While performing research for a recent op-ed on the Islamic State’s presence in the Philippines, I became aware of an eerie familiarity with the country’s geography: Mindanao, Panay, Sulu, and more. Then I realized why: I had conquered all of them.
First as India. Then as Spain. Then as the Qing Dynasty. All of these conquests were completed within the realm of the game Europa Universalis IV. It should not have come as a surprise that a video game would be such a good teacher. My interest in history and international relations started when I lost to the Ottoman Empire in Age of Empires in the fifth grade, then turned to Google to find out who exactly had defeated me and why someone would name an empire after a piece of furniture.
Europa Universalis in particular has key lessons for understanding how international relations work, and when applied with the right context, video games might be valuable teaching tools for current and future leaders working in this field. After all, what better way to learn about how states balance against rising threats than to conquer one too many provinces while leading Prussia, only to fall victim to Europa’s notoriously brutal coalition system? Games like Europa Universalis, which was first released in August of 2013 by Paradox Interactive, offer dynamic and interactive lessons, yet afford players plenty of room to experiment with the past and push the envelope on sensible strategy. The lessons can be dramatic, such as how I came to understand the importance of creating a viable deterrent at the hands of a hyper-aggressive Ottoman Empire. For the record, it was my second go-around with them in an attempt to rewrite my checkered track record versus Constantinople.
Games like these can demonstrate how states use allies to balance against and deter threats, how to employ espionage to weaken another country, and how to balance expansion against development and overextension. Europa Universalis has many key features that make it an extremely realistic simulation of real international relations. Aggressive expansion penalties hinder diplomatic relations and can lead to a coalition mechanism that has ended more than one of my campaigns. Playing games against friends or in groups online is also good practice for understanding the human dimension through a less constrained challenge, forcing you to deal with someone who may be willing to bend the rules.
Though games like these are obviously no substitute for real experience, why would they not be used or at least encouraged as educational tools?
Though games like these are obviously no substitute for real experience, why would they not be used or at least encouraged as educational tools? How better to understand Rome’s rise to power than to do something like it yourself? The decision by the West to engage in trade-route exploration seems much more rational when you see the Ottoman Empire enjoying the fruits of trade with Asia at your expense. Understanding the historical significance of major events becomes easier if you get a chance to see what counterfactually might have happened should these events never occurred, or happened differently.
It is this creation of alternative histories that can be among the most eye-opening facets of strategy games, from both historical and political perspectives. In my time playing Europa Universalis, I have seen Russia become a merchant republic instead of an autocratic empire; I have seen England win the Hundred Years War, resulting in a Europe uninfluenced by the historical power France exerted. I have encountered a Protestant Pope, a Ming dynasty that did not abandon its voyages, and countless other historical anomalies that provided a greater understanding of where variation comes from in history and international relations. Europa Universalis allows players to experiment with these historical hypotheticals and understand why history happened the way that it did and how easily it might have happened differently. For instance, the rare games in which the Ottoman Empire is defeated early, the historically united Middle East becomes a dynamic and contentious battleground of different religions and cultures, while European countries like Serbia that withered in the face of one of history's greatest empires are given a chance to thrive.
The creation of alternative histories can be among the most eye-opening facets of strategy games, from both historical and political perspectives.
Admittedly, video games such as Europa Universalis are not perfect substitutes for real life. The game has limited diplomatic options, and many key diplomatic actions have a hard code that is easy to abuse as a player. Any veteran player can avoid coalitions by know the exact trigger conditions, or know what must be done to convince a weak state to become a vassal. This can sometimes create diplomatic decisions that feel artificial and forced rather than the product of genuinely building trust between nations. Furthermore, the game lacks any real way to punish large nations, as overextension is a temporary penalty that can be easily negated. The game also lacks the personal diplomacy element that its prequel, Crusader Kings had. In much of the time period captured in Crusader Kings personal diplomacy between rulers determined politics, which is something that is not altogether gone from today's politics.
Video games are often discounted as entertainment, but I and many others have found they can be valuable tools to teach history, international relations, and strategy in an engrossing and engaging way that complements traditional academic learning. I have learned valuable lessons about grand strategy, international relations, and history from games. Historical strategy games, used over a long period, might also teach students about grand strategy––games like Civilization with fixed victory conditions that vary hugely in how they are achieved are great for this. But they also teach shorter-term diplomacy. In Europa Universalis I have used the power of alliances of convenience, and I have learned how to predict invasions by reading diplomatic cues and troop movements. Games like Europa Universalis and the Total War series can provide educational insight into the world of international relations, as well as for a bit of high-minded fun that may turn out to be more useful than you think.
Adam Petno is a Princeton University student at the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs and Public Policy.
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Header Image: The Battle of Poitiers by Eugène Delacroix (Wikimedia Commons)