The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Editorial: World Cup and World Conquest

What Strategy Games Tell Us About Nationalism

Published on 11 JUL 2014 2:10pm by James Tanaleon
  1. business and industry, background / research material, english

Whether it's television, radio, or in person, millions around the world from several continents have been joining in these past few weeks for that quasi-religious sporting event known as the World Cup. Throngs of fans proudly display their national team colours on their clothes and on their faces as they descend upon Rio De Janeiro. Countries and nations array their players out on the pitch to the collective yearnings of the masses hoping for victory. Exultation, heartache, madness, and intoxication grip the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city. In this tangle of emotion, there are the spectators expecting to see the exercise of precision and strategy. There are those that watch for the powerful interplay of mind and body. For many of them, however, they watch for pride. National pride. 

It is only natural, after all. If one were to go to a local football game in their home town where a family member was participating, it's quite appropriate to cheer for one's kin. It doesn't matter how beautifully the other team or players play the game, it is the national identity that matters to most fans. Sure, a certain respect might be afforded a formidable enemy, but fans are not readily won over by superior skill; it never seems to overcome their nationalist instincts. It even gets to the point where old rivalries can cause bitter resentment. The English boo the Germans and the Germans boo the Dutch etc. 

It is fair to say that nationalism is far from dead. In some ways, the World Cup is a kind of passive aggressive expression of this reality. Western audiences might live in a world that is dominated by the rhetoric of multicultural assimilation and ideological supremacy, but deep down, even the most “civilized” of world citizens feels that tinge of national supremacy. In today's culture which is afraid of nationalist elements, this internal instinct and yearning finds little expression. Perhaps this is why the World Cup is an explosion of nationalism. The World Cup allows individuals to express in an almost trance-like state the inner sentiments of the national-citizen. 

This expression and venting doesn't end with “the beautiful game.” We can see this expression in strategy games as well. When I ask my friend from Saudi Arabia which nations he likes to play in Crusader Kings II, I always hear of his adventures in Al-Andalus; the pinnacle, or so he says, of Muslim civilization during the Middle Ages. There may be times he pines over the various Caliphates, but he never has any such romantic sentiments about the various European nations. When I ask various friends of mine who play Europa Universalis IV which nations they choose, the line also seems to be drawn according to national identity. The various Frenchmen I've had the pleasure of knowing speak ill of “Perfidious Albion” and the Dutch seem to wave their tricolour every chance they get. Of course how many times does one see a friendly Russian sport the sickle and hammer in any strategy game he plays. Naturally, this isn't a hard and fast rule. There are plenty of times when individuals seek out diversions in other national traditions, but the initial loyalty seems to be ingrained. I feel as if I could safely bet that to ask any ethnic Pole if he's ever tried to reconstruct the Commonwealth in a Total War game, he would answer in the affirmative. 

So what conclusions can be made from these observations? For one, strategy games help to implicate the presence of Nationalism as a real driving force in the modern world even if it is operating on a sub-conscious level. Despite the modern assertions towards a globalized population, strategy gamers express their cultural identity through sport and game: through conquest of other civilizations. In fact, this observation has an interesting consequence when we look a country which does not have or has lost its national identity: The United States of America. 

Perhaps it is indicative that the level of fan interest in the United States towards “soccer” is very little compared to their interest in local sports like basketball or baseball. For the United States, individuals don't see a uniform “American” identity in the same way Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, or Africans do and instead see themselves first as being from Boston, or New York or San Francisco. This is why an average American would be more interested in the Pittsburgh Steelers winning than if the national team wins the World Cup. This is part of the strangeness of the United States as its founding was, in theory, based off of an ideology (freedom) rather than a people. This is why, for example, a Frenchman will still continue to believe himself to be a Frenchman even if he is ruled by a Bourbon, a Bonaparte, or a Republic. But ask any American if he still considers himself American if the Constitution was suspended and voting abolished and he would say that he is a man without a country. Germans who express different ideological views still consider each other Germans, but we hear all the time that certain viewpoints are “un-American” as if an ideological antithesis negates citizenship. 

One might object: “but certainly Americans are always interested in winning the most gold medals in the Olympics.” I would wholeheartedly agree, except look at what the Olympics mostly compose of: individual achievements. There are plenty of team sports in the Olympics, sure, but when we think of Americans winning, it is usually centered around individual achievements such as the swimming ability of Michael Phelps. Contrast this to the team-oriented nature of the World Cup. The World Cup, just like strategy games which focus on whole nation or army instead of individual heroes, are not about the single individual's achievements, but that of the collective will of the people one was born to. 

Therefore, if our homologue holds true that strategy games can be a glimpse into the national consciousness of a people or country, then shouldn't the way which American gamers approach strategy games also be affected by their lack of national kinship? My hypothesis is that it does. If one looks at which strategy games that have a historical context are the most popular with Americans, two particular episodes in history always seems to pop up: World War II and the American Civil War. 

The popularity of these two incidents as fodder for the American strategy gamer is indicative. Unlike for many Europeans who revel in the conquest and restoration of their various Empires for the sake of their peoples, Americans, lacking a unifying national identity, cling to ideological victories. Instead of the nationalist victories of other nation-states, the American Civil War and World War II represent victories in an ideological sphere. Americans saw themselves fighting for “freedom” for the slaves or to “free” Europe from the Nazis. The Cold War was not so much a civilization struggle between an American People and a Russian people, but an ideological struggle between “Liberty” and “Communism.” 

While most people might dismiss strategy games as a useless distraction, it has real implications on the way in which peoples might view themselves and others. It is an expression of an internal instinct which surpasses even the modern education of a multicultural world. How many times, for example, is an otherwise egalitarian European pining for the days when Portugal still held a colonial Empire? The implications of strategy games, therefore, should not be underestimated and the strategy gamer might learn a thing or two if he has the courage to examine why and how he conquers the world.