Guest Post: Digital Hearts and Pixel Minds
I’m pleased to introduce Kelsey D. Atherton, who I have shouted-out in the past for his interesting work on simulating covert action. Here Kelsey examines commercial gaming on nation-building and conquest. As always, guest posters express only their own opinions. Have it at, Kelsey!
It’s strange that modern knowledge in nation-building seems to be so consistently mediocre, given that the past decade saw leaps and bounds in modeling civilian unrest. Perhaps this ignorance is one of medium: the population-centric models that I speak of were developed commercially, and are all in the service of realistic-historical gaming.
Since 2000, CreativeAssembly* has released twelve Total War games and expansions, each of which features an evolution or variation on their civil unrest modeling. The one most pertinent to IR scholars and NatSec bloggers is Empire: Total War, which spans the 18th century, features hardcoded Westphalian rules, and sometimes sees the Americans declare independence.
The player takes the helm of one of 11 nations at the start of 1700, acting more as a directing spirit than a specific national leader.** The objective of the game resembles a caricature of imperialism: control a total number of provinces including some specific, nationally relevant territories, get wealthy, and further the national prestige. There are many ways to do this. Trade, research, internal infrastructure development, and missionary work all feature prominently. That said, the most important method, and the one the game is built around, is conquest. There’s a variety of diplomatic options available, but all provinces have a sovereign government of some sort (in a couple of cases, it’s Barbary Corsairs and the more generically-named Caribbean Pirates), and none of those governments take kindly to being the object of imperial ambitions.
There are three ways this opposition is expressed: through statements and actions on the diplomacy screen, through a rough color-coded national favorability rating viewed on the same screen (green for like, red for gated, shading for intensity), and by the ferocity with which the province revolts once its’ Capitol has been captured by invading armies.
This last metric isn’t particularly useful to the aspiring leader, but with proper espionage (keeping to the era, spying is performed by rakes or gentleman, and countered by the same) most of the relevant factors can be discerned beforehand.*** The model used for unrest utilizes several variables: happiness, distance to capitol, rule of law, squalor, religious unrest, cultural differences, recent conquest, repression, garrison, tax burden. Happiness is an aggregate, but the rest of them are usually just problems of good governance. Good sewers, a province free of bandits, low taxes, and a culturally homogeneous population all make a territory easier to govern.
Excepting taxes, which the new conqueror is wise to exempt the new province from for at least a little while, most other quality-of-life improvements take time to win the populace over to their new government. In earlier Total War games, this predicament was first answered by the Occupy/Pillage/Exterminate screen, whereupon the player decided if the new province would be easier to rule with fewer people. The programmers modeling unrest in those games took Machiavelli to heart: “Hence we may learn the lesson that on seizing a state, the usurper should make haste to inflict what injuries he must, at a stroke, that he may not have to renew them daily, but be enabled by their discontinuance to reassure men’s minds, and afterwards win them over by benefits.” In Empire, that is no longer an option (though for the apathetic conqueror, Napoleon: Total War provides the option to “liberate” a province, after which a government will miraculously spring into being.) Instead, garrisoning the province with a large army will simultaneously improve the regions “garrison” and “repression” scores, which when high enough can prevent unrest from breaking out so long as the garrison is strong. Choosing to replace the Governor’s Palace with a Military Governor’s Encampment will also increase the repression score.
Repression alone is not enough. As an example, here is a screenshot of recently-occupied Stockholm:
What followed this conquest was a sequence of events familiar to most occupiers. The Nobility wrote a letter of demands, expressing their disapproval of the new rulers. Concurrently, the workers began rioting in the streets.
The nobles repeated their demands, but the workers took it a step further, escalating through rioting to open rebellion, spontaneously generating several armies mobilized against the foreign invader.
After two years of occupation, Sweden looked like this:
Internal factors alone do not fully explain this swath of devastation; the Swedish Empire was still actively ruling Norway, and sent supporting fighters to join the armies formed by unrest. Part of calming the province involved taking the fight to the rebels, but an equally important part involved denying them safe haven. Under the rules of the game and the standards of the time, this was accomplished by conquering further - an invasion of Norway removed an independent Swedish government as a threat, and meant there was no banner for newly-insurgent armies to rally under.
In this example, unrest was ultimately brought under control the way one would expect: the elite were bought off (in this case through tax exemptions, which greatly reduce the nobility’s objections to conquest), the existing rebel armies were defeated in the field, and safe havens across the border were denied (through further conquest). At the same time, offices of governance were repaired and opened, the province was linked directly to a functioning national government (admittedly, not a modern option), and both churches & bawdy-houses were built to channel energies away from unrest. Eventually, garrisons were brought down, but only after institutions of both state and entertainment were built, and the economy was restored to a prosperous level. Had the garrisons been lessened early, it’s likely that the provinces would have revolted again, and military forces would have to surge back and vanquish new armies just to restore the post-conquest status quo.
Unrest in game provides a constraint on state action. While Total War games have a focus on international conflict and conquest, the potential for unrest at home forces players to engage in an at-least-rudimentary two-level game, splitting resources between institutions that will please the public, fund the mines & merchants that will ensure a tax base, build roads and other national infrastructure, navies to protect maritime trade routes, and forces in the field.
Simulating unrest means that conquest becomes just as much about taking and holding territory from enemy armies as it does about pacifying the population recently conquered. If precautions against unrest are not taken, the unrest will start spawning rebel forces, or even in some cases cause the complete expulsion of garrisoned forces and return of the province to its prior owner. Unrest slows advances, thins armies as they detach units to garrison cities, and in some cases (depending on the role of religion, usually) requires sending agents into the targeted regions years in advance so that they can create a core population favorable to rule by their soon-to-be conqueror.
All that said: Empire is a game about conquest. Unrest is modeled as a constraint on that impulse & capacity, but this is not a game designed for simulating the careful balancing of a counterinsurgency in Helmand. Instead, it is about incorporating a populace once ruled by foes into a profitable and stable core of a nation. Imperial as that is (and in a game called Empire, it’s very explicitly that), the net effect is that wars of choice are thought of in terms of lasting effect, and because the player remains in power long after the decision has been made, the consequences have to be dealt with along that scale as well. Similarly, occupations in Empire require time, attention, and alongscaleforoperations, or else the unrest model does its best to undo the conquest.
More than anything else, this long-term perspective is the valuable takeaway, allowing anyone the opportunity to guide a nation through a full century of survival, making difficult decisions and then living with and responding to their 2nd, 3rd, and Nth order effects.
*an admittedly British company
**Governments, and government types, can change during play. This is fascinating, but an aspect only tangentially related to insurgency and unrest, so I’ll only be touching upon it here.
***With a spy in a province, the “settlement details” tab can be accessed; given its similarity to CIA World Factbook, I assume it is exactly like real intelligence agencies use.****
****I do not actually do that.