What the Flag Controversy Tells Us About Historical Strategy Games

By James Tanaleon 26 Jun 2015 0

Editorial by James Tanaleon 

 

In a recent bid to outdo themselves in the political correctness department, Apple has decided it would discontinue offering games featuring the Confederate flag. This might not come as a surprise to most people in the wake of the horrendous shooting in Charleston and the debate over the flying of the Confederate flag in the Southern United States. Obviously, this has affected games such as Civil War: Gettsyburg which offer historical scenarios that feature the Confederate flag and was, up until Apple's decision, available on the Apple App store. 

Ed: in case anyone is unaware of the issue the basic details can be found in this article at Kotaku 

Interestingly enough, flag “censorship” in games is not a new development. Publishers such as Paradox Interactive, for example, have long avoided the use of Nazi symbolism including the Swastika even in one of their flagship franchises Hearts of Iron - a game about World War II. Immediately there is a kind of cognitive tension with anyone who is familiar with historical strategy games. On one end, it is understandable why certain images and symbols are thought of as anathema: they represent devastating times and actions in the history of man. Simultaneously, however, there is something urgently necessary about historical veracity. Fans of historical strategy games make it a point to engage in games which are as immersive as possible and this immersion often relies on an infrastructure of period accurate details. 

It may seem paradoxical (no pun intended) that such publishing studios would “compromise historical integrity” in order to - rightfully or not - appeal to the sensitivities of the public at large, but I believe that this is only due to a matter of perspective. Namely, often gamers forget that publishers and game developers are first and foremost businesses. Businesses run on profits and the function to getting to that “profitable” margin is often a balance of various variables in order to maximize the yield. Public image is certainly a major variable. Although there may be something utterly dishonest about attempting to sell a product that is a “historical” strategy game but blatantly uses the wrong flag, profit projections take precedent over integrity. 

The unfortunate case of Apple's decision is a shrewd one. Considering how “hip” their branding is, the niche markets of Civil War enthusiasts probably doesn't factor into their target audience and, as such, honest developers get thrown under the bus. I don't think, however, that this is a trend that demonstrates that we are aiming towards a more sanitized gaming atmosphere. After all, we live in a world of Mortal Kombat X's grotesque and diabolic fatalities, Witcher III's pornography and the countless Grand Theft Autos. It is not even a Sword of Damocles over strategy games in general. After all, you can still crucify people right and left in the original Rome: Total War and one can still expel the Jews in Crusader Kings II. The fact is that every nation in the world has engaged in dubious activities and the elimination of their flags from “historical” scenarios is a harrowing example of the victors rewriting history. 

It is here, I suppose, that “historical” strategy games expose one of their chief weaknesses: they aren't as historical as we might think. Of course, this is a spectrum. Some games take a long and painstaking process to perfect their historical accuracy employing a field of experts to try and make the game as accurate as possible, but these are relatively few. In the end, each game is still influenced by the currents of modernity residing in the studios that make them. To say that one can gain a historical lesson from a strategy game is peripheral at best and problematic at worst. Sure, one can play Europa Universalis IV and pretend to understand the intricacies of 17th century politics, but at the end of the day, one only understands the Thirty Years' War through the lens of modern, secular publishers who, along with most of Europe, see religious wars as inherently unjustified. 

So if “historical” strategy games are problematic lessons in history, what's the big fuss over the accuracy of flags? The answer is that “historical” strategy games are not history museums, but history theme parks. They are not meant to be a serious and intense look at the drama of human history, but as a means of entertainment. It is like when one visits Las Vegas and looks at the replica Eiffel Tower at the Paris, Las Vegas Hotel or the gondolas inside the Venetian Hotel and one understands that they are fake but marvels at their glory because of how much they imitate the real thing. So, too, is this true for “historical” strategy games. One wants closeness to the original scenario in order to carry on the masquerade of history. 

But then why are some games sanitized such as Hearts of Iron and others such as Call of Duty have as many Swastika carrying SS officers as one likes? Why are games like Civil War: 1864 “marginalized” while games like Medieval Total War II have Mongols that pillage villages along the way to the Atlantic? I think the answer is in the difference between these types of games. If we take Hearts of Iron, for example, one is able to play as Nazi Germany. In many Civil War games, one is able to play as the Confederacy. Whereas in games that feature plenty of violent or atrocious factions, they are usually portrayed as non-playable “enemies.” There is no moral ambiguity about their “evil” in the game and certainly no chance for the player to immerse themselves in the role of the “enemy.” It is this key difference, I believe, that separates these gaming experiences and why various evils are permitted to be shown and indulged in some games while hastily subdued in others. 

As such, “historical” strategy gamers are often in a kind of schizophrenic dissonance with Modernity. Many who love history and have romantic notions of playing historical factions are at odds with the modernist interpretation of “backwards” historical civilizations and this is demonstrated time and again with the half-hearted attempts to whitewash various historical games—or exclude them outright.

 

Editor’s bit …

 

To follow up on James’ thoughtful piece we contacted Andrew Mulholland of HexWar Games, one of those affected by Apple’s actions, to get his thoughts. We asked if HexWar had received any notice from Apple of whether, as is often the case, the game was pulled without notification. Andrew replied: 

“Yeah they removed them without any warning, because they used the Confederate flag. It seems disappointing that they would remove it as they weren't being used in an offensive way, being that they were historical war games and hence it was the flag used at the time.” 

“We've asked Apple to reconsider but are also working on an update in case they decide not to reinstate the games.”

 

Here is the statement about the removals issued by Apple, according to CNN/Money.com

"We have removed apps from the App Store that use the Confederate flag in offensive or mean-spirited ways, which is in violation of our guidelines. We are not removing apps that display the Confederate flag for educational or historical uses." 

And 

"At this time, your app has been removed from the App Store. We encourage you to review your app concept and incorporate different content and features that are in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines."

 

All this rather begs the question in what way the use of the flag in question in the games affected is in anyway “offensive” or “mean-spirited”? They are used, basically, to indicate which army a unit belongs to – in fact that seems to be a historical use which Apple’s guidelines allow for. 

All in all, whilst there are certainly real issues around the use of symbols such a flags for dubious purposes, the removal of these games from the iTunes store does seem to be something of a knee-jerk reaction rather than a thought through one. We can hope that Apple see that and change their minds.

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