Simulated Suffering

Most video games quickly bore me for one of two reasons. They either force me down a particular path or prove too unrealistic to enjoy. Regarding the former shortfall, too many developers pressure players to adopt certain play styles or follow a prescribed path to win. To defeat certain villains, you must use certain techniques. To unlock a certain ending, you must save certain characters in a certain order. Before long, instead of providing an escape from life’s boring procedures, most games devolve into a formulaic series of repetitive quests that numb your mind as you replace real routines with virtual ones.

Of the few games that grant their players sufficient freedom, the majority are too fantastical and over-the-top for my taste. Shooting space wizards is strange and impossible. Fighting to preserve the sanctity of long-lost kingdoms is about as consequential as it is realistic. Perhaps I’m too much of a sour cynic. Regardless, if I can’t see your game occurring within our real world, chances are, I won’t enjoy it.

A few weeks ago, as I sat with some friends drinking a decent milkshake at an otherwise forgettable restaurant, I came across a favorable YouTube review of a new strategy game titled “Hearts of Iron IV.” The game, set in either 1936 or 1939, invites players to lead any state or colony of their choosing as World War II creeps closer. Do you desire to secure independence for the Dutch East Indies? Go ahead. Want to forge a Mexican empire in Central America as the United States preoccupies itself with Imperial Japan? Be my guest.

Nevertheless, what attracted me the most to Hearts of Iron IV was its difficulty. Your country isn’t afforded any of the advantages or perks granted to most game protagonists. Want to start 1936 as Thailand? You’ll boast far less factories and a much smaller army than Japan or Britain, two hungry empires who will soon come knocking at your door.
However, history isn’t destiny in Hearts of Iron IV. Armed with hindsight, you can upset the traditional balance of power. Hope to combat the rise of fascism? Send volunteers to Republican Spain to crush Franco’s forces. Do the Soviet armies massing on the Finnish border make you nervous? Create a Scandinavian defense pact to counter the Soviet Union’s numerical might. The possibility to triumph where great statesmen failed—that’s how Hearts of Iron IV conquered my heart.

Upon downloading Hearts of Iron IV, I spent hours analyzing the perks and drawbacks of each nation, thoroughly impressed by the game’s attention to detail. Before playing Hearts of Iron IV, I didn’t know that Rafael Franco was the president of Paraguay in 1936, or that the Tuvan People’s Republic was even a thing. (For the curious among you, it was a former Soviet satellite state that is now part of Russia.) However, after much mental deliberation, I decided to play as one of the game’s seven major powers: Germany.


Rather than foolishly attempt to conquer Europe single-handedly, I started my campaign at 4:00 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon by forging alliances with various Eastern European dictators. I then developed my relationship with the Soviet Union, distancing myself from Mussolini’s overly-aggressive Italy. By 9:15 p.m., I had succeeded in diplomatically isolating France from the rest of Europe; by 10:30 p.m., Paris was mine. Following my victory, I converted my non-aggression pact with the USSR into a permanent alliance, opting to disband the Axis Powers in exchange for a stronger German-Soviet alliance. Nevertheless, I shored up my eastern defenses; the artificial intelligence program that runs Stalin isn’t known for its honesty.

At 12:23 a.m., I finally decided to sleep. However, before doing so, I pressed the “war” notification flashing on the upper right portion of my screen; to my surprise, a list of casualties appeared. My forces had lost over 500,000 soldiers during their campaigns across Western Europe; meanwhile the casualties of my adversaries numbered just over one million. Interestingly, the game ignored civilian casualties, opting to instead paint World War II as a clean battle between militaries rather than a disgusting struggle between various vicious ideologies.

Initially, I felt satisfied; I had succeeded where legendary generals like Erich von Manstein and Erwin Rommel had failed. But glancing at the casualty list left me feeling empty. As I looked at the map of “Greater Germany,” I thought of what that would have meant in real life. Antwerp and Brussels destroyed. Paris looted. Millions of refugees. Millions more left dead. After pondering things through for a minute or two, I uninstalled the game.

On its surface, Hearts of Iron IV is a great game. For the twenty or so hours I spent playing over break, I was in a state of geeky bliss. But that’s the problem. It gamifies conquest; it abstracts the suffering of war and separates military conflicts from their dark political foundations. Following my short stint with Hearts of Iron IV, I decided to abandon “realistic” video games. In their attempts to better reflect reality, these games sanitize its horrors and trivialize the suffering of our ancestors.

If you’ve ever played as an expansionist power in Hearts of Iron IV or in a similar game, I’m not calling you a cruel warlord. After all, strategy games and their lengthy lists of casualties are limited to the virtual realm. However, next time you play a game like Hearts of Iron, I want you to ask yourself whether you’d like to live as a commoner in the virtual worlds you forge.

At the end of the day, perhaps it’s best to stick to shooting space wizards after all.

Nathan L. Williams ’18 is a Government concentrator living in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.


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