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Slavery In Video Games
Whenever the topic of video games as a distinct medium comes up, I jump at the chance to highlight what they can offer that other media (such as film, books, etc.) cannot. And one of the examples I often cite is the Europa Universalis series, a grand-strategy computer game by Swedish developer Paradox.
The series is remarkably well-grounded historically, and that's evidenced by the fact that you can play as basically any state entity within the time period presented, generally between 1400s to 1800s. While the game has no explicit 'win' conditions, it does tend to subtly encourage player behavior in directions often heavily inspired by historical accounts, and it does this by rewarding with resources and bonuses for pursuing certain actions. So if you're playing as Spain for example, you tend to be heavily encouraged to go wild on colonizing the Americas, both by virtue of the technology and capacity available to you, but also indirectly by the game offering missions and quests.
I played a ton of EU3 as a coping mechanism when procrastinating for the bar exam years ago. So here I was roleplaying as a Habsburg inbred and worried about the burgeoning neighboring powers of France and England. In a bid to secure more land, more resources, more manpower, more whatever to fend off the competition, I went on a grand spree all over Latin America. I had a relatively small army led by a conquistador and followed by some missionaries, and I just had a hell of a time painting the entire continent yellow. Whatever indigenous military resistance I faced was easily obliterated by the chasm of technological advantage I had over them. The game would also simulate things like population decimation brought on by smallpox, and subsequently how that would snowball into mass conversions to Christianity by the indigenous. It's completely reasonable to conclude you're following the wrong gods when everyone you know is mysteriously dropping like flies and nothing at all is happening to the foreigners with shiny impenetrable clothing riding giant beasts.
I remember pausing the game around this point and feeling a bit sick.
EU is played almost exclusively from the map view, and is necessarily highly abstracted. Entire militaries composed of tens of thousands of soldiers are represented by a single dude strolling like a giant and cities are basically shown as one or two buildings on the map. Most of the focus is necessarily boiled down to numbers, as it would be impossible to play the game any other way.
While trapezing around and curb-stomping enemy armies with ease and acquiring new lands: I just saw the numbers go up and I felt the tiny volt of gratification that accompanies sweat-addled late night sessions of Cookie Clicker. It's almost embarrassing to admit that I learned some history from a vidya game, but even reading about the events depicted has no comparison to actively simulating the circumstances where you end up choosing to do the very thing itself.
I think the revelation that I found most unsettling was allowing me to understand, in a way I had no idea was possible, how relatively benign motivations can nevertheless lead to cataclysmic and almost inconceivable atrocities.
I was reading Bret Deveraux's blog and his entries on the EU series and thought about what the best way for a computer game priding itself on its historical authenticity to address slavery as a game mechanic. Deveraux is a historian and has a great deal of praise and respect for the EU series in general, but has strong criticism with how it depicts slavery in a rather facile and irrelevant manner.
As background, the transatlantic slave trade operated largely in a triangular fashion. Ships would bring manufactured goods from Europe to West Africa and exchange them for slaves, which in turn were exchanged for cash crops in the Americas, which in turn were sent back to Europe to start over. Important to highlight is the strategic dilemma West African rulers found themselves in once Europeans introduced flintlock firearms to the area (lightly edited):
Suddenly access to firearms was a key factor in state security and survival and the only way to get those firearms was to trade for them and the only ‘good’ that was desired in trade was people. Even a good-hearted West African ruler was strategically trapped; refuse to trade enslaved people for guns and you would be defeated and traded by those who did.
You can see the clear impact of that strategic dilemma as the slave trade explodes, from perhaps 3,000 enslaved persons traded out of the region per year in 1670 to 20,000 in 1688. As flintlocks flooded into the region, their price relative to enslaved persons plummeted, from two guns per-enslaved-person in 1682 to 24-32 guns per-enslaved-person in 1718. And that price movement, which is increasingly less favorable to European slave-traders as time goes on, speaks to the degree to which West African states were active participants in what was happening. The multiplicity of African states and of European traders made it impossible for any one state to get a monopoly on the trade, which in turn made it impossible for most states to safely disengage from the trade without rendering themselves tempting targets for the neighbors.
Similar to how I felt about rampaging through the smoldering embers of the Aztec empire with my little conquistador dudes, you could definitely simulate an interesting gaming mechanic with these starting premises, but how many want to? A so-called "realistic" depiction of slavery would necessarily require simulating the underlying circumstances where such an enterprise not only has benefits but is also rational. If this was authentically implemented within EU, it would be virtually impossible for any state in West Africa to survive against its neighboring rivals unless it threw itself fully into the slave capturing rodeo. But the moral condemnation of slavery within such an implementation would be severely attenuated. It's much harder to critique something as an unthinkable atrocity when the only other alternative is annihilation.
So gaming developers face a dilemma. They could either implement slavery or not. Most historical games just don't bother, and they conspicuously pretend it doesn't exist. But even when it is implemented, it's either painfully simplified to the point of irrelevancy, or structured in such a way to allow room for the contemporary audience to condemn it with ease.
An example of near-irrelevancy is in EU4. Every province in the world produces a trade good (cloth, wine, coal, gold, grain, etc.) and 'slaves' is just another type of 'good', indistinguishable from the others except for some hard-coded events. The 'slave' good could be substituted for ivory (which is what Total War: Empire tries to do with a straight face) and the mechanics would be basically unchanged.
In Civ4, you can 'whip' your population through the slavery mechanic to sacrifice population and some happiness in exchange for faster building construction. In some ways this is a "better" implementation because it sort of tries to simulate conditions where it makes sense, but the conditions are such that 'whipping' becomes obsolete fairly early on. (By contrast, Civ6 pretends slavery doesn't exist)
An examination of the verisimilitude of the Civ4 slavery mechanic is worthwhile here. It's a bit weird that it's structured in such a way that you're sacrificing your own population to speed up production because that's not how slavery worked historically. As it stands, it's basically a roundabout way of converting food into production, which doesn't really scream 'slavery' to me.
It would've made more sense if the slavery civic gave your military units a chance to spawn a 'slave' unit after every battle or city conquest involving other civilizations. The slave unit could then be cashed in to rush buildings in your own cities, and maybe at the cost of some increased unhappiness to simulate policing costs. This would have some ludonarrative resonance, because it would implicitly encourage players early on to raid neighbors for slaves, which is exactly what slavery looked like throughout most of human history. I'd also want the unhappiness penalty scale with new developments, to simulate its shifting reception. For example having a severe penalty for using slaves of the same religion (which is real, and explains the historical patterns throughout the medieval period), and then also scaling it with the number of specialists you have to approximate the increasing unpopularity of the enterprise as countries urbanized more.
Another Paradox game, Victoria II, has a more detailed and realistic depiction of slavery:
Victoria, set in the 19th Century, a game where the human condition plays a much more prominent role, tackles the issue of slavery in a way that few if any grand strategy games have before. The social pressures of class, oppression, and representation are a key component to building a prospering and competitive society. Slaves, in a way, actually hold you back in the game; they cannot purchase luxury goods, have no right to vote, and have very small life needs. This translates out into a high level of militancy and therefore greater chances of rebellion. These rebellions can derail your plans for your country and actually threaten your choice of governments forcing you into ever more repressive regimes.
But not every historical game constrains itself to just the 19th century, and it's a bit convenient to choose this particular time period to implement the slavery mechanism with more nuance, just as countries and empires the world over were abolishing the institution. The reality is that for the majority of human history, the core argument against slavery was almost entirely an appeal to morality, and that appeal only became sufficiently prevalent when the countervailing economic and political justifications were eroded by shifting societal circumstances. Which means that a historically authentic implementation would have to be structured in such a way to explain why it was universally adopted, and that's bound to put a damper on what otherwise be a swashbuckling good time.
I know about professors polling their students and asking how many would have been a slavery abolition advocate or the like had they been alive back whenever, and of course nearly everyone jumps to raise their hand. This obviously does not comport with the historical reality. The fantasy of your moral philosophy being now and forevermore correct is undeniably irresistible. No one wants to grapple with the very high likelihood that not only you would have been holding the whip but also ridiculing anyone who argued otherwise as a daft imbecile.