How Historical Accuracy Became a Euphemism


The appreciation of warfare and organized violence doesn’t flow from being white or the church, it comes from being human. It’s definitely not ideological. Humanity is steeped in warfare since time immemorial. Take a peek at the Assyrians, or Han Chinese of the Three Kingdoms, or the Samurai of the Sendoku Jidai, or the Aztecs or pre-colonial African empires. Read about the murderous raids of hunter-gatherer societies. Yes it is gameable, and because it’s horrific and a the apex of consequential it gets more attention than loading sacks of grain on a ship in Carthage harbor and the beauty of daily urban life. It’s all grounded in human nature, the part of human nature has been to control others and the environment and the willingness to use organized violence in the pursuit of those ends.

FYI speaking as someone that is part of the Total War player base, the female general “controvery” was largely something foisted on the community from outside – gamergate types. Similarly, CA has created a female bandit warlord starting faction in Total War:3K and it’s not something that’s raised much of a stir, although she’s not attested to in the historical (or Romance) record.


What I’m saying is that the particular ways we typically think of warfare, what we “appreciate,” about it, which kinds of wars we care about waged by who and taking place where, are fundamentally tied to the military culture of Europe and European colonies during the past 200 years in particular. Much of what our popular understanding of history is is shaped by the this ideology and it’s focus on imperial conquest, it’s reverance for a highly idealized way of thinking about war, i.e. “the great game,” which places at the forefront daring officers, loyal soldiers, and genius generals, struggling against each other in great pitched battles. It is primarily interested in the wars of empires and national “unification,” because the people creating this history were imperialist Europeans who were very concerned with subjugation and a transcendent self-fulfilling national destiny. They frequently understood war as an arena that historically has proved the primacy of white Christians, and considered it their responsibility to carry on that legacy. We are both engaging with the legacy of this right now, which you illustrated pretty well by listing off by name states who’s wars are ones of imperial expansion or play a very important part in modern narratives of nation-forming and national identity, and then proceeding to gesture to an undefined mass of “hunter-gatherer” societies and their “murderous raids.”

Absolutely everything about the way strategy games engage with wars, historical and fictional, has to do with this. It’s the reason we get games set in the same periods doing the same things with minor variation over and over and over and over. People can claim to just have a totally platonic appreciation for strategy and tactics all they want, but there’s a reason we don’t get games about the Second Seminole War where you play Osceola. There’s a reason things like political will, morale, economy, and interpersonal relations take a far back seat to battle and moving troops around. There’s a reason those things mechanically just as exist as hurdles for you to deal with as fast as you can or ignore as best you can in the name of waging your war. There is a reason the way we depict a process of violence that kills millions of people and heavily informs economy and politics for decades and centuries as relatively uncomplicated things except for in the contest between Great Generals who look down on the world from the sky and push little abstracted piles of people around on a map. The way we depict war is a mishmash of 19th century paintings of masses of people dying heroically in the cavalry charge, Patton and Churchill looking down on a map with a bunch of little figures on it, and near-contextless photos looking up at some nameless soldier set against the sky who himself is looking off into the distance at something that’s Just Not Relevant To Our Interests. There’s a reason we use this formula regardless of what time or place, regardless of what war actually is or how it happens, regardless of how the people being depicted themselves conceived of war, and there’s a reason this can be passed off as some totally neutral historically transcendent viewpoint that’s remained basically constant for the whole of human history.


There seems to be quite a bit of confusion about the nature of historical subjectivism, so I’d like to clarify a few important points.

The postmodern critique of history doesn’t actually deny the existence of objective reality, but it does deny its knowability. Nobody can subjectively know objective reality. In other words, everything said about the past is an opinion.

Perspectives on the past are subjective. This means they’re necessarily tinted with bias. You could probably compare bias with an accent in so far as everybody has one, but nobody ever thinks they do.

The most which anybody can say about the past is that something probably happened. Some are better supported by the available evidence than others, but historical arguments in other words are necessarily based on probability.

Since they’re based on probability, historical arguments always have a margin of error. This can be tiny, but it can also be huge. There’s plenty for example to suggest that George Washington existed, but quite a bit less to suggest that Romulus and Remus did.

While some things can for all intents and purposes be considered factual based on the available evidence, nobody can ever be completely and totally certain because objective reality can’t be known. This is what allows for the possibility of competing interpretations.

Edit 1: Sticking to the above example, you could argue based on the available evidence that we have a 99% probability of George Washington’s existence. You could make the case that he never existed based on the 1% margin of error in this argument, but you’d have to somehow explain the overwhelming evidence for his existence. In other words, the existence of George Washington could for all intents and purposes be considered factual even though we still have a 1% margin of error which can’t be eliminated.

What about the existence of Romulus and Remus, though? You might argue that we have a 33% probability that Romulus and Remus existed exactly as depicted in legend, but what about the remaining 67% margin of error? You could argue that we have a 33% probability that Romulus and Remus existed in some way, shape, or form. You could argue that we have a 33% probability that Romulus and Remus were purely mythological, too. Which is right? Not only is each perspective in this case valid, but each perspective is equally valid.

Historical arguments are practically never presented in terms of probability. They’re almost always made authoritatively, but they’re still just arguments of probability based on the available evidence.

Edit 2: There seems to be some confusion about the word “history.” There’s a difference between “history” as a synonym for “the past” and “history” as referring to the academic discipline. This article is mostly about the latter. I realize that academic discourse rarely makes it into the gaming press, but that’s precisely why I figured that writing an article like this was important.

Edit 3: Historical methods and theory can only be used to analyze a feature when the game in question is actually trying to say something about the past. This is covered in detail towards the end of the piece.

Thanks for reading my article!


I am less learned in this than Reeve is, but my addendum to this, should it be hard to follow, would be that it can be helpful to talk about personality here, particularly as it applies to recent figures. This is just my observation so I’d welcome the pushback if necessary; I am not an expert, but this is how I’ve framed this in casual conversation in the past.

If one is to read accounts of major historical figures (whether George Washington, Richard Nixon, or Joseph Stalin), getting a grip on them, as a person, is exceedingly difficult. Even the most lucid first-hand accounts offer an external snapshot of a particular moment in time at best, and the layers of mythmaking, mis-recollection, and stereotyping applied in the primary and secondary literature do not help either. This is leaving aside that people change due to development or sickness.

Consequently, attempting to characterise an historical figure makes a matter of extreme subjectivity, with ample room for one to emphasise or downplay certain elements. Sufficient amplification of one item can lead to a distortion in description – this is the ‘margin of error’ and ‘probability’ that Reeve talks about above.