Image: Paradox Development Studio, IGDB

The medieval views of the grand strategy game

In 2016, my life was changed forever. No, not by the American election, nor by Brexit. No, my life was irrevocably altered by the discovery of that magic called Crusader Kings 2.

I love games like Crusader Kings 2, more than is healthy. I adore sprawling strategy games with complicated worlds to which I am but a spectating visitor – and occasional interloper. But this is a tortured love. It is a star-crossed love that leaves me saddened every time I start the game anew. The reason? The communities around these games are horrendous.

There seem to be exactly two types of people who love these games. The first are the spreadsheet loving nerds like myself who enjoy crunching numbers, juggling 50 different mechanics at once, and the power fantasy of taking over the world. I especially love enacting historical vengeance: embarking on a campaign of conquest against England as Ireland (suck it, Cromwell) or conquering Europe as the Aztecs. I spend hours weaving intricate stories where I, the underdog hero count of nowhere, take over the world with a combination of my wits, trickery, military might, and a healthy load of save-scumming.

There seem to be exactly two types of people who love these games

The others are the far-right nut jobs. The ones who use the pretext of a medieval fantasy to enact their horrifically racist ideologies in ways that leave me disgusted with the thought that I might be in some way associated with them – even in as indirect a manner as sharing a love for a video game. Those who have glanced at a forum for these games will know of whom I speak. In Europa Universalis terms, they are the “remove kebab” (where ‘kebab’ is a pejorative term used to refer to all those of Turkish ethnicity) maniacs who will speak jovially of committing genocide against an entire people. For whom these games are not absurd fantasies, they’re temporary sublimations of very real political goals. These people disgust me. But more than that, they scare me.

Am I overreacting to “banter” (a word so easily trotted out whenever people are called out on problematic behaviours)? Perhaps it’s all in the name of role play and good fun, and I’m getting worked up about nothing at all. After all, I’m just as happy as the next player to slaughter my in-game family to ensure that my kingdom isn’t weakened. I’m happy to “culture convert” (what a polite name for ethnic cleansing!) provinces when it suits my virtual purposes. What makes me different from them?

These are the people who struggle to separate fantasy from reality

Perhaps it’s best I don’t think too deeply about the pop-up that tells me that a province has been “converted” to Christianity in Crusader Kings 2. Perhaps it’s best I don’t think about the atrocities I’m reproducing when colonising the Americas in Europa Universalis IV. But at the end of the day, whilst the actions are the same, the intentions are not. Many take these games, with their obviously very dated Medieval context as an instruction manual for today. The kind of people who talk about invasions, wars and genocides in terms of the rights of the conqueror over the conquered. These are the people who struggle to separate fantasy from reality. I hope (perhaps vainly) that I’m different from those who use these games as vehicles to act out fantasies I’m disgusted by, because at least I don’t mean it. That intention has to count for something. Right?

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