The Age of Empires Theory of History
In the imagined battlefields of the gamified past, there is only war.
Edited by Althea May Atherton
When I was in middle school, my favorite autonomous war machine was the Briton Longbowmen. I’d train them in groups of 20, right-click the attack order, and then watch as they outranged similarly autonomous defense structures and defeated wholly automated enemies.
Like a substantial portion of my peer group, I sunk hours and hours and hours into Age of Empires II, an hour a day after school on the family PC. It is a game I am thinking about a lot lately, as I dive into 2021’s fairly similar Age of Empires IV, and try to place how my years of devotion to this game, narrowly, and this genre, broadly, have shaped my understanding of war.
Real Time Strategy games, the genre to which Age of Empire belongs, were massively popular for PC games in the 1990s and early 2000s, and as best I can tell are experiencing something of a resurgence. There’s much to be said about how games and media influence understanding of the events they set out to depict, which I can only briefly touch upon here.
I can trace my path into my history degree through video games and comic books, so the notion of treating a game as college material caught my eye. On November 19, the University of Arizona history department announced that players could get an academic credit for playing the game.
“A unique partnership among the University of Arizona, Microsoft's World's Edge studio and Relic Entertainment will allow current and future UArizona students to "make history their story" while they earn credit toward their college degrees,” reads the release, identical versions shared by the University of Arizona and Age of Empires. “Starting in early 2022, Age of Empires IV players will be able to interact with special educational content on the Age of Empires website.”
As best I can parse from the announcement, the arrangement is this: through the Age of Empires home screen, players can sign up for some bonus features, including videos and a guided lesson plan. These materials, produced with the University of Arizona history department, will build on existing stories told in the game. At the end there’s a test, and if a person passes the test, and goes through the steps to apply to the University of Arizona, they can get a single credit hour for their trouble.
I think this is likely a successful marketing stunt. One credit hour, in the scheme of things, is the smallest possible unit of education a college can count towards a degree. If Arizona creates a pipeline from “people who play history-themed video games” to “history students,” they’ll have helped bolster a degree program that is seeing drastic cuts across the nation. I can’t, really, fault either the school or the game makers for pursuing it.
I’m just frustrated that, as someone whose path to a history major came through video games, the entry-level material is so limited.
War Makes The Game State
Age of Empires is a real-time strategy game in a history-themed wrapper. The history of the genre, ably documented by Richard Moss for Ars Technica in 2017, goes back to the early 1980s, but really gets its grounding in 1992’s Dune II. While many of the key attributes of the genre had been explored in earlier games, Dune was the first to collect them all in a clear, coherent package. In Dune II, players gathered spice, built out a base, and trained units to find and then attack enemy forces. It is this tension, between managing the development of a home economic base and commanding an army in the field, that is the central tension of the genre.
Later games, like 1998’s Starcraft, would expand the number of resources to require a balance of production between minerals and gas, while making sure players also adequately accounted for population. These resource costs further constrain the kind of forces a player could build. Upgrades, in the form of new buildings that can train better units, or better weapons shared across already-fielded units, offered another set of choices for how to spend resources.
What all this means, in effect, is that players have to split their time between clicking a bunch of worker units and buildings, and moving soldier units in combat, hoping to gain advantage in each sphere. As Ross notes, by 2017 the genre had “backed itself into a corner by chasing ever-more things to click on, ever-more keyboard macros to learn, ever-more actions per minute (apparently 150 apm, effectively 2.5 actions per second, is what it takes to be proficient in StarCraft II)—by overdoing the action part of action-strategy.”
Even if most players don’t go on to be competitive online, the games are built to facilitate that kind of play. As such, what players are learning and using as they walk through the battles, even the scripted historical campaigns, is about how to click-command an economy and research engine. These actions, while occasionally linked to a specific game goal like “accumulate 500 gold to pay in tribute to the Mongols,” are in service of building out and equipping a player-commanded war machine, full of archers, spearmen, and cavalry.
Everything historical about Age of Empires IV is built in service of training an army and hurling it at opposing forces. The Blacksmith, a building that allows for several kinds of research, offers a walkthrough from Bloomery (an early iron smelting technique) to Damascus Steel (a later technique based on a specific kind of ingot). Each upgrade confirms +1 damage to melee unit attacks. The names, which I had to specifically look up to make sure I had them right, can offer an entry point to something looking to study the era better, but mostly exist as a button to click when the numbers say there’s enough spare resources to afford it.
In a sense, every part of the game, from what tree a villager should chop down to when, exactly, it makes the most prudent sense to research Bloomery, is a series of choices about how the player-as-state should direct resources. The choices matter but are largely uninteresting, as a robust economy makes sequencing of military upgrades largely irrelevant, while a flailing economy demands attention first.
I can never tell in a game if the incremental unit armor upgrade I researched mattered. I instead just have a persistent sense of unease and coming defeat if I didn’t take the time to research everything before battle.
These are the most history-specific choices that pass for strategy in game, the kinds of choices that occupy dozens of the actions-per-minute of skilled RTS play. The other choices are what all this research builds to, an inevitable war of maneuver and mass attacks.
And The Game State Makes War
Victory in Age of Empires IV is, broadly, the product of some measure of military force. On skirmish maps, players by default can win through destroying all of their enemy’s landmarks, notable buildings like town centers and palaces or historic temples. Players can also win by holding all the map’s “sacred sites,” physical locations capturable by religious leaders, for a set amount of time, or by building an expensive wonder and defending it for a set amount of time. Holding every sacred site or building a wonder forces war, even if the acts are not as overtly destructive as conquest. An opponent can either attempt to stop the countdown to victory through violence, or they can lose.
Religion, like everything else in Age of Empires IV, is a function of the state built for military ends. What is sacred about the sacred sites is never defined. That allows the same shrines to hold significance across religions as distinct as Russian Orthodoxy, Germanic Catholicism, and Abbasid Islam. Relics, scattered across the maps to be collected by religious units, may stand in for something like a saint’s bone, but that’s an after-the-fact meaning grafted on to the text of the game, and doesn’t account for how the same object can inspire the same trickle of pilgrimage wealth across factions.
Where Age of Empires IV shows a marked innovation over its predecessors in the series is that it has made scouts, dedicated light cavalry units with a massive line of sight, central to the exploration and maneuvering of armies. For a prospective college student exposed to the concept of medieval military for the first time, the scouts at least offer a direct showcase of what intelligence gathering existed for an army on the move in sparsely populated lands. (That some scouts can use falcons the way modern militaries use small drones for scouting is, well, another moment of gameplay considerations driving the history).
These armies, and indeed the whole economic apparatus of houses, farms, universities and barracks built by players, all exist on maps devoid of existing human settlement. When players command forces or recruit workers in Age of Empires IV, they do so through a world that has seen evidence of human life but lacks populations outside of that which the players order into being. Trade Posts, which can receive caravans from player’s markets, are the closest sign of ambient human life.
History, as experienced in Age of Empires IV, is about states extracting resources to recruit armies and direct the development of technology, all in the service of annihilating or subduing other states. It is a theory of history that reflects both gameplay mechanics and modern, tech-driven approaches to war, but it is a history that ignores the historical processes of state formation.
I am, perhaps, asking too much of a one-credit course and a mass-market game. In the release about the University of Arizona course, the emphasis is on the narrative retellings of events, as experienced through campaigns and already-produced video segments that shipped with Age of Empires IV.
If we accept the campaign missions as more interactive-narrative than as simulation, it’s easy to see some learning about the specifics of, say, Moscow’s relationship with the Mongols as crucial to its early state identity. The English and French campaigns walk players through, respectively, the Norman Conquest and the 100 Years War, which are eras that lend themselves to sequences of set piece battles.
But to the extent that the medium matters for how the story is told, it’s easy to leave a history-themed battle game with the impression that early states were highly specific command economies, with service in the military and the state-directed labor force commissioned directly from a monarch. More even than the structure of the state, players will navigate worlds that are full of fields, mines, woods, and herds that are ripe for exploitation. Driven by the defensive logic of static fortifications, players will build small dense defensible bases, and then manage the plunder of the natural world around them.
It misses, in this telling, the way states built themselves out of existing labor relationships, the way literal economies of force were created to serve the dynastic ambitions and fears of monarchs, and the tensions of extracting surplus from a population while ensuring they survived to work another harvest cycle.
Fundamentally, Age of Empires IV, and any RTS in the traditional mold, are incapable of modeling state formation through the conquest of peoples and their productive capacity.
When a squadron of knights runs down a group of farmers outside the city walls in Age of Empires IV, they are attacking units created and directly commanded by another player, whose role as civilians is largely subordinated to the needs of a military state. The medieval, and especially late medieval, era was a crucible of finance, violence, conquest, and dynastic struggle that shaped the modern world in profound ways. In Age of Empires IV (and II, if I’m being honest), it exists as a fun paint scheme on top of some toy soldiers, one where combat and economics are far more reflective of modern gameplay circuits than the era as it was actually experienced by people.
The Age of Empires Theory of Ahistory
Writing this, and in my weeks of over-thinking about Age of Empires, I kept coming back to two notions. Paul Musgrave, in a conversation on the difficulty of teaching reading comprehension, quipped “Also in the real world people think Breaking Bad is about its hero, Walter White.”
Breaking Bad is iconic as an anti-hero narrative, and in its rich portrayal of a flawed man making violent and bad choices for himself and everyone around him. Living in Albuquerque, where a not-insignificant part of local tourism is still devoted to Breaking Bad locales, shops teem with merch about White as protagonist, about the coolness of the character. It’s comforting to think that people are capable of distinguishing from media about a subject to an endorsement of its subject, but as academic work by people like Musgrave has shown, people experience popular culture as closer to real life than not.
In Musgrave’s field of International Relations, that means accepting that students (and senators, and presidents) are at least as likely to understand the Tom Clancy telling of events as they are to come to it with historical context.
If I’m harsh about Age of Empires not pairing its historical aesthetic with a theory of history for its gameplay, it’s in part because we have tangible examples of other games tackling the same challenge in a different way.
In his long series of posts about Paradox Interactive’s game Europa Universalis IV, historian and professor Bret C. Devereaux talks about the gameplay supporting a theory of history.
Devereaux walks readers through how game design choices, like the actions available to a player, the scale of the map, and the presentation of information about the world, are all reflecting a conscious statement about history, and about the forces that drive it. By making players maneuver as states threatened by other states at all times, the game repeatedly bends international politics from a massive collection of tiny principalities at the game's start in 1444 to a handful of varying consolidated powers by the game's end in 1821.
“[Europa Universalis IV] embraces – intentionally or not (but I suspect intentionally, given the design) – a realist vision of geopolitics and constructs the simulation around that vision, ensuring that AI nations will behave within the constraints of those concerns,” writes Devereaux. “In the process, Paradox has created one of the best interstate anarchy simulators I have ever seen.” (emphasis in original).
Age of Empires, if I stretch it, is the story of how history is shaped by technological development, in service of military enterprise, in a world where contact with rival groups is only ever resolved in violence. But even then, that’s not an Age of Empires specific telling of events; it’s an answer that applies equally well to Warcraft or Dune II.
It’s history, as decided by the handful of toy soldiers a player can command. Because the game starts from a footing driven towards conflict, it’s difficult to use the toolbox available to talk about events that aren’t campaigns of conquest or expulsion.
I’ll be curious to see if the University of Arizona finds a deeper theory of history in the game. As someone who has played the series off-and-on for two-thirds of my life, I’m not optimistic that there is more there.
Thank you all for reading this. I’m hoping to have my long over-promised NDAA story out before the end of the year, and beyond that, Alymay and I plan to be back on our two-a-month schedule as promised. It’s both a labor of love and a labor I know many of you are paying for, and I hope to remain a welcome presence in your inbox for months and years to come.
Over at Discontents, my colleagues have written incredible work about massive failures of policy. December opened with “Bordered Up” by BORDER/LINES, which is a bracing but important read on how a failure to actively fight for immigrants means the Biden administration is functionally continuing and ensuring a host of awful Trump policies. Last week, Spencer Ackerman of Forever Wars wrote about what it means when drone operators deliberately turn the camera away from a strike, to hide if the victims were likely civilians. It’s a horrific act, plausibly a war crime, and one that will continue unless actively stopped.
I’m grateful every week for the deeply human coverage from everyone at Discontents, who write the first draft of history with a keen sense of the humans caught up in it.