Note: I originally wrote this post about a year ago for a blog that focuses on the intersection of games and history. That ended up not working out, so I’m now posting it here. I think that I’ve made all of the necessary updates, but don’t be surprised if you find an “anachronism” or two.
Like many of us, my experiences as a student and (to a much lesser extent) a teacher of history are driven by my personal interests, notably my love for Francophone language and culture. I took French 1 as an eighth grader over twelve years ago, and since then I’ve visited Francophone Europe a few times, lived there for a couple of years, graduated with a degree in French, and taught French in a few different settings. When I dive into history, then, it’s not surprising that I’m nearly always looking for something related to France (or Switzerland, Belgium, Algeria, etc.). I’m looking for something familiar, something that I can relate to, something that can better help me understand the modern France that I know and love.
I don’t think that I’m unique in looking for the familiar when I study history, and I certainly don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it. However, in one of the foundational works on historical inquiry, Sam Wineburg suggests that the true power of history — its power to rewrite our understanding of what it means to be human — is built on a tension between the familiar and the strange. To truly unlock history’s power in our lives, we have to not only find pleasure in the familiarity of previous generations, but also open ourselves to the “surprise and amazement” of encountering people and ideas that seem alien to us.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t happy with this idea at first. I wasn’t eager to come face to face with the parts of history that I wouldn’t understand as easily (or at all!). I was, however, eager to dive into my recently acquired copy of Europa Universalis IV and, well, that had unintended consequences. As videogame researcher Peter Christiansen recently wrote, historical strategy games like EU4 can put us “in the same situations as our predecessors,” and it turns out that they also do a good job of bringing up plenty of what they would have found normal but what we find totally alien. I wouldn’t argue that EU4 is a perfect historical simulation, and I’m not even enough of a historian to tell you exactly what its imperfections are. All I know is that leading a virtual France from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth century forced me to face plenty of alien concepts and that, somewhere along the way, the amazement that Wineburg mentioned kicked in.
The Alien: Historical Geopolitics
EU4 turned what I thought was familiar into something alien. I get the idea of vassalization. I get the idea that countries’ modern borders are relatively recent inventions. As a student of French history, I’ve read Graham Robb’s excellent book The Discovery of France, which explains just how “fractured” France was even through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a student of political science, I’ve studied the Peace of Westphalia and the development of the modern nation-state. One of my most practiced cultural lessons is on Alsace and how its history demonstrates the weirdness and arbitrariness of borders. Despite all that preparation, though, I was still surprised by the map of fifteenth-century France that I saw at the beginning of the game.
On an intellectual level, I understood that Brittany, Burgundy, and Savoy had all once been independent nations, but it was profoundly shocking to start playing as the Kingdom of France and find that it was largely, well, the Kingdom of Paris and its surroundings (with a few vassal states for good measure). Reading about this in a book was pretty straightforward, but playing through this period of history forced me to really come to terms with it. Despite how much I enjoy helping students seeing how much more complicated France is than baguettes, berets, and the Eiffel Tower, I found that I was just as distressed as anyone when “La France” was no longer synonymous with “L’Hexagone.”
The Really Alien: Historical Values
I eventually got on board with the geopolitics of the past, but some parts of EU4 were harder to deal with. Most of the time, I try to act in games more or less the same way I would (or would like to) act in real life; I don’t stick to this rule perfectly, but, as I’ve written before, I find it to be an interesting ethical and intellectual exercise. EU4 made this tough. In his book The Ethics of Computer Games, scholar Miguel Sicart argues that “rules can have moral values that affect the ethical behavior of players” (p. 4). In other words, the rules of a game impose a certain vision of desirable vs. undesirable behaviors on the player. EU4’s designers presumably based the game’s embedded values on the values of this time period, but that didn’t make them any more comfortable for me.
I use “points” to get a quick feel for what values are embedded in a game. If a game is rewarding you in any quantifiable way for performing certain in-game actions, there’s some kind of value argument going on there. That gets nuanced (and downright tricky) when you’re playing a game like EU4, which keeps track of at least a half-dozen different kinds of points, but it’s still a pretty quick way to see what’s going on… and see what you’ll do in the name of a reward. I’m a very religious person who strongly embraces the American idea of having no state-sponsored religion, so adopting a state religion that wasn’t my own and having my relationships with other countries be mediated through that state religion was unsettling. Even worse was the points that the game kept offering me in exchange for establishing religious unity. Provinces in traditionally Catholic France kept converting to Protestantism, and, according to EU4’s embedded values, I was supposed to be a little upset by that. Being neither Catholic nor Protestant myself, though, I just couldn’t bring myself to engage in political missionary work, no matter what it did for my “stability cost.” This was only the tip of the iceberg… keeping my 20th century values while striving for 17th century victory was no easy task.
The Amazing: What If?
Fortunately, EU4 also turned that which had become alien into something amazing. The nineteenth-century France that has emerged from my game is radically different than the France of our nineteenth-century, and that seems weird to me. I don’t have the smarts or training to say whether this alternate history is plausible or not, but the more I’ve learned about history, the more I’m hesitant to rule things out. After all, if real (and relatively recent!) history is weird enough for things like the Saar Protectorate, the United Arab Republic, Hong Kong and Macau, and the possibility that Scotland could have become its own country last year, why not an independent (if too close to the Holy Roman Empire for my tastes) Burgundy in the early 1800s? Why not an Ireland which is half French and half British? Why not a (relatively) religiously diverse France that has somehow managed (so far) to avoid the messy Revolution of 1789 and everything that followed? Are they really that much weirder?
This, like all alternate history escapades, is an entertaining diversion, but I also think that it’s so much more. My entire conception of the world—not to mention my entire life—is dependent upon millions and millions of factors and decisions that happened hundreds and thousands of years ago. I owe my present to the alien and the really alien; whether or not I can understand them, I am in some way indebted to them. To crib from a Doctor Who origin story (whose writers certainly cribbed the idea from someone else), my life would certainly not be the same if just one semi-significant thing from the past had gone differently. To look back at history is somewhat like looking out at the night sky: It’s huge, it’s incomprehensible, it’s strange, but because it’s all of these things, it’s also beautiful, full of unexplored possibilities, and simply amazing.
Two Sides of the Coin
I played as France in EU4 so that I would have something familiar, but the game instead showed me strange things I never would have anticipated. I’d learned about these things and even thought I understood these things, but playing through them brought them to life in a new way. As I navigated through these virtual centuries, I ultimately found myself in that place that Wineburg describes: A place caught between the familiar and the strange and therefore a place full of surprise and amazement.
This discovery came at a particularly good time. I’m now teaching French again after having taken a break when I came to MSU. The class I teach isn’t really a class at all; instead, it’s a semi-curricular activity that uses the French language and Francophone culture to look at issues of society, civics, and culture. When I was hired, I had already received the thumbs-up to add some games to the mix, and while I’ve stuck to non-digital games so far, I think I’d be foolish not to consider a game that, like EU4, lets my students examine the Francophone past. If I ever tried this, it would be interesting to take a page from educational psychology and measure how my students’ conceptions of France and the past change as we play. As I get more comfortable teaching French, history, and culture with games (this is a project I hope to stay with for a few semesters), I could even invite my students to critique the games we play or even develop some games of their own. There’s a wide world of wonder out there that I hope to introduce to my students, and if games will help, all the better!
Robb, G. (2007). The discovery of France: A historical geography from the Revolution to the First World War. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Sicart, M. (2009). The ethics of computer games [Amazon Kindle version]. Retrieved from http://amazon.com
Wineburg, S. (1999). Historical thinking and other unnatural acts. The Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 488-499. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20439490