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A Historian’s Reflections on the Video Game “Empire: Total War” (2009)

Written by Michael Wark  (B.A. student).
Nominated by Professor D. Kinsey.

In March 2009, Sega and Feral Interactive Games released Empire: Total War, the fourth installment of the Total War series, and their most ambitious and grandest-scale project to date. Combining turn-based strategy with real-time battle tactics, Empire: Total War places the player in control of an emerging European empire throughout the 18th century, responsible for leading their home nation to glory and prestige through military, diplomatic, and economic conquests. The game allows players to forge alternate histories and gain historical perspectives upon early-modern Europe, through firsthand interaction as generals on bloody battlefields, trade merchants upon the spice routes of India, or as diplomats, brokering alliances or coercing opponents into military/economic subordination. The game also allows players to relive and engage in real life battles and campaigns, such as the American Revolution, through the “Road to Independence” introductory campaign.

While some may consider the historical influence of Empire: Total War as limited, given to its “niched” gamer market, the game has seen incredible popularity (according to VGChartz (2012), over 830,000 units sold since its release in 2009), and it is my belief that this particular title has the potential to provide a comprehensive understanding of the logic and on-the-ground experiences behind empire-building in the 18th century, from the perspective of a European ruler. The purpose of this review is to contend that Empire: Total War allows players to understand much of the decision-making and logic that went into colonial empire building in the 18th century, given various military, domestic, economic, and diplomatic pressures that the player is challenged with in their gaming experience. This review will analyze the game’s strengths in presenting historically accurate challenges to the player, as they pursue colonial expansion of their empire, and the prestige to be gained with it. It will also consider potential flaws with the version of empire presented in the game, and how the style of gameplay may lead to a  ‘dehumanized’ approach to understanding empire, bent largely upon economic exploitation.

Upon starting Empire: Total War’s main function, the “Grand Campaign”, the player is given the choice of governing one of twelve emerging European powers, starting in the year 1700 and stretching throughout the 18th century. The territories that the player begins with reflect the emerging empire’s historical holdings at the time, as well as individual strengths and characteristics that are unique to particular nations – for example, when beginning the game as the United Provinces (Dutch Empire), the player starts off with established colonies in Sri Lanka and Dutch Guyana (Surinam), along with established trade routes between the Netherlands and the East Indies, via trading vessels known as Indiamen, and unique Dutch trading vessels known as Fluyts. Each empire has an established metropole in their home region, and may pursue territorial conquests across the scope of the known world, stretching across the Americas, Europe, Northern Africa, and the Indies. The global scale of play allows players to interact and make decisions regarding the governance of their empire on a macro-level, managing new territorial acquisitions, taxes, and construction of colonial bureaucracies, while the game’s ground-level perspective allows players to direct troops on the battlefield, or control ships-of-the-line in large naval battles. In this sense, the player receives a multifaceted view of European empires, gaining a valuable understanding of effective strategies and necessities for maintaining imperial infrastructure (e.g. keeping colonial populations content to prevent rebellions, balancing taxes, maintaining bureaucracies, etc.), and gaining direct insights into 18th century colonial conquest, in their role as battlefield generals.

In addition to colonial infrastructure management and leadership, Empire: Total War allows players to gain insight into 18th century decision-making through diplomatic interactions with fellow European states. The relationship between various states is governed by numerous factors on a numbered point-scale with markers ranging from hostile to friendly, the result of many actual historical factors, including each state’s system of government, history of warfare, trade relations, religion and so on. These existing factors can make it more or less difficult for the player to form military or trading alliances with particular states. For example, when playing as the British Empire, given Protestant/Catholic religious differences, previous wars and colonial expansion into one another’s territory, it can very difficult to form friendly alliances with Spain. On the other hand, given similarities between Great Britain and Sweden in areas of government and religion, trading and military relationships between these two states can come much more naturally. Furthermore, it is also necessary for players to pay close attention to the affluence and technological gains of neighboring states, to take advantage of greater international trading opportunities. As the result of diplomatic interactions, players may recreate historic alliances and trade relationships between European powers, or forge new ones. This element of diplomatic relations in Empire: Total War allows the player to gain insight into how historical relationships were formed, for the purpose of military or economic gains, and how they were influenced by numerous factors, such as state religion, colonial expansions, and systems of government.

As a video game, it is of course important to keep in mind the fact that Empire: Total War was developed to appeal to the desires of gamers keen on recreating their own European empires. Consequently, the game does have the propensity to highlight particular aspects of empire more than others, to appeal to popular interest. For instance, it should be noted that success within the game drives largely from economic and military exploitation, but fails at large to highlight individual cultural significances unique to each society, or their historical clashes with other cultures. Within the Grand Campaign, objectives may be given for each empire to acquire specific territories akin to actual historical acquisitions; however, if the game creators had come up with a set of objectives for players to capture or recover important historical artifacts in a manner similar to how the game allows players to conduct and direct battles (such as the British capture of Tipu’s Tiger in Mysore), or perhaps fulfill missions leading to the discovery of revolutionary technologies, it would have added greatly to the historical consciousness of the game’s overall experience.

Furthermore, by focusing largely upon military and economic acquisitions, Empire: Total War does have the potential to present a ‘dehumanized’ approach to European colonial empires. With the exception of the ability to directly command troops on the battlefield, the game largely focuses upon human agency simply as a means of economic exploitation. For instance, as a means of generating income within the game, plantations may be built to produce sugar and other trade commodities; however, there is no mention of the slave labour used in this production, and questions of ethics within the game is removed in favor of the objectivity of efficient colonial exploitation. Admittedly, the player may research particular technologies throughout the game that may lead colonial populations towards a ‘clamor for reform’, or if taxation is too high, to rebel and declare a revolution; however it is still my opinion that given the game’s primary focus upon military and economic conquest, particular areas of cultural history are ignored within this pursuit.

In its comprehensive experience, Empire: Total War provides a valuable historical learning opportunity, succeeding in allowing players to gain insight into the logic and decision-making of what it took to rule a colonial empire in the 18th century. In particular, this includes gaining a firsthand understanding of properly running a mercantilist economy, and balancing power, trade, domestic, and diplomatic relations effectively. The game provides a means for players to step into the role of empire-builders and face challenges that would have historically presented themselves to leaders in the 18th century. Certainly, it is necessary to remember that the perspective of “empire” that the game is presenting is aimed at entertaining a particular audience, and consequently, this may not provide a complete understanding of colonial empire-building, but overall, it is my opinion that Empire: Total War is a valuable asset in coming to a better understanding of life and empire-building in the 18th century.   

References

Empire: Total War. Mac OS X, Version 1.0.  Feral Interactive. Sega. 2012. English. Video Game.  (The Microsoft Windows version of Empire: Total Warwas released March 4th, 2012. The Mac OS X version of Empire: Total War was released September 13th, 2012).

“Empire: Total War Global Total as of October 20th, 2012 (Units). In VGChartz. Retrieved 28 October, 2012 from:  http://www.vgchartz.com/game/24380/empire-total-war/.

“Empire: Total War” (4 August, 2012). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved 4 November, 2012 from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire:_Total_War.

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