I’m pretty far to the left and anti-war but I love strategy games of all kinds. Everything from RTS and Total war to big grand strategy games like Crusader Kings and Civilization. I also play a fair number of tabletop war games with my friends. But I’m not big on participating in the larger community because of the weirdly large number of very openly far-right people in it. I understand the appeal to them of creating an totalitarian state in something like Europa Universalis or the way war games allow an embrace of warfare without the complications of collateral damage or politics. But it’s something I encounter in every corner of the strategy game community. Is there something more fundamental about these games that attracts people with certain politics? Is this true of other game genres?
I’m guessing it’s the themes of subjugating entire civilisations/races that resonate with right wingers.
I think you’re onto something with the colonialist/subjugation angle @superhiero. I also think it’s partly due to the way a lot of military history is written, which fans of the genre also seem to be into. A lot of military history that I’ve read rarely criticises or analyses the violence it’s detailing, and unfortunately a lot of popular military history is eurocentric. If you’re reading a history of the Seven Years War and the writer isn’t engaging with the brutal history of colonialism in Canada and crafting character arcs out the events that lionise western military commanders, (and I have for a couple of really painful history papers) you’re essentially engaging with an extremely conservative revisionism. The kind of people who are drawn to analyses on tactics and strategy are therefore drawn to a telling of history that foregrounds militarism and violence. That has be indicative of your politics in some way.
A lot of strategy games manage to sanitize and streamline the process of going to war and subsequently committing war crimes and occasionally genocide in a way that’s palatable to someone who’s into the idea of a fascist society but is too dense and squeamish to really stomach/process the atrocious details of what they’re asking for
The vast majority of human conflict has to do with competing nations. Military is tied very closely with nationalism, which is core to a lot of right-wing beliefs. Strategy games are largely born of military action. Fits together pretty well.
My guess is bigger time and monetary investment -> generally more privileged people -> more likely to support the status quo and oppose social progress. It’s the same reason why most of the eSports scene is pretty bad.
I’m dubious on explanations having to do with it glorifying conflict and violence because, let’s face it, that’s a lot more than just strategy games.
i’d say that it’s mainly because of the aesthetics of a given game rather than the overall mechanics. like if you look for say, Hearts of Iron or Company of Heroes content there’s so much stuff that’s like “here’s JaegerSteve88’s guide on how to win as germany :-)”. other games like Civilization or Age of Empires kind of implicitly or otherwise encourage the image of a nation-state with easily an easily conforming populace (and hey maybe there’s some revolt and it feels nice that you can just squash that out by sending your army in and that’s that).
and i’m sure it happens less in certain games, but like you said in the OP, it still happens. i get the feeling there’s not very many JaegerSteve88s in the Starcraft community, but something like Stellaris kind of has that problem - probably partially because of osmosis from other Paradox games, partially because nobody’s stopping you from playing space fascists yourself.
taking a smaller subset of the genre, i feel like grand strategy stuff like Paradox’s games just tends to attract more politically minded people in general just due to the nature of the gameplay. I can’t imagine being an “eh i don’t care about politics :-)” kind of person and being really really into managing factions in Stellaris, even if you were a huge scifi nerd.
It should be mentioned that Rob Zacny talked about this on Waypoint Radio at one time for similar reasons - had a lot of friends in the strategy game community or at least frequented those spaces until he realized there were an oddly high number of right wing/conservative/white supremacist players making threads about stuff. Having never played any games like this at all, it still made sense to me. If you’re really geeked out to play games where you take over other civilizations or start war and subjugate the landscape or play “as Germany wink wink” I can see where the appeal is to a certain political mindset.
I think you don’t have to be like that to play strategy games but there’s some meat behind the idea that allowing you to subsume into the mechanics of domination without any of the gristly realities of that that provokes this sort of thing.
They engage more because they’re the only ones making memes all day about it, and it mostly includes being offensive and rewriting history
There is definitely something of the source material that is attractive for games built around leadership views of historical battles.
I’d say that’s a clear difference between that and a more nebulous “violent games”. A WW2 FPS game is about being a (often super-hero unrealistic) soldier, playing the role of someone who often didn’t make it (or are aware that that’s your role - “a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends” does not necessarily resonate with the far-right viewpoint). A strategy game puts you in the office of the leadership, guiding the war effort.
[TW: Holocaust; in links: racism, crimes against humanity] Fancy a quick game about 1939-1945? You can play as the White supremacist butcher who killed millions of civilians (many who they had been elected to represent as the head of the empire) including the use of concentration camps. Oh, but if you don’t want to play as the hero Churchill, you could also pick to play as Hitler. History is extremely fertile ground for the far-right to see themselves at the helm of history. So games that often came out of systems designed to play through historical (or contemporary) combat are an ideal space for people who wish to embrace that.
I wonder how much of the far-right influence in wargaming comes from how the American school system teaches history. Growing up I could clearly see the emphasis on war in my American History classes, with an almost fetishistic level of detail around the weapons and tactics used in each era. Comparatively, the struggles of the oppressed, the atrocities committed by America, and the complexities of geo-political reality in any era are all glossed over. I suspect a lot of people don’t move past that level of historical knowledge, and remain ignorant of the politics and waste of human life that each war entails. From there, it’s easy to get to a place where you see history as “good guys vs bad guys” that dovetails nicely with wargaming’s need to erase the messy parts of conflict. All this swirls together to reinforce a conservative view of the world and a desire to go back to a simpler time that never was.
I’m a big proponent of the mechanical storytelling angle on this. A big reason I refuse to touch Paradox stuff in particular is that any allowed play is intended play, and their fascist-simulating stuff is woven throughout their mechanics even when you’re trying not to be a total scumbag. They intend for you to play a fascist for dozens of hours and utterly enjoy yourself, to feel deeply engaged with an intricate simulation of that political ideology without even paltry meta-critique. I can’t go for that, no can do.
As has been mentioned, you don’t need to be that kind of person to enjoy RTS games with those mechanics, sometimes they allow lefties to express their political ideas in ways no other game can, and there’s value in that, even if it’s deeply flawed and limited in its own right.
I watch and know way too much about Star Trek even as I see almost every reason why right-wingers gravitate towards such an ostensibly leftist show–because there’s a lot of fucking reasons–but I still tend to be infinitely more interested in observing failure on TNG than competency in BSG or The Expanse or whatever, because there’s still room for thinking about ST in politically expressive ways that feels less homogeneous/depressingly defeated than any other TV-produced sci-fi even when it’s a heinous failure. I’d say it’s a similar line of thought that makes 4X games still appeal to lefties even as they know they’re just carefully avoiding the side of the product that panders & caters to fascists.
Also these games don’t know how to make peace engaging, it’s why there was some hot colonial takes on Stellaris about how we “as humans” just “want more and get bored” just because that game didn’t have systems to support not being a fascist in an interesting way. Eugh.
I have a feeling about this, that may be off-base, but it’s something that feels right to me.
These types of games instrumentalise the complexity and diversity of people, communities, regions, environments, worlds etc. by virtue of presenting them as a mechanic. Similarly to that story about the game that tried to make people empathise with those living around the poverty line, this results in the complete opposite scenario - feeling less empathetic.
Strategy games, more than just being mostly centered around domination, colonialism, warfare etc. also inherently present a variety of real and lived experiences as mechanical, as something that if you do “well” in will reward you, if you do “badly” it will punish you. But the punishment is losing resources or losing speed at which you progress, etc. - rarely do these games make you consider that life is more than just a set of inputs and outputs, which is essentially how, IMO, a lot of conservative people think (at least the ones I know or am exposed to).
For them life is not about complexity, diversity of experiences, systemic issues that may create advantages for some and disadvantages for others - life for them is about choices, hard work, sacrifices, strategy, decision-making etc. all in a level playing-field vacuum. Strategy games, on the whole, reflect that in the mechanisation of every decision, in making you the ultimate arbiter of how well you will do in a given situation. This goes beyond difficulty levels or choosing less powerful nations to start in Europa Universalis.
This is more to do with how every single facet of existence is a mechanic for the player to use, in a sanitary environment, in a way that encourages efficiency over equity. So you need to keep your people happy by building theatres, because if they are unhappy they will make your life as a leader harder, not because there is an inherent value in having happy citizens, apart from them being more productive.
So, yea, I guess this is a roundabout way of saying capitalism sucks…
I play a lot of the Pdox games so I’m interested to hear how you think criticism of those ideas should be represented in game (if they should be depicted at all). No Stellaris space-fascist goes without already killing off millions for the purposes of expansion for example, so does the game (or series) just too cleanly abstract out the externalities of war? How would these be represented in a game that focuses on storytelling through mechanics?
I do agree though, Pdox games, EU4 and Stellaris in particular, struggle with making peace an interesting part of the game. Stellaris’ federation victory condition is definitely harder to achieve without conquest and EU4 is literally about colonialism. Victoria II can be fun in peace time I think due to having to manage the different social classes that make up your nation state, but I can’t speak to it fully due to not having played it too much. HoI4 is a wargame.
CK2 is likely their most succesful game because the dynastic politics that occurs outside of wartime is interesting enough to be its own game, whether or not you agree with its politics.
So I grew up in a very liberal town in America where the complexities of history and the stories of the oppressed were taught. The history curriculum spent almost no time on the details of warfare or battles. Nonetheless I grew up fascinated with tactics and logistics and not just in war games. Seeing a successful envelopment or well timed cavalry charge in Napoleon: Total War is a similar thrill to watching the Spurs run a great pick or smother an opponent’s offense with brilliant switches and positioning. Grand strategy games, particularly Paradox’s, allow me to fiddle with a dizzying number of interacting systems. Building a Portuguese trade empire by seizing key ports in EU4 or setting my brother up as the next King of France through a series careful marriages and assassinations in CK2 gives me the same satisfaction as making the professional kitchens I work in run as smoothly as possible.
Or at least I like to think those are the reasons. The reason I made this thread was the worry that there’s something about these games that appeals to something negative in me. I try to educate myself on modern and historic injustices and to do what I can to correct them. But I also love running a horrible slave empire in Stellaris.
A lot of good things have already been said, but I thought I’d add a slightly different perspective to this discussion. It might not be that strategy games attract more far right, it might be that it doesn’t appeal to other kinds of people as much. If someone is antiwar, then they are much less likely to be interested in learning and practicing the real life military strategy and tactics that war games are designed to demand of their players.
These kinds of games probably don’t appeal to as many politically informed people since it doesn’t present any criticism or commentary on these events, which is uncomfortable if you know how awful these events were. As @Shivoa alluded to above, these games often put all sides on the same ground philosophically/politically, where the difference between the sides is merely a matter of industry. Most people don’t want to be asked to play as Hitler, especially when it is essentially asking the player to empathize with him, by removing any of the criticism it presents him as the underdog. So if 50% of a game is playing as ‘the bad guys’, a lot of people just won’t play it.
While there isn’t a historical space Hitler that Stellaris asks you to play as, most of the entry points to the genre are like that.
It’s also true that fascist themes aren’t just present in strategy games, they are infused with almost all of our culture and media. We see it in Michael Bay movies, in most superhero movies, in any movie where the army is involved (because they always get script approval rights if the real US army is involved), it’s in comic books, it’s in video games, etc. So it’s not like strategy games provide a specific appeal. It’s probably just that, since not many other types of people are drawn to strategy games, the otherwise normal amount of far right players have the space to create a far right space for themselves.
I suppose I can’t necessarily generalize my school experience with others. I grew up in a conservative suburb outside of Chicago (one that went decisively for Trump), so perhaps that was reflected in the history I was taught. That said, my memory of AP American History (which I imagine is fairly standardized) was moving from one war to another.
In any case, I don’t necessarily think a fascination with war is a direct pathway to conservatism. I myself am still fascinated with military history and can get lost in the minutiae of grand battles. In fact, that’s precisely the reason why I stay away from grand strategy nowadays, as I recall the many days in my youth lost to games of Shogun: Total War and Civ II/III. But I do think there is a tendency for less-critical audiences to take what those games are saying at face value in order to reinforce a conservative and far-right worldview.
So yeah, you’re definitely not a bad person for liking these sorts of games, but I do think the community as a whole is in dire need for self-reflection.
This is the tough part, because the expectations of Pdox games makes it extremely hard to think of not just one, but a bunch of different fresh ways the game could critique and demoralize the player for trying to be a fascist over the course of many hours, all with the written narrative permanently out-of-focus and the mechanical structure expected to be neutral. Even a more candid representation of the violence wouldn’t fix anything, as sheer recreation is not inherently condemnation.
Much of it is that they’ve trapped themselves within, well, their genre trappings. It’s so expected of the RTS genre to have fascism as a part of their games, it’s equally expected for fascism to be just as mechanically represented as other factions/ideologies, and it’s a relatively refined/more accepted practice to craft fascist-leaning systems in games vs. systems simulating the intricacies of peaceful, democratic systems (compounded by the hierarchical individualism present even in multiplayer RTS’). Even social democracy struggles to find ways to be interesting in games because it’s so untapped, let alone any of the many tendencies of socialism or left-libertarianism. All of which is much more dangerously controversial to overtly implement (unless those ideas are distanced, satirized and utterly defanged) than any unabashed portrayal/allowance of right-wing shit would be to RTS’ current demographics.
I don’t claim to know how to fix this within the genre. The most I really get into RTS games is hybrid/experimental stuff, so it’s hard for me to even theorize (read: armchair develop) a way out of it. Genres and art are infinitely fluid/flexible, though, so there’s undoubtedly ways to address this on a wider scale, it’s just that Paradox has no real market incentive to do so, and their wishy-washy response to literal white supremacy mods for Stellaris made it clear they don’t intend to start trying regardless.
To push back a bit. My love of Paradox games grew out of a love of history and politics. Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings are in a way history texts in that they attempt to create a model of a period of history. An incorrect and incomplete model to be sure, I think even the developers would admit that. But unlike every other history text it’s an interactive and open ended model. So I as the player can see what happens when I try to create a culturally and religiously tolerant France or unite Ireland in the 17th century. It has a huge number of problems, but no other game even comes close to what that they are attempting. When someone creates a game that allows me to run a international labor movement across a carefully modeled 19th century europe I will drop EU4 immediately.
Is it the games job to do that? In EU4 you playing as the country itself. Spain became enormously wealthy and powerful from its genocidal conquest of the Americas. France became a much more cohesive and powerful state by driving out the Huguenots and suppressing Occitan, Provencal, and other languages. Yes the game rewards you with money and prestige for these things, but that’s what drove these nations in that time period. EU is fundamentally set of rules that tries to recreate world history form 1444-1815. It does this badly because it’s almost impossible to do it well. But a rule set that didn’t model the tremendous wealth to be gained from the subjugation of the Aztec empire would be bad at its stated goal. The game could do a better job at more explicitly surfacing things like civilian deaths. But I don’t know how you model things like the loss of the Aztec art and culture in a way that impacts the players. A popup screen that reads “In 400 years people will be very angry about that” doesn’t do much.
To take the easiest Stellaris example, there’s a small thing that could be done. Change the victory conditions from being about owning lots of planets. The available victory conditions imply the ultimate end goals that you should work towards, and it’s disappointing to see that they mostly rely on conquest.
This kind of default position being checked and averted in more places could help to erode the feeling that conquest and domination are what’s natural and right.