spoke an early Ethio-Semitic language, and traded extensively with the Sabeans of the Southern Arabian peninsula.  (They were almost certainly not descended from Sabean migrants themselves - Ethiopia was, in fact, one of the first places Semitic languages were spoken).  This kingdom gave way to (or evolved into, or was incorporated into) the Kingdom of Axum, a prosperous superpower whose extent at its apex reached across the Red Sea into Yemen.  Notably, it was among the first states to adopt Christianity as an official religion. Axum collapsed under mysterious circumstances in the 10th century CE, even as the heart of its territory remained predominantly Christian.  This was succeeded by the Ethiopian Empire, ruled first by the Zagwe dynasty and then by the Solomonic dynasty - so named because it claimed descent from the first King of Axum, whom they claimed was the son of King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba.  Though the legend predates its writing, the main basis for this claim is found in the medieval Kebre Negast - a national literary epic similar to the Arthurian romances in both its cultural importance and its reputation for reliability among historians.

It is in this medieval period that a cultural and linguistic transformation began to emerge.  Ge'ez remained the liturgical and literary language of the priests, chroniclers, and poets. In the north, the Tigrinya language developed.  But as the political center shifted southward, Amharic, a new language which had acquired lexical and grammatical traits from the Cushitic and Omotic speakers who also lived and traded in the highlands, became a lingua franca.  Under rulers such as Zara Yaqob, Ethiopia flourished, prospering from trade and protecting itself from aggressive neighbors.  But the region was subsequently thrown into chaos when the Sultanate of Adal invaded Ethiopia, armed with imported Turkish cannons.  Ethiopia itself appealed for aid, and the conflict turned into a long, bloody proxy war between the Turks and the Portuguese for dominion over the Red Sea.  In the end, Ethiopia prevailed, but both states were left severely weakened.

This led to the next great influx of people into the Ethiopian state - the Oromo migrations.  Spurred by raids against them from the Abyssinian highlands, as well as the desire for better land for herds and grain, they took advantage of the weakening of the Ethiopian state and collapse of Adal to move north into the highlands, at spearpoint when necessary.  At the time of the migration, they followed their traditional religious beliefs and way of life, governing themselves through a complex and robust form of democracy called gadaa.  Over the next several centuries, their society transformed in proximity to their new neighbors, as some Oromo leaders proclaimed kingdoms or even married into the imperial family.  This transformation occurred through peaceful and gradual integration in some places and times (mostly in the north), and brutal subjugation in others (particularly in the south during the bloody campaigns of Menelik II).

The Empire remained whole, albeit weakened, until 1769, when Ras Mikael Sehul deposed Emperor Iyoas.  He lacked both the bloodline and the desire to claim the throne for himself, so he installed a puppet in Iyasu II and ruled instead as regent.  This would remain the typical state of affairs during the period of political fragmentation that would come to be known as the Zemene Mesafint - the Era of the Princes.  Though a Negusa Negast would continue to reign in name, Ethiopia was in practice divided into more-or-less independent princedoms whose most powerful rulers would fight to place Solomonic puppets of their own on the throne.  The conflicts of this era at times acquired the dimensions of religious conflict between Christians and Muslims, at other times ethnic conflict between the Amhara, Tigrayans, and Oromo, and at other times feudal squabbling over which the people in general were indifferent (or indeed, some combination of all or none of the three).  It was in certain phases regarded by the people as a local Gondarine affair and at other times a national calamity, the subject of millenarian warnings by itinerant preachers.  It is said that in the 1830s a prophecy popular among the Christian peasantry predicted that peace would be restored to the land by a great emperor who would take the name Tewodros, after a short-lived emperor who was in legend a defender of the poor.

The upstart Tewodros II spent his
early years as a shifta (outlaw)
conducting raids in Sudan.
This may have been on the mind of the upstart Ras Kassa Hailu when he made his bid for the throne.  When he defeated the last of the warlords in 1855 (or 1841, in certain timelines), he was proclaimed Negusa Negast and chose Tewodros II as his throne name.  But though he ended the Era of Princes, he would not bring peace.  His ambitious centralization policies alienated the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and with it the peasantry from which he drew so much of his support.  As his reign dragged on, he became prone to violent outbursts.  He would commit suicide as an invading British army approached, by the end controlling little of the country outside his own castle (thus beginning a long history of British imperial hostility to Ethiopia's existence).  The Zemene Mesafint did not reassert itself, however - instead, Emperor Yohannes IV would take his place through the strength of foreign firearms.

Yohannes's rule permitted significantly more autonomy for the local nobles of his realm than his predecessors, demanding only their loyalty.  This was beneficial for the stability of the Empire, but had the consequence of permitting Menelik, the King of Shewa, to consolidate his power in the hopes that he might some day usurp the throne.  The Egyptians intended to take advantage of this rift when they launched their invasion in 1875, seeking to bring the whole of the Nile under the rule of the Khedive.  But they incurred Menelik's ire when they occupied Harar, which the Emperor and King both regarded as rightful Ethiopian territory.  When Egypt's well-equipped, Western-supported army marched southward, the Ethiopians inflicted two sound defeats upon them.

It is around the twenty years that followed these victories that the question of Ethiopia as a nation turns.

Not long after Ethiopia's victory, the Khedivate of Egypt faced a major crisis, as the Mahdi Rebellion drove the entire Egyptian Army out of all of Sudan except for a beleaguered garrison at Suakin.  Yohannes signed an agreement with Britain and Egypt in which the Khedivate's troops were permitted to withdraw through Ethiopian territory in exchange for access to the Red Sea port of Massawa.  In the Middle Ages, this region, corresponding roughly to modern-day Eritrea, had alternately been directly ruled by, a vassal of, or independent of the Ethiopian Empire.  After the war with Adal, however, it had fallen under Turkish control.  In fact, Britain had no intention of honoring their agreement with Yohannes, later tacitly agreeing to grant the city and its environs to the Italians.

When Yohannes died in battle against the Mahdists in 1889, Ethiopia was thrown into a succession crisis between Menelik and Yohannes's bastard son Mengesha, and Italy was poised to take advantage.  They hoped to create either a civil war or a willing client kingdom.  In the end it was Menelik who came to an agreement with them, signing the Treaty of Wuchale, in which Menelik agreed to recognize Italy's claim to Eritrea in exchange for promises of weapons and economic aid.

However, there were two different versions of the treaty.  One was written in Amharic and contained only those provisions already described.  The other was written in Italian, and effectively established Ethiopia as an Italian protectorate.  Menelik would not learn of this until his correspondence with the German kaiser was answered with a rude reply that insisted he could only deal through the King of Italy.  To Italy's surprise, Menelik responded by repudiating the treaty in its entirety.  Not comprehending their own arrogance, Italy then attempted to placate him by giving him two million rounds of ammunition.  This is generally not remembered as one of history's greatest decisions.

Nor, indeed, was anything the Italians did subsequently.  Expecting, as the Egyptians did, to receive the enthusiastic support of a disgruntled claimant to the throne, they appealed to Ras Mengesha to defect.  He flatly refused.  Then, through the urging of distant politicians in Rome who demanded a decisive victory over the savage Africans to boost their prestige, General Oreste Baratieri marched his army into battle at Adwa, where his outnumbered (and, astonishingly, outgunned) forces were handed a decisive defeat.

But Menelik could go no further.  Ethiopia had already stretched its capacity to supply an army to its limit.  Ironically, had Baratieri waited even two days more, the Ethiopians, who were rich in arms but short on food, may have been forced to disperse.  Thus the destiny of two states was written: Ethiopia had stood together and would remain independent, but Eritrea would not be part of it.  Though Ethiopia and Eritrea would be coupled together in a federation after the Second World War due to American influence (they feared that Italy might form a communist government and put a key Red Sea port in Soviet hands), this union would buckle under the increasing authoritarianism of the Ethiopian government and an ever-strengthening Eritrean nationalist movement.  After a plebiscite in 1993, Eritrea and Ethiopia are now officially recognized as two separate nations.

Empress Taytu's role in defeating the Italians at Adwa may have been even more important than
that of her husband.

Some, however, have questioned whether Ethiopia should be considered a nation at all.  They argue that it is instead a 19th-century imperial invention whose borders and state apparatus arose from alternating conflict, collaboration, and opportunism between the Solomonic dynasty and the Western imperial powers.  There is certainly a coherent case to be made for this.  Most of the southern and eastern portions of the country, containing large portions of its Oromo and Somali populations, in particular, were still in the process of being conquered at the time of Menelik's victory over the Italians at Adwa.  In addition to the people slaughtered directly in the invasion itself, many more died of hunger as a result of the rinderpest zoodemic that the Italians had brought with them to Eritrea.  Menelik's invasions exacerbated the effects of this famine, both through direct looting of healthy livestock and by the mass displacement these destructive wars brought about. The slaves and plunder gained from these conquests, which must fairly be called imperialist, were instrumental in funding the army that defended independence at Adwa.  What's more, much of the success of Menelik's state came from his playing the European powers off of each other.  The Russians, who sympathized with Ethiopians as Orthodox Christians and saw them as a bulwark against British expansion in Africa, were crucial partners.

Furthermore, Ethiopia is far from the homogeneous body that most nationalists want to make when they draw their little maps.  There are eight officially recognized regional languages in Ethiopia, and dozens more ethnolinguistic groups throughout the country.  Though a majority of its citizens are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, there is also a sizable Muslim minority.  Many of these ethnic and religious minorities have suffered greatly from discrimination and violence, particularly under the Derg and in the latter days of Haile Selassie's reign.  Ethiopia is, in short, the successor state to an empire - a monarchial imposition that you could fit a Texas and a half into.

This position, however, is hardly unique, even among nations whose existence is seldom questioned.  The formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 was largely the result of political maneuvering by Sardinia-Piedmont, who piggybacked on conflicts between Prussia, Austria, and France to expand their territory.  In each case, their armies had little effect on the outcomes of these wars.  A robust nationalist movement did exist, largely republican in character, but these movements failed to achieve much on their own. Indeed, many of the central figures in unification did more to fight against the movement than for it.  Even as Garibaldi was leading the Expedition of the Thousand to Sicily, the Comte di Cavour, whose kingdom it would help to bring about, was leaking information to the Neapolitans in an effort to undermine him.  Above all else, Cavour's primary aim was to elevate the House of Savoy by any means necessary, no matter which other countries had to fight unrelated conflicts in order to do it, or how many revolutionary countrymen had to die in the process.  Were it not for the vascillating support of Louis-Napoleon, the Kingdom of Italy might have come to be much later than it did, or perhaps even not at all.

The next panel is Victor Emmanuel
kicking Garibaldi in the face and then
selling Nice to the French a second time
for good measure.
The Italian state did, of course, have the legacy of Rome to point to, but if they wanted to do that they needed to get in line.  Half the great powers of Europe claimed their authority from the Roman Empire in some way or another, from the Habsburgs to the Romanovs to the Ottomans.  The historical reality was that a unified, independent state of Italy had not existed in fact since the time of the Lombards, and the ceremonial title within the Holy Roman Empire barely existed even in name by the dawn of the early modern period.  The only Kingdom of Italy to exist in living memory was the Napoleonic puppet kingdom, which didn't even cover the whole peninsula.

Over these long centuries, Italy fragmented into regions with profoundly different cultures and political traditions.  At the date of its founding, almost nobody in this new country could speak or read the Florentine prestige dialect we now call Italian, speaking instead one of several mutually unintelligible regional languages.  The south was particularly disinclined to assimilate - the inefficiencies of the newly-imposed state and economic apparatuses (particularly land distribution) were instrumental in fueling the rise of the Sicilian Mafia.  It was in this climate that the Sardinian aristocrat and statesman Massimo d'Azeglio famously declared that "Italy has been made. Now it remains to make Italians."

If consistent cultural, political, and lingusitic unity are not requirements to effect the transformation from statehood to nationhood, then it would seem the barriers to it are quite low.  Yet even states which had several of these things have failed (by nationalist logic, they were not, in fact, nations at all).  Yugoslavia was the culmination of a sincere Pan-Slavic nationalist movement that seized its moment in the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, reaching an agreement for union with the Kingdom of Serbia.  It had more linguistic unity than Italy at its founding, and its religious divisions were not unique - Albania saw similar levels of religious pluralism.  But Yugoslav unity was an illusion, and it died a violent death within the span of a human lifetime.

The question of nationhood will always be fraught with difficulty, since like all social constructs its definition changes depending on time and political context.  The relationship between Ethiopia's ethnic groups has historically always been complex (far, FAR too complex to adequately describe here), and their relations with each other have evolved over time.  However, they have always related to each other in ways that they do not relate to groups outside the Ethiopian sphere, in ways that include ritual practice, economic adaptation and specialization, and a tendency to unite against common enemies.  Indeed, the Ethiopian nation has more of a historical claim to existence than any American settler-state, and at least as strong a claim as most European states.  The most spirited defense of Ethiopia as a nation that I have found comes from Professor Harold G. Marcus:

"[F]rom time to time, the nation ha[s] disintegrated into component parts, but it ha[s] never disappeared as an idea and always reappeared in fact.  The Axumite Empire may have faded in the seventh century, but the Zagwes followed in the eleventh century; and, of course, the succeeding Solomonic dynasty created a state that incorporated at least two-thirds of its present area. ... Even as the Solomonic monarchy weakened, the imperial tradition remained validated in Ethiopia's monestaries and parish churches.  The northern peasantry was continually reminded of Ethiopia's earlier greatness and exhorted to work toward its renaissance. ... [I]f history is to be our guide, [ethnic factionalism] will give way inevitably to renewed national unity as the logic of geography, economics, tradition, and political culture once again come to dominate politics." 

It is, in other words, the continuity of Ethiopian statehood as a reality and as a concept that gives its nationhood weight.  This, then, is my definition of a nation: a credible claim of the shared tradition and political destiny of a people, backed by state power or a widely accepted claim to it.  Though cultures and ethnicities can exist without the state, the nation implies a claim to Westphalian sovereignty.  This is what Ethiopia has over Yugoslavia, which after the death of Tito had a polycentric language (which the Slovenes didn't speak) and not much else.

But even if you accept this premise, there are holes in this argument.  Just because a multiethnic polity with strong traditions has existed for a long time does not mean that it will - or should - continue to exist in the future.  Ever since the stagnation and collapse of Haile Selassie's economic project in the 1960s laid bare the contradictions of a "modernizing" state whose basis for rule was inescapably tied to religious tradition, much of Ethiopian politics has come to be defined by ethnic warfare.  As the Emperor's capitalist programs uprooted farmers and townsfolk and turned them into field and sweatshop laborers, as the countryside and even many towns of the Amhara heartland were neglected in favor of the capital, and as regional authority saw their autonomy dwindle, the idea of a multiethnic Ethiopian society faded.  Longstanding ethnic and regional conflicts and grievances strengthened and crystallized into political movements as the old regime grew more centralized and oppressive.  When the Empire gave way to the Derg, these trends only worsened, as the army, the police state, and even famine relief were weaponized against opposition movements in the north.  Although there remains a basis for Ethiopia as a culturally pluralistic nation, it remains unclear whether this will continue to hold.  Just as national identities can form over time, so too can they dissolve.  What happened in Eritrea could very well happen elsewhere.

Protests among the Oromo population were instrumental in bringing about the current changes in Ethiopia's government.

This remains an unsettled problem to this day, as the reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed seeks to pick up the pieces from twenty five years of a disastrous authoritarian experiment in ethnic federation run in accordance with Leninist democratic centralism.  In practice, the regime spent most of this period using ethnicity as a tool of control, playing groups against each other to keep the minority Tigrayan People's Democratic Front in power.  Though these conflicts were not by any means caused by this regime, they have undoubtedly been exacerbated to the point of national crisis.

Abiy has called for national unity and free elections, and for now partition appears to be neither imminent nor popular.  As I was finishing this piece, his government had signed a peace treaty with the largest separatist organization within its borders, the Ogaden National Liberation Front.  Uniquely among his party's politicians, his popularity appears to transcend ethnic boundaries.  However, the old ruling party still remains in place, and ethnic violence and mass displacement have continued.  The question of what Ethiopia shall be (if it shall be), and how its people will live in the days to come, has yet to be answered. And I'm certainly not someone who's qualified to give that answer.  I'm not even sure if I'm qualified to ask the question.

Still, if one wishes to support the conclusion that the nation is a useful concept, it is quite hard to exclude Ethiopia from this definition without leaving out a vast number of others.  If the foundations of Ethiopia are state violence and cultural imperialism, that is only because these are the foundations on which all nation-states are built.  If Ethiopia is not a permanent state of affairs, this is only because all nations are historically contingent, dynamic, and subject to change.  This, of course, is a strong argument against the conclusion that the nation is a useful concept.  When you dig down to the foundations, every nation is a straw house built on a mountain of shit that could wash away with the next rainstorm.  But in the case of Ethiopia, that house exists, is still standing, and people are living in it.

And so, after months of work, writing, and research, I am led to tentatively conclude that Ethiopia is probably a thing that exists. I think.  Maybe.  Ask me again in five years.

So how does this funny little video game deal with that issue?


Sources and Recommended Reading:

Bulatovich, Alexander, trans. Richard Seltzer. Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes.

Holcomb, Bonnie K. The Invention of Ethiopia.

Levine, Donald E. Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society.

Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia.

Pateman, Roy. Eritrea: Even the Stones Are Burning.

Smith, Denis Mack. Cavour and Garibaldi, 1860: A Study in Political Conflict.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Introduction: A History of Video Game History

The Grande Armée presents the tattered Prussian colors to Napoleon.

Not a Country with an Army but an Army with a Country

The story of Video Game History™ (as distinct from the history of video games, which is of course a different subject) does not, in fact, begin with Sid Meier. Nor even with Francis Tresham, designer of the original Civilization board game that introduced the infamous “tech tree” to the world. No, the long, slow gestation of Video Game History™ predates not only the existence of video games, but of Charles Babbage’s original difference engine. To the extent that any one Great White Man is responsible, the creation of Video Game History™ comes down to one of the greatest and whitest of them all: this bullshit is all Napoleon’s fault.

On October 14th, 1806, Napoleon’s armies crushed the Prussians at the Battles of Jena and Auerstedt, effectively ending Prussia’s involvement in the War of the Fourth Coalition. Their demoralized armies capitulated one by one, and less than two weeks later, Marshal Davout’s army entered Berlin. The Prussian aristocracy, which above all else tied its prestige to the success and discipline of its army, was stunned and humiliated.

They responded to this defeat with a complete and comprehensive overhaul of their military structure, bringing it more in line with the relatively more merit-based French system. Conscription was introduced, the officer corps was opened (for a time) to the middle class, a new war college was opened, and the highest leadership was reorganized into a new general staff, promotion to which would be based on merit. Emphasis was placed on the training of leadership, since they believed that this rather than the quality of the individual soldiers was what had won France the battle. The Prussian General Staff would convene to make plans for every possible contingency, devising first a broad objective to be accomplished which would be clear to all commanders involved. These plans would come to be called “Cases” - each military situation was like an academic problem to be solved. Or, if you like, a level to be beaten.

It was in this environment in the year 1812 that one of these Prussian officers, Lieutenant Georg Leopold von Reiswitz, compiled the original ruleset for a game that would come to be known simply as Kriegsspiel (literally “wargame”). It attracted little attention at first, but in the quiet postwar years, its popularity spread enormously among the officer class thanks to the promotional efforts of Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke. To an officer corps hungry both to plan for future battles and relitigate past defeats, Kriegsspiel was pure catnip.

Kriegsspiel, of course, was not the first game designed to emulate warfare, nor even the first Prussian game to do so. But after the many Prussian (and later German) victories of the 19th century, the popularity of Kriegsspiel began to spread outside Germany to militaries around the world. By the turn of the 20th century, civilian enthusiasts such as Fred T. Jane and even H.G. Wells were developing their own games inspired by Kriegsspiel. Even in the post-World War II boom period, when games like Tactics pioneered a new form of board wargaming for the mass market, the influence of the old Prussian training exercise remained.

Dungeons and Dragons had
its roots in a fantasy supplement
for Gary Gygax's medieval wargame
Indeed, the mark of Kriegsspiel on tabletop gaming as a whole is not hard to spot. Much of what we now recognize was first introduced here: miniatures to represent units, an organized map grid to mark the field of play, dice rolls to determine probabilistic results, strict rules governing movement speed and combat capability, a simulation of the fog of war, and most notably an impartial third-party observer to determine the results of combat engagements, a direct progenitor to the gamemaster or umpire of today’s games.  The line of influence is as direct as can be - Gary Gygax himself cut his teeth as a wargaming hobbyist. Kriegsspiel is the ghastly foundation on which the entirety of the roleplaying and strategy genres are built. Their very structure and approach to history and problem-solving are drawn from it and cannot be separated from it. Anyone who has ever played Risk, Dungeons & Dragons, Civilization, or Final Fantasy has been training to defeat Napoleon without realizing it.

A Genre Takes Shape

To this point I have used the ironically-trademarked term Video Game History™ without defining it. This is mostly because it’s one of those terms that is simultaneously hard-to-define but which everyone instinctively has a sense of what it means. We all know the standard critique of Civilization’s Tech Tree, after all. This sense of historical determinism is probably what you imagine when I use the phrase. But the particular form the historical telos takes is not important - only the fact that there is one.

Video Game History™, you see, consists of nothing more than the application of the logic of Prussian war exercises to Western historiography. To see this, we need look no further than virtually every historical and political strategy game ever made, every one of which shares the following things in common:

  1. They are each fundamentally about the military and/or political leader of one or more nations or armies.
  2. The game is meant to test the player’s capacity to, as leader, marshal the resources at their disposal to attain supremacy for their nation/army.
  3. This success or failure occurs in direct conflict and competition with other nations, whether through military means or peaceful ones.
  4. Success or failure is defined on the level of high command and high command only. National success is dependent entirely on the player.
Of course, the conception of history as a struggle between armies, nations, and their leaders’ ability to command them was not invented by Baron von Reiswitz in the year 1812. But it was in no small part through their Prussian lineage that strategy games inherited this attitude, which they retained as strategy wargames evolved into grand strategy games.

Grand strategy games first began to develop in the latter days of the tabletop wargaming boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, beginning with games such as Axis and Allies, which was designed in 1981 but republished by Milton Bradley in 1984, one year after Koei released their first computer grand strategy game, Nobunaga no Yabō (first in the series known in the West as Nobunaga’s Ambition).

The fourteenth entry in the Nobunaga's Ambition series.
The title of the latter should be enough to clue you into the fact that the approach hasn’t changed. The player assumes the role of one of the daimyo of Japan’s sengoku period, and your mission is to conquer all of the others to unite the country and become shogun. “Case Nihon,” the Prussians might call it. This time, however, you are placed in charge of the people and resources of the entirety of your holdings. In addition to raising and commanding armies, you must manage the economy and ensure that your peasants are happy, loyal, and well-fed. The larger the peasant base you have to work from, the larger and more effective your armies can be - a more underhanded player can even raise and train ninja. The goal is still conquest and the emphasis is still on leadership, but the logic has expanded to the idea of a total war - fought by entire populations, but commanded and decided by their noble leaders.

The original motivation behind the series even mirrors Prussian relitigation of Jena and Auerstedt. Kou Shibusawa, creator of the series, states that his inspiration was his long-held admiration for Nobunaga, and his belief that Japan may have become a stronger, more modern country far sooner had he lived long enough to become shogun. The notion of what might have happened if he had never risen to power and another daimyo had done so instead also intrigued him - surely Japanese history would be very different if any of these dozens of samurai possessed Nobunaga’s titular ambition. Setting aside the dubious truth value and Great Man-itude of such a statement, it is important to note that this viewpoint, as well as the game constructed around it, fundamentally views the driving force of history as a problem of command. If X general had made Y maneuver, Z country could have Won History. Grand strategy games are a marvelous place to play out this sort of alternate-history-as-command-exercise.

Koei would continue to make grand strategy games along these lines, the most popular of which are the Sangokushi series (Romance of the Three Kingdoms in its English release) . Throughout the 80s and much of the early 90s they were nearly synonymous with the grand strategy genre, at least on the computer and console. The most notable of the other companies to make forays into the grand strategy was the American developer Strategic Simulations, better known for more traditional wargames like the Panzer General series. Their contributions to grand strategy were mostly set in World War II, with the exception of Colonial Conquest, set during the Scramble for Africa. As one would expect, these games hewed even more closely to the logic of the original Kriegsspiel.

Our Words Are Backed with Technological Determinism

While reasonably popular, the grand strategy genre still served what was primarily a niche market. At the same time Koei was making the Nobunaga’s Ambition series, other developers were taking the logic of tabletop wargaming in a more abstract direction which would ultimately prove to be more commercially successful (though this wasn’t the case at first). This group of broadly similar games form the loose genre known as 4X. The four X’s stand for their four most important elements of gameplay: eXplore (scout around the map), eXpand (acquire more territory), eXploit (gather and make use of resources at your disposal), and eXterminate (attack and defeat rival players).

Though nearly all players agree that 4X is a distinct genre, it is nonetheless difficult to say precisely where this genre diverges from grand strategy. The goals of a player of Europa Universalis are fundamentally similar to those of a player of Alpha Centauri. The primary difference lies in their aesthetic priorities - grand strategy tends to emphasize detail and historical or technical accuracy even at the expense of balance or accessibility, whereas 4X games are more willing to depart from reality for gameplay’s sake even if it makes the game more “gamey.” A country as powerful as, say, the Ottoman Empire in Europa Universalis IV would never make it into a historical 4X game, regardless of how powerful they were in real life. (This is not to say that 4X can’t be slavishly representationalist or that grand strategy never takes balance into account - it merely describes a preference).

The most notable example of the 4X genre is, of course, Civilization. Indeed, as hard a genre as 4X is to pin down, “games that are like Civilization” may be the best possible definition. For most, computer strategy begins here. For some, it ends here, too. This is not entirely unfair, either - the long shadow of Sid Meier continues to loom over the 4X genre, and virtually every other strategy genre as well. People who play and make strategy games aren’t thinking of a Prussian wargame almost nobody’s ever heard of, or even the tabletop games it inspired - they’re thinking of Civilization.

I'm still curious as to how you tame an animal
before you know how to trap it.
Its most influential innovation, of course, is the much-discussed Tech Tree - the most significant development in Video Game History™ since the Prince of Orange handed his sword to Prince Murat. It is at this point almost prosaic to point out that the presentation of technological, philosophical, and social development as a linear hierarchy of progressive upgrades presents a eurocentric view of history that is ahistorical even on its own terms. But from a gameplay perspective, the tech tree just works. It gives each game a natural rhythm - a feeling of a beginning, middle, and end - and a sense of epic historical scope. It provides multiple options for gaining particular qualitative advantages depending on the player’s situation and playstyle. This was the conscious design motivation for the invention of the tech tree. Not only is the tech tree a major factor in Civilization’s success, it seems hard to imagine how the strategy genre ever managed without it.

There’s a reason the tech tree fits the genre so well - like everything else in strategy gaming, it treats history as a problem of command. The knowledge produced by your civilization is a resource to be harnessed toward a particular end goal. It is up to you, the Great Leader of your nation to allocate those resources based on strategic needs. Do you take the military upgrade now, despite lacking the funds to turn your Pikemen to Musketmen? Or do you go for the economic upgrade?

Obviously no society, anywhere, has ever had its achievements and discoveries (to the extent that you can credit whole societies with such things) directed by a single person, one invention at a time. (Again, 4X games aren’t afraid to be “gamey” and non-representational with their history). This bears far more of a resemblance to a battlefield commander waiting for reinforcements or new equipment, and accounting for their resources. Should you take the oil fields now, or wait for the new tanks to arrive?

There is another sense in which the tech tree represents an unconscious return to the roots of the strategy genre. The framing of history as a deterministic techno-cultural hierarchy - a ladder of which every rung describes an inherently more valuable civilization - reflects the worldview of the time in which they lived. The 19th century marked the point at which capitalism and imperialism became a world-encompassing social narrative. Africa and Asia were carved up and subjugated by the European powers with the ostensible goal of bringing civilization to its people.

Here is where Kriegsspiel meets its other half, and Video Game History™ becomes complete. Field Marshal von Moltke has found his world to conquer. History is a linear and upward progression from barbarism to Enlightenment, from a village to an empire, from a stone hut to Alpha Centauri. If one is to be victorious over history, one must maneuver carefully and marshal all their nation’s forces to conquer it. The field is yours, Herr General - march over it, and all else who stand on it.

This is the story of Video Game History™, and with it the entire strategy genre. It cannot be separated from the ambitions of the German military aristocracy. Its vision of the 19th century is the primary story it tells.

But is that all that strategy games are capable of? Are there no other stories it can tell? It feels as though we’re forgetting something. Or someone.

Ludonarrative Marxism

The military aristocracy would not be the only Prussians who would have found sense in Video Game History™. A time traveling factory owner from Berlin would find it very intuitive. A hierarchical tech tree reflects his experience of material reality. The transition of Europe to an economy of machines and factories created unprecedented amounts of wealth, which led to the development of newer machines and more efficient factories, which led to more efficiency and created more wealth.

Until it didn’t. You see, there’s a funny thing that tends to happen to the rate of profit.

Yeah. There’s another historical narrative that came about around the same time, wasn’t there? Started with that German fellow with the big beard. I suspect many readers are familiar with him. Some of you may have even read some of the stuff he wrote about history. Probably a lot more of it than I have. But I’m committed to this project, so I guess I’ll have to take a stab at a crude summary.

Marx was the first to articulate what he referred to as the materialist conception of history. But much of the popular understanding of historical materialism derives from the later summaries written by Friedrich Engels. (Or even more accurately, the Bolshevik works which derived their understanding of it from Engels). This excerpt from his pamphlet Socialism: Utopian and Scientific serves as a decent summary:

The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.

Because humans must meet their material needs to survive, the first concern of any society will be the means by which the goods that meet them will be gathered, produced, and exchanged. Societies are therefore organized in accordance with these modes of production, and are divided into classes through the division of labor and ownership. (The better adherents will acknowledge that it is not the only reason social arrangements can exist, but it’s easy for some to forget).

One can therefore view history as a succession of modes of production, which arise not through the plans of great leaders but the action and reaction of the existing classes of the current mode of production. In Europe, for instance, the urban bourgeoisie of the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern period brought about the transition to industrial capitalism with ever-larger and more organized workshops and manufactories. As the producers of goods became more independent and the bonds of feudal society weakened, the state hastened their collapse by enclosing common lands, bringing a flood of former peasants from the fields to the mills and sweatshops. Their allegiance belonged not to a liege lord, but to the factory owners who extracted surplus value from their labor - the capitalists. As this arrangement continues, the exploited classes will become more aware of their role in capitalist society and acquire class consciousness. Then, when avenues for growth have been exhausted and the rate of profit dries up, when even the state-enforced stopgaps have failed, the organized working class will resolve the contradictions of capitalism by seizing the means of production and ushering in the next mode of production: socialism.

Or so the story goes.

Of course, Marxist historiography is open to criticism of its own, even from the left - particularly if one hews to the vulgar, reductionist version expounded by certain users of certain microblogging platforms. But as an alternative to Video Game History™, even the version of Marxism you get from anime avatars with flags in their profile names offers a crucial advantage. It gives us a different story - one which doesn’t completely center around leadership and Great Men, one which doesn’t measure the success of whole nations by a Great Man’s decisions, one where the strength of an empire can be acknowledged as detrimental to many of the people in it. But because it is a framework that makes predictions about the development of human societies which are at least to some extent deterministic, it’s a story which can still be fitted to the shape and pace of a strategy game.

So it should be no surprise that someone’s done it.

The Swedish Empire of Grand Strategy

Indeed, this isn’t even the first time I’ve covered the developers who did it. You may recall that last year Marsfelder and I recorded a two-hour Let’s Play/vodcast of the game Crusader Kings II, one of many grand strategy games created by the Swedish company Paradox Development Studio. Indeed, over the past decade and change, they have been nearly synonymous with the genre in the West, making series such as Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron into some of the best selling grand strategy games ever. Over the course of two hours of discussion and gameplay, I argued that the primary appeal of Paradox games was their generative, organic storytelling. Their design is such that the gameplay itself creates masterfully compelling and detailed narratives with the feel and scope of centuries of history.

Naturally, this made them the ideal candidate to develop the series that made hardcore gamers fall in love with covert Marxist propaganda. So it was that in 2003, Paradox released Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun, to a raucous response of...complete and utter indifference. Seven years later, they tried again with Victoria II, which didn’t sell that well either. It did well enough, however, to receive two DLC expansions, and it retains a sizable cult following which only continues to grow as the player base for their other series expands.

Revolution comes five years early to Germany.
Victoria II spans exactly one century of history, between the years 1836 and 1936. This is a much shorter time scale than Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis. But its years are long ones - it takes place during a century of social, political, and economic transformation, in a world alive with revolt. The world map you see at the beginning of the game will not resemble the one you see at the end. At the beginning, the old monarchies of Europe struggle to suppress the rise of liberalism and bourgeois nationalism. In the midgame, they struggle for continental and colonial dominance as socialism emerges. At the end, fascism lurks in the shadow of crises of overproduction and (usually) the aftermath of a world war. Elsewhere, non-western nations must adapt or be squashed under the bootheel of global imperialism.

What makes Victoria II unique, however, are the game mechanics that drive these changes. There is, as one would expect, a complex economic system that models the production and exchange of goods. But its true distinguishing game mechanic is the POP system, the elaborate means by which it models and characterizes assorted groups of people ranging in size from a few dozen to hundreds of thousands. All POPs in Victoria II are categorized by culture and, most importantly, by class. Farmer and Laborer POPs gather raw resources, which is sold on the market by the Aristocrat, who owns the land. Craftsman POPs work in factories, which are owned by Capitalists and managed by Clerks. Each POP has their own set of goods, that they need, both for basic subsistence and emotional well being. Most importantly, the POPs are dynamic - their size, wealth, political affiliation, militancy, and class consciousness changes in direct response to their material conditions.

Let me repeat that last one for the folks in the back: This game has a number to keep track of class consciousness.

This does not provide us with an entirely clean break from Prussian militarism. Nothing programmed in something called the Clausewitz engine ever could. In many instances, the historical materialism embedded in the game’s design merely provides an explanation for the imperialist behavior most players would be expected to engage in anyway. For instance, colonization allows for increased access to the raw materials required by Capitalist POPs, as well as providing them with new markets of exploited colonial Laborers and Farmers to which to sell their finished goods. But if it can’t completely break free of the baggage of its own genre, perhaps it can at least offer a self-critique. Or maybe even give the player a chance to create a better history.

But it wouldn’t be very materialist of me to simply tell you to take my word for it. Better we should test my assertions through direct demonstration.

Tewodros’s Ambition: Let’s Play Victoria II

Which brings me to the actual reason I wrote all of this in the first place. See, this entire essay is just an introduction to a Let’s Play I started planning back when I thought Paradox was about to announce Victoria III. (They, uh...did not).

This will be an informative Let’s Play, divided into 20-30 minute segments. I will try to introduce and explain Victoria II’s intimidating and complex mechanics, and also try to sprinkle in a few nuggets of historical insight as we go along.
I have chosen to play as Ethiopia, due mostly to its historical status as a center of resistance to imperialism, and due also to the challenge of prospering in a geopolitical climate which was historically hostile to attempts to industrialize “the periphery.” But there is a part of me that shares Kou Shibusawa’s fascination with particular moments in history - the day that upstart noble who united his nation was waylaid by the enemy, his friends having abandoned and betrayed him, and who, as the walls closed in, chose death instead of surrender. Of course, I’m talking about a different guy. But it’s the same question...what if?

What other stories could we have told about Africa, if this one hadn’t been interrupted?

Alternate Histories, Part 2c: No, Really, I'm Just Making This Up As I Go

The state of Europe in 1880. Shit I Don't Really Know, But Can Fake, Part I: How's the Game Going? It is on its face absurd t...