Like Worms in the Belly of Some Great Beast: Family Values and Crusader Kings II
0. Video Games as Purveyors of Moral Outrage
There are two main ways in which a work can provoke a moral reaction:
The first is by using the power of narrative to encourage feelings of sympathy for a particular moral view. This didactic form of narrative usually signals its presence through a system of winks and nods designed to make a particular worldview seem far more comfortable and welcoming. For example. Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is filled with nostalgic yearning for nobility in an age of encroaching egalitarianism. Waugh’s approval of the past and rejection of the present is evident in the fact that everyone in the past seems to eat, drink, dress and speak far better than anyone in the present.
The second is to embody a set of values so profoundly ugly that audiences feel compelled to react not only against the morality of the work itself but also against real world manifestations of that same more system. For example, Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel features a group of upper class people who attend a dinner party but find it impossible to leave. As the days go by and people begin to starve and die out of what is effectively politeness and fear of being the first person to leave a party, the audience cannot help but react against not only the absurd characters but also the bourgeois morality they so closely cling to.
Video games tend not to be particularly good at presenting arguments or advancing moral perspectives but they are very good indeed at prompting a moral reaction. Indeed, because virtual worlds must be created entirely from scratch, the beliefs and assumptions of the people who develop those worlds are frequently all too obvious. This phenomenon is being extensively catalogued in a thoroughly excellent on-going series of videos by Anita Sakeesian:
Though often entirely unintentional, the moral reactions provoked by these sorts of games are often incredibly enlightening. Indeed, many of America’s racist and warmongering attitudes towards China, Russia and the Middle East seemed half rational until a series of First-Person Shooters attempted to mine that particular set of popular fears and produced what was effectively a series of interactive neoconservative rants. Similarly, few head-on critiques of the culture surrounding rap music are as effective as the Saints Row series’ decision to slowly transform its gangland protagonists from a group of scrappy up-and-coming underworld entrepreneurs to the soda-shilling heads of a vast merchandising empire.
A couple of years ago, I experienced a similar moral reaction after deciding to play Civilization V and Europa Universalis III back-to-back. What I realised was that the reason liberal people behave like psychopaths when playing 4X strategy games is that those games emulate what it is like to see the world through the eyes of the state. Another moral reaction occurred while playing Paradox Interactive’s latest strategy game Crusader Kings II.
Much like Europa Universalis III, Crusader Kings II can be interpreted as a critique of a social institution in that it exposes not only the moral failings of that institution but also of the players who take control of the institution in the context of the game. However, while the Europa Universalis series demonstrates our willingness to surrender our principles for the sake of bureaucratic expediency, Crusader Kings II targets an institution that is much closer to home: The family.
In this essay I shall discuss not only what Crusader Kings II teaches us about what it means to be part of a family, I shall also consider why even the most wretched of families mean so much to us. In order to explore what the game tells us about family life, I must first discuss what it means to see the world through the eyes of an institution.
1. Human Components
When I first began writing this piece, the former head of the Catholic Church in Scotland admitted to a history of sexual misconduct involving junior priests. Had the Observer newspaper not broken the story, chances are that this man (named bigot of the year by the gay rights charity Stonewall) would have gone to Rome to assist in the election of a new Pope. In fact, there was even an outside chance that this man could have actually become pope. How did this happen? How did such a man rise to a position of authority and why did the hierarchy of the Church seem so reluctant to move against him even though they knew of his crimes?
Our newspapers are filled with such questions: Why did senior Catholics not report child abusers to the police? Why did both the BBC and the British police turn a deaf-ear to the rumours of Jimmy Saville’s ravening paedophilia? Why did the Liberal Democratic party fail to act on the rumours that its former Chief Executive had sexually harassed many of the women working under him? Why did the news that a prominent science fiction fan had sexually harassed a female author result in the convention ignoring its pledge to deal with all such transgressions with a lifetime ban? Why did the Socialist Worker’s Party react to accusations of rape by attempting to sweep the entire matter under the carpet?
The list of crimes and cover-ups goes on and on… it is almost as though there is something about the human character ensuring that – given enough time and money – all social institutions invariably wind up as collections of grumpy old men sexually molesting people in enormous gold palaces. How do we account for such failures of human decency given that the aim, nature and politics of institutions appear to have little bearing upon whether or not they wind up attempting to conceal acts of grotesque sexual misconduct?
One particularly evocative account of the moral failings of people in institutions can be found at Omniorthogonal, the personal blog of Mike Travers. Travers argues that, rather than worrying about whether or not future artificial intelligences will be friendly, Singularity theorists might be better off thinking about the artificial systems that are fucking over humanity right here and right now:
The financial system as a whole functions as a hostile AI. It has its own form of intelligence, it has interests that are distant or hostile to human goals. It is quite artificial, and quite intelligent in an alien sort of way. While it is not autonomous in the way we envision killer robots or Skynet, it is effectively autonomous of human control, which makes it just as dangerous.
A similar idea is elegantly unpacked in a post by the science fiction author Charles Stross, who points out that the problem with British politics is that the institutions created to govern the United Kingdom have come to systematically prioritise their need to self-perpetuate over their need to effectively govern the country (while Stross’s post applies only to Britain, the similarities between British political culture and American political culture are pretty damn obvious):
The nature of the problem seems to be that our representative democratic institutions have been captured by meta-institutions that implement the iron law of oligarchy by systematically reducing the risk of change. They have done so by converging on a common set of policies that do not serve the public interest, but minimize the risk of the parties losing the corporate funding they require in order to achieve re-election. And in so doing, they have broken the “peaceful succession when enough people get pissed off” mechanism that prevents revolutions.
The ‘iron law of oligarchy’ that Stross refers to was the brainchild of early-20th Century German sociologist Robert Michels who argued very persuasively that it is in the nature of social organisations to ossify into oligarchies:
It is organization which gives birth to the dominion of the elected over the electors, of the mandataries over the mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says oligarchy.
The reasons for the inevitable ossification and corruption of human institutions lie in the nature of hierarchies: the larger an institution becomes, the more it requires a bureaucracy to make efficient use of its resources. In order to make efficient use of an institution’s resources, a bureaucracy selects and promotes the human components whose skills most closely match the needs of the institution. This means that the human components of an institution have a vested interest in placing the interests and values of the institution ahead of their own personal convictions. This also explains why so many humans are happy to put their principles and long-term interests aside and act in the interest of communities, churches and corporations.
A prima facie, this selection process is not in the least bit problematic. Yes, members of the Nazi party acted in accordance with Nazi values but you would expect socialist, Christian and liberal institutions to encourage their own flavour of principled behaviour. The problem only emerges once you realise that most institutions have no agency beyond the bureaucracies that operate them. When faced with a choice between self-perpetuation and remaining true to the stated principles of the institution that created them, bureaucracies will always choose to self-perpetuate, this way their human constituents can continue to enjoy the wages and status that attracted them to the bureaucracy in the first place. When faced with the choice between protecting the values of an institution and protecting the interests of the bureaucracy that operates said institution, humans invariably side with the bureaucracy. When faced with a choice between acting in accordance with our conscience and acting to conceal the immoral actions of our bureaucracies, we tend to ignore our consciences. Like worms in the belly of some great beast, we do the jobs allocated to us and conveniently overlook the fact that the beast is routinely gorging itself on the flesh of the innocent. When reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann’s for The New Yorker, the philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” in light of the fact that, despite being intimately involved in the deaths of millions of innocent people, Eichmann showed neither antisemitic zeal nor obvious psychological disturbance. Far from being an evil overlord, Eichmann was a human component perfectly suited to the needs of his bureaucracy:
He did his duty…; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.
This could just as easily be said of the bishops who moved paedophile priests from parish to parish, the Enron employees who saw the danger signs but kept their mouths shut, or the convention organisers who thought that alienating a powerful and well-connected science fiction fan might not be in the convention’s long term interest. They were all wrong, they were all misguided and they were all doing their jobs… they did what their bureaucracies required of them; they set their humanity aside and surrendered their individual consciences to the interests of the interests of the institution.
2. To See Like an Institution is to be Colonised by an Institution
The idea that social institutions might have their own form of agency is not exactly a new one. In The Invisibles, the comic writer Grant Morrison speaks of cities as viruses that infected human culture and then set about changing it in order to ensure that the virus replicated itself as efficiently as possible:
The Cities want us to become good builders. Eventually, we’ll build rockets and carry the virus to other worlds.
In Marvel Boy, Morrison presents us with the idea of a living corporation:
Hexus is invisible. Untouchable: A living idea (…) It grows by hiring new employees and by devouring its rituals. Earth people have created dozens of synthetic corporate entities with names like Virgin or Fox but they’re not alive, not truly intelligent.
Here Morrison is being hopelessly naïve. As Mike Travers suggests, these types of entity already exist… they have always existed because it is in the nature of humans to form groups and when groups outlive the humans that originally created them, they acquire a life of their own. In fact, one of the main factors driving the growth of government bureaucracy in the 18th and 19th Century was the need for a smooth transfer of power between different regimes. When the British people chose not to give any single party a ruling majority in the 2010 election, the British country did not fall apart for lack of government… the bureaucracy simply kept doing what it had been doing and life went on as usual.
Academic discussions of this perspective tend to fall under the somewhat slippery rubric of biopolitics. One of the originators of the term ‘biopolitics’ was the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellen. Kjellen saw the modern nation-state as a new form of organic entity, a super-individual entity which, though just as real as the human individuals comprising it, was immeasurably larger and more powerful. Central to Kjellen’s conception of the ‘living state’ was the idea that social groups and institutions competed for survival in much the same way as biological organisms. According to Thomas Lemke, the author of Biopolitics: An Advanced Introduction:
The organicist concept understands the state not as a legal construction whose unity and coherence is the result of individuals’ acts of free will but as an original form of life, which precedes individuals and collectives and provides the institutional foundation for their activities.
Arguably the most transparent account of how this relationship might work in practice is that of James C. Scott. In his first book on the topic Seeing Like a State (1998), Scott describes how state bureaucracies charged with making the state run more efficiently developed their own unique (and inhuman) way of seeing the world and the people within it:
How did the state gradually get a handle on its subjects and their environment? Suddenly, processes as disparate as the creation of permanent last names, the standardization of weights and measures, the establishment of cadastral surveys and population registers, the invention of freehold tenure, the standardization of language and legal discourse, the design of cities, and the organization of transportation seemed comprehensible as attempts at legibility and simplification. In each case, officials took exceptionally complex, illegible, and local social practices, such as land tenure customs and naming customs, and created a standard grid whereby it could be centrally recorded and monitored.
This concept of ‘legibility’ is enormously important as Scott is not suggesting that bureaucrats deliberately abandoned traditional human forms of understanding, it is more that these customs – though entirely comprehensible to individual humans – could not serve as the basis for bureaucratic policy, and because bureaucracies could not make sense of these conventions, they were forced to find new ways of looking at the world that would allow them to understand and govern the lands and peoples they were required to administer. Once state bureaucracies found a way of seeing the world, they began to remake the world in order to fit with their state-centric ideals of efficiency. Scott explains this shift by noting the difference between the chaotic streets of a medieval town and the baroque order of a 19th Century city:
The visual power of the baroque city was underwritten by scrupulous attention to the military security of the prince from internal as well as external enemies. Thus both Alberti and Palladio thought of main thoroughfares as military roads (viae militaires). Such roads had to be straight and, in Palladio’s view, “the ways will be more convenient if they are made everywhere equal: that is to say that there will be no part in them where armies may not easily march”.
The state sees the world in its own special bureaucratic way and when asked to improve the world and make it more efficient, the state often acts in ways which, though entirely reasonable when seen through the eyes of the state, seem perverse and inhuman when seen judged by human values. Think of the way in which the Nazi state treated the Jewish people as an administrative problem in need of a Final Solution. Think of how even the most liberal of gamers will react to a popular uprising by sending in the troops and quashing dissent. Think of how a man elected to provide change from the Bush era, has found himself continuing almost the exact same foreign policy. These are the actions of humans who have succumbed to the joys of institutional thinking: Those who took part in the Nazi state did their job because loyal functionaries earned promotions and social status while dissenters and traitors wound up dead. Those who sit down in front of video games and release their inner psychopath do so because games provide a steady drip of endorphins to those who play the game the way it was intended. Level up! Achievement unlocked! New technologies! More territory! Drip… drip… drip. Systems not only train us to act in the interests of systems, they also tend to offer far better rewards than principled individualism.
This vision of social institutions as organisms in their own right may seem like some sort of psychotic conspiracy theory but in truth it is really no different than the biologist’s suggestion that our nature and behaviour are the products of competition between selfish genes. If our genetic heritage does indeed shape our behaviour, why should the same not also be true of the institutions that comprise our culture? Many people do not just belong to institutions but also define themselves in terms of their membership of certain groups. What is significant about being an American or a Fan if being either of those things does not impact upon how you think and feel? In truth, this vision of social institutions has been with us as long as we have been modern.
The traditional account of how the state was formed comes to us from Thomas Hobbes. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that human life before the creation of the state was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”; a war of all against all in which betrayal and brutality were commonplace. One interpretation of this just-so story is that humans banded together to create the nation-state out of a sense of rational self-interest and a desire to escape the state of nature: Yes, humans lost their right to total self-determination but in return they gained a degree of certainty and security that made their lives far more pleasant. Another interpretation of this story is that rather than outlining the moral and pragmatic arguments for surrendering one’s rights to a supreme monarch such as the then-newly restored Charles II, Hobbes may have been creating a palliative myth designed to help people come to terms with their newfound status as subjects. According to Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hobbes:
Outlined the only new body politic which could correspond to the needs and interests of a new class. What he actually achieved was a picture of man as he ought to become and ought to behave if he wanted to fit into the coming bourgeois society.
Just as the state rebuilt cities to fit abstract and inhuman values such as ‘security’, ‘stability’ and ‘efficiency’, the state refashioned its human components so that they might better serve their bureaucracies. The princes of the Catholic Church are not just Holy Men but also men with a track record of paying more attention to the needs of Mother Church than the needs of their parishioners and juniors. What is the process of socialisation if not a means of training humans to serve as components of a larger social system? It is no accident that governments and religions control the overwhelming majority of Western schools or that Universities are often more concerned with producing employable graduates than they are well-rounded human beings with a capacity to think for themselves.
If we can explain the moral failings of large institutions in terms of their blindness to human values and their willingness to colonise the beliefs of their human components, might the same not also be true of much smaller social institutions? Bureaucrats may surrender their principles in order to further the needs of the state, but do parents and children do the same for the needs of their family? Crusader Kings II suggests that they most definitely do.
3. Seeing Like a Family
Crusader Kings II initially presents itself as a bog-standard strategy game in the tradition of Civilization and Europa Universalis. You are told that the year is 1066 and are instructed to pick a territory and administer it. This sense of familiarity lasts for a good few hours as you develop your territory, build your armies and engage in the usual rounds of diplomatic posturing, military curb-stomping and black-caped plotting. The only difference between this and any other strategy game is that a lot seems to depend upon the personality and skills of the noble player character who leads the government.
Crusader Kings II’s focus upon the leader of your administrative unit is so intense that many commentators have taken to referring to the game as an attempt to blend wargames with conventional RPGs. There is some wisdom to this understanding of the game as the leader’s skills impact not only how other leaders react to you but also how you are likely to run your kingdom:
- Are you a cynical plotter? Chances are that you’ll wind up assassinating your enemies and manipulating the people around you.
- Are you a brilliant general? Chances are that you’ll be leading your own troops in battle and seeking to expand the boundaries of your domain.
- Are you a superlative administrator? Chances are that you’ll make the most of your ability to rule multiple provinces and get rid of unruly vassals and run everything yourself.
In-game events can also affect your skill levels and awareness of your character’s skills and problem-solving strategies can turn these events into opportunities to make your character even more effective than they already are.
Also important are the leader’s in-game relationships not only with the people at their court (people who will often be drafted in to serve as ministers) but also their spouse and children. A well-chosen spouse can not only provide the leader with a military alliance but also a boost to their skills and their knowledge-base as one of the game’s many sub-systems involves training the next generation of nobles and the more skilled and intelligent your teachers are, the more skills the next generation will have when they come of age.
Much of the game’s rhythm comes from the passage of generations and the player’s need to not only make sure that their new character has an appropriate spouse and ministers but also learn the most efficient way to use their skillset given the state of their domain:
- Good administrators can often help strengthen a domain that has been over-stretched through military expansion. By centralising a lot of the authority and administration on themselves, these types of rulers can focus investment on bringing newly acquired territories up to the same level of development as the rest of the domain.
- Good diplomats can ease the relationship between the leader and his vassals as well as improve the relationship between the player’s domain and any nearby powers that might threaten them.
- Particularly learned leaders can not only forge strong bonds with remote religious authorities but also improve the domain’s religious entanglements by improving relationships with bishops or restructuring the local church along different lines.
- Good military leaders who inherit a large military build-up and decent selection of military officers can not only expand the scope of their domain but also create new vassalages that reward the competent and remove the ambitious from the leader’s immediate vicinity.
- Underhanded leaders can prune the disloyal and the overly powerful from their court using a combination of assassination and manipulation. A particularly skilled political operative can even trick a vassal into returning land that was granted to them by the leader’s parent.
A lot of what I have described thus far is identical to the sort of state-focussed inhumanity that I outlined in my column for Futurismic: Tasked with running a government, the player acts in ways that benefit the government even though the most expedient methods are frequently the most morally repugnant. What makes Crusader Kings II such an extraordinary game is not how well it implements these traditional systems but rather the entirely original dimensions that it introduces into an otherwise quite formulaic genre: That of family.
4. A Strategic Approach to Child Abuse
Family makes itself felt quite early into the Crusader Kings II experience. Right from the start, the game not only expects you to marry but also to have children so as to ensure a stable transfer of power upon your character’s death. However, in order to do this, the player has to manage not only their character’s relationship with their wife (something that can be quite difficult if there are fertility, fidelity or mental-health problems) but also the survival and education of their children. Children with gifted parents are often born with their own set of gifts and a skilful player quickly realises that a child who is born with exceptional strength will most-likely make an exceptional general and should be raised with this future identity in mind.
While the game allows you to outsource the education of these children to gifted members of the court, the game also allows you to micro-manage their upbringing to the point where you have direct control over the personality and skills they will have when they assume the role of head-of-family, leader-of-domain and player character.
On a very superficial level, Crusader Kings II’s child characters often find themselves constrained by the plans of their parents. From the second they are born, your leader’s children will be groomed either for power or for the political advantage that might come from marrying them off to another leader. In the real world, these children might have dreams and desires of their own and yet, because we see only with the eyes of a family, we see nothing beyond their potential usefulness as human components. There is nothing quite so frustrating as a child who shows a particular interest in administration or scholarship when your family needs to expand the boundaries of their domain. There is nothing quite so horrifying as the existential threat posed by an only child who turns out to be gay or a lesbian.
While the institution of the family may have changed to the point where there are considerable differences between the Western nuclear family and the Medieval European dynasty, the tides and tensions within the institution of the family have remained remarkably constant: Parents may no longer yearn for courageous children who spend their time getting into fights and physically dominating their peers but they do yearn for intelligent and ambitious children who will grow up to be successful middle-class adults or, to put it another way, human components that are useful to the social systems surrounding them. The absolute genius of Crusader Kings II lies in the fact that it recognises the inhuman mechanisms that lurk beneath the surface of family life and allows the player to utilise these mechanics to the full extent of their conscience. Crusader Kings II’s parenting systems are not just a rabbit hole, they are a rabbit hole that goes all the way down…
The first inhuman elements appear when your character’s child begins acquiring undesirable personality traits. While an intelligent and lucky parent might successfully use love and sympathy to steer their child into functioning adulthood, the game also allows you to emotionally scar your children in a host of useful ways that range from terrifying them into social reclusion to filling their head with religious zealotry and encouraging them to insult fat people so that people might marvel at their courage and cruelty. When seen through the eyes of a dynastic family, such actions are rational and necessary to produce an heir capable of protecting and growing the family’s holdings. When seen through the eyes of a parent, such actions are unpleasant but necessary to make sure the child attains their full potential. When seen through the eyes of a dispassionate human, the difference between ‘socialisation’ and strategic child abuse is almost entirely a matter of social convention. Just as games like Civilization and Europa Universalis raise questions about the inhumanity of state bureaucracies, Crusader Kings II raises some very uncomfortable questions about what it is that people are actually doing when purporting to raise their children.
In a book entitled For Your Own Good, the psychologist Alice Miller suggests that much contemporary violent behaviour stems from an internalised belief that physical coercion is acceptable as long as it is done with good intentions:
The former practice of physically maiming, exploiting, and abusing children seems to have been gradually replaced in modern times by a form of mental cruelty that is masked by the honorific child-rearing. Since training in many cultures begins in infancy during the initial symbiotic relationship between mother and child, this early conditioning makes it virtually impossible for the child to discover what is actually happening to him. The child’s dependence on his or her parents’ love also makes it impossible in later years to recognize these traumatizations, which often remain hidden behind the early idealization of the parents for the rest of the child’s life.
The game’s critique of parental morality becomes even more evident when your character’s children fail to respond to gentle nurturing. For example, if you need a great general and your child is growing up to be a skilled administrator then you are forced to choose between either abandoning your plans for expansion or using more direct physical methods to break the child to your family’s will. Brilliantly, while the game makes it clear that physical abuse is always on the table, it also presents corporal punishment as a rather crude and ineffective mode of coercion with a good number of undesirable psychological side effects. This means that, while you would be well advised not to beat your character’s children, the reasons for not doing so are generally pragmatic rather than moral. I cannot help but wonder how many players would resort to systematically beating their children if ‘birching’ was encoded as a more effective parenting strategy (or if the game did not reveal that beating children was more likely to yield negative personality traits than it was a desirable outcome). This also poses the question of whether most contemporary parents would beat their children if child-rearing manuals still presented it as an effective means of raising well-adjusted adults. Would modern-day parents maim and sexually abuse their children if it meant that those children were more likely to get into a good school? Would our society even have a taboo against child-abuse if it were widely believed to have beneficial effects? If we believe the visions of human nature and society encoded into Crusader Kings II then we must also believe that parents would stop at absolutely nothing to produce effective human components.
The inhuman treatment of the character’s relatives and children continues once these non-player characters reach adulthood. Crusader Kings II allows the player to implement a number of different succession systems ranging from male-only primogeniture through to a sort of quasi-democracy in which different nobles can put forward their choices of candidate. While each of these systems has its own benefits and drawbacks, rival candidates do jostle for position meaning that the players frequently find themselves being sucked into courtly politics in an attempt to ensure that their candidate takes over when the current leader dies. These politics are made even more complex by the game’s factions system that allows groups of underlings to band together in a bid to either challenge the leader’s authority or change their policies. By blurring the line between the politics of the state and the politics of the family, Crusader Kings II invites players to treat their character’s relatives and children as political rivals.
Playing as the King of Ireland, I had two sons. One was a supremely talented general and a genius and the second was a character with low skills except in the area of intrigue. Confident that my character’s eldest son would take over from my character when he died, I granted large tracts of land to the eldest son and gave the second son a Duchy and a position on the council. Years passed and my character’s oldest son had children of his own. However, at this point the second son decided to act and murdered his older brother in order to ensure that he would claim the throne upon my character’s death. This meant that rather than a strong, centralised domain with a military leader, I was now faced with a potentially divided kingdom including large tracts of land ruled by a child and regent personally hostile to both the current leader and the next in line to the throne. The younger son’s actions demonstrate the tensions that exist between the interests of the individual, the interests of the family and the interests of the domain. The younger son’s actions forced my aging character to go to war with his own grandson and change his entire system of government so as to ensure that the crown passed to a more appropriate (but genetically more distant) character than the surviving son. My character’s son put his personal interests above those of both the family and the domain and I reacted to this transgression by initiating a civil war that resulted not only in the death of my character’s remaining son but of thousands of innocent human components.
The complex political and genetic systems encoded in Crusader Kings II give rise to an endless stream of family psychodramas that demonstrate, time and again, our willingness to break both children and adults on the wheel of institutional efficiency. While the differences between the medieval dynasty and the contemporary Western nuclear family are significant enough to provide a psychological buffer zone between the calculated brutality of medieval parents and the careful ‘child-rearing’ of modern-day parents, Crusader Kings II has also explored the extent to which the institution of the family can change and adapt to different cultural environments whilst maintaining the same inhuman perspectives and values.
5. The Flexible Family
The question of why different cultures have the family structures they do is one that is almost impossibly large and complex. The root of the problem is that while it is relatively easy to note the degree of fit between a particular family structure and the culture that contains it, it is never entirely clear how much the family evolved to fit the culture and how much of the culture was shaped by family structures. Nevertheless, Crusader Kings II explores the evolving nature of family institutions by allowing players to see the world through the eyes of families other than those of European land-owning aristocrats.
5.1 Islamic Family Values
Released in June 2012, the Sword of Islam expansion allowed players to assume control of a Muslim family dynasty. Aside from a differently skinned user interface and Muslim-themed events such as the need for characters to embark on pilgrimages to Mecca, the most interesting aspect of Sword of Islam is its attempt to embody a different family dynamic. Games of Crusader Kings II only ever end when your family loses all of its holdings. While this can happen through conquest and usurpation, it can also happen as a result of failing to produce a legitimate heir. Aside from having as many children as possible (and finding ways of getting rid of infertile spouses), one way of ensuring that you stay in the game is to switch to the semi-democratic succession model in which you get to choose who will become your next player character. By harnessing the player to a particular dynasty rather than a particular bloodline, Crusader Kings II encourages you to treat your relatives as assets, thereby fostering quite a clear sense of extended family. Indeed, many are the times when I increased by family’s holdings by leaving everything under my control to a distant cousin whose non-player parents had somehow managed to acquire huge holdings.
Sword of Islam increases the importance of the extended family by allowing characters to take multiple wives and therefore produce far more children who can serve as generals, vassals and ministers. However, while boosting your character’s procreative capacity may give you an unparalleled ability to create talented individuals to fill various niches, the game also expects you to find positions for all of these people. Given that generational power imbalances are inherent in the human condition, it is perhaps unavoidable that talent bottlenecks should be an issue in both the core game and the expansions. In the core game, these bottlenecks are relatively easy to administer as descendants can be quite easily bought off using a combination of cash and honorary titles. Sword of Islam makes these talent bottlenecks far more interesting by ensuring that domains with too many landless dynasty members become decadent.
The decadence mechanic has a number of manifestations but the most obvious is that decadent families tend to have cowardly and ill-disciplined soldiers. Thus, the less land you give to your characters’ children, the weaker your armies become and the weaker your armies become, the more likely it is that one of your character’s children will attempt to replace you as head of the family. Even more brilliantly, once your decadence levels reach a certain point, a lowborn warlord will appear and challenge your family for the control of your domain. This key difference between Western and Islamic families rests upon the concept of Assabiyah, as described by the 14th Century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun.
Khaldun observed that successful houses tend to become less and less effective, the longer they remain in power. The reason for this is that once a family topples the old rulers and takes control of a domain, its focus tends to shift from expansion to preservation. The problem is that the skills and values required for expanding a family’s holdings are very different to those required in order to keep a family’s holdings safe. A dynasty concerned with preservation will not only raise less ambitious children but children selfishly focused upon their own individual wealth, status and power. Khaldun discussed the nomadic ability to work together in terms of the concept of Assabiyah, a form of social solidarity that comes not only from mutual self-interest but also a sense of shared purpose. According to Khaldun, nomadic people have very high levels of Assabiyah because of the hard conditions on the periphery of empire. Unfortunately, once a dynasty successfully takes power and becomes the bureaucratic centre of the empire, its levels of Assabiyah begin to decrease until eventually it too is toppled by a younger, hungrier and more disciplined family group.
Crusader Kings II incorporates the concept of Assabiyah by punishing those players who centralise wealth and power on their player character rather than spreading hard-won lands and riches across the character’s entire extended family. However, while this communitarian approach to dynastic management may appear to be more humane than the approach encoded in the core game, the eyes of the Islamic family are actually no less ravenous than those of their Western counterparts.
The most obvious impact of Assabiyah is that Islamic dynasties are compelled to keep expanding their domains in order to ensure that there’s enough land to keep the children happy and the decadence levels minimal. The pressure to keep expanding is not only central to your foreign policy it also results in you doing the equivalent of sacking cities and murdering entire armies in order to ensure that your character’s kids have nice birthday presents. Indeed, Sword of Islam does not expect you to distribute land because it is politically expedient and strategically useful to have vassals controlling all your land… it demands that children be given land because that is what is expected of the head of a Muslim family.
Aside from forcing players to develop entirely new ways of managing their dynasties, these differences are also an absolutely wonderful way of modelling demographic pressure. One of the earliest narrative explanations to emerge from the Arab Spring was that the old guard had failed to create enough jobs and enough government positions to keep up with their vast numbers of young people. Unable to work and lacking any means of altering government policy, the young overthrew the old guard in the hope that new management might allow a more politically acceptable distribution of resources. However, while the difference between Christian and Muslim families in Crusader Kings II may reflect the difference that exist now between aging Western societies and youthful non-Western societies, it strikes me that these sorts of generational pressures would have played a far larger role in actual European dynastic politics than they do in the core game. Just as it made perfect sense for Muslim leaders to expand their holdings in order to enrich their children, could the same not have been said of Medieval European families as well? In fact, how many parents push themselves to work longer and harder in order to ensure that their children will be provided for? Somebody has to bankroll all of those holidays, internships and ever-expanding collections of academic trophies. This urge to sacrifice one’s health and free time for the sake of the family makes little sense when seen from the perspective of the individual but it makes absolutely perfect sense once you shift your perspective to that of the family as an institution. These types of financial concerns are explored in a more recent Crusader Kings II expansion named The Republic.
5.2 Rootless Capital Family Fun Time
Released in January 2013, The Republic marked the first attempt to move the game away from state-based governments and towards dynasties with different types of power base. The Republic casts you not only as the head of a dynastic trading family but also the elected head of a medieval trading cartel such as the Hanseatic League or the Republic of Venice. The most significant difference between The Republic and previous iterations of Crusader Kings II is that The Republic permanently severs the link between money and land.
In the core game as well as in all previous expansions, your dynasty’s wealth flows not only from its territorial holdings but also back into them: Territories generate wealth that fills the family’s coffers and this wealth is then spent either on developing existing territories or expanding the means through which a dynasty might acquire new territories. Not to put too fine a point on it, land is the be-all and end-all of the core game. The Republic departs from this model quite drastically by allowing republics to build trading posts in territories they do not actually control. Thus, while land can be acquired in the usual manner, the focus of the expansion is not so much on land as it is on money.
Republican cities generate more revenue than noble castles and dynastic palaces also generate revenues at quite an alarming rate. Beyond this, a leader can also invest in opening trading posts that not only generate a surprising amount of money but are also easily upgraded to produce yet even more money. Any profits that are not funnelled directly back into a dynasty’s trade routes can be spent either on maintaining a large military retinue or upgrading the dynastic homestead which, aside from generating cash and soldiers, also provides the leader with nifty skill-boosts that are then inherited by all future leaders of the dynasty.
While The Republic sessions begin with your character in charge of a large trading cartel, there is really no guarantee that your dynasty will remain in charge once this starting character dies. This means that an unprepared player who lets power slip to another dynasty might very well find their character acting as minister to a rival who now leads the cartel. However, while this junior status makes it much harder for the player to play on the world stage and get involved in regional politics, the ensuing loss of revenue is actually quite surprisingly small. Much like modern wealthy families, dynastic trading families are not reliant upon land for income… the tax that comes from controlling cartel land does provide a nice revenue stream but it is only ever a small part of a much broader financial portfolio. In fact, the increased power and income of high office is often offset by greater visibility and greater military responsibilities. As a junior member of the Hanseatic League, one of my characters expanded his holdings massively because the money he did not spend on bribes and armies went straight into his core trading business. Crusades launched and civil wars raged but my character continued pulling in the cash while his notional liege wound up spending five years in the Norwegian equivalent of Guantanamo bay after being captured on the battlefield.
The differences between the ways in which trade-based dynasties and land-based dynasties support themselves also play a major role in influencing how members of those families relate to one another. While the decadence mechanic forces Muslim families to spread the wealth and work together in Sword of Islam, the trading republic’s ability to generate vast amounts of money without the need to directly control territory means that extended families become almost entirely superfluous. Republican leaders marry and have children like European feudal leaders but republican families really only ever actually need two members at any given time: The leader of the trading house and the person they have elected to take over from them when they die. While your only being able to choose a designate heir once does add some complexity to the initial decision, this mechanic means that the leader’s extended family only ever serves as a sort of talent pool for heirs and ministers. Having just finished an extended session of Sword of Islam, I began my Republic campaign by ruthlessly acquiring talent and skill until my entire family came to resemble a cross between a MENSA meeting and the Avengers. However, while this meant that my characters and their heirs were always incredibly skilled, it also meant that my court was packed with geniuses and gifted warriors with very little to do other than help me secure alliances through marriage. Rather than administering land and attempting to usurp my character’s position as head of family, the leader’s extended family simply sat around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for the patriarch to give them a job. I imagine Christmas family reunions as which the designated heir feels the entire family’s envious hatred burning into the back of their head. So… you’re at college, right? I remember my aunt telling me that you were studying English… “Tropical Diseases and Infectious Medicine”… wow… I was way off! No… we’re kind of full now, we might have something in the mail room next year though.
Another interesting aspect of The Republic is that, once your trading house is well established and your routes secure, there really is nothing much you can spend your money on other than redecorating your palatial home and building larger and larger military retinues. Clearly mindful of this slightly unusual dynamic, the designers allow you to invest money in a campaign war chest that will allow your dynasty to grab power when the current leader dies. Cartel leaders are chosen on the basis of their reputation and older dynastic leaders necessarily have better reputations than younger ones meaning that, when your character dies, chances are that their job will go to someone from their generation. However, by investing a lot of money into an elaborate leadership campaign, dynasties can artificially boost the designated heir’s reputation just enough to make sure they win the leadership election. In practice, what this means is that your dynasty has a lot of cash floating around in their coffers. If you get your timings right and you use assassination to eliminate your rivals, you can often take power with very little financial outlay but sometimes the most reliable way of ensuring your dynasty remains in power is to forego building a new trade route and spend the money on robot calls and attack ads. Trade Galley Veterans for Justice!
I suspect that many of the differences between The Republic and the core game stem from the fact that The Republic is quite a buggy expansion that feels far more mechanically ramshackle than the core feudal experience. The competition between trading houses seems lacklustre and the player character’s position at the head of the trading house is far more secure than anything on the feudal side of the aisle. However, while this added sense of security is unusual and possibly unintentional, it does add an interesting dimension to the vision of the family encoded in Crusader Kings II.
The most obvious difference between The Republic and previous variations on the core game is that the game’s family dynamics are much closer to those of the contemporary Nuclear family. For starters, republican families feel a good deal smaller, smarter and more individualistic as trading families simply do not need large collections of skilled individuals with genetic ties to the leadership. Indeed, while feudal leaderships can only do so much before they need to devolve some of their authorities to vassals, an entire trading dynasty can comfortably be run by two people: a leader and their designated heir. Also very familiar is the fact that republican kids tend to wind up fitting into quite a narrow range of roles; Given that trading cartels have little interest in expanding their boundaries, a leader with good diplomatic and administrative skills is far more useful that a leader who knows how to fight or quote from the bible. Then as now, people who know how to use physical force can come in handy but why raise a killer or a scholar when you can raise a silver-tongued politician or an abacus-eyed accountant who will generate enough good-will and money to allow the family to buy its way out of trouble? The bourgeois nature of the republican family is particularly evident in the fact that much of the family’s wealth goes either into opening doors for the designated heir or redecorating the family home. Somewhere between the vaults, the formal gardens and the private shipbuilders I fully expected the option to build an extension and install under-floor heating in my bathroom.
The families of The Republic feel very familiar to us as nobody raises an army to square off against their old man or poisons Christmas dinner in order to be rid of a political rival. Existing somewhere between the land-administrating aristocracy and the chattel that were the serfs and peasants, republican trade dynasties laid down the foundations of the Western middle-class family experience and so playing The Republic feels downright virtuous compared to the ravages and depredations of the core game and Sword of Islam. However, are republican families more virtuous, or is our moral outrage simply blunted by that sense of familiarity and the knowledge that our parents treated us very much in the way that the game’s republican leaders treat their children?
6. ‘Belonging’ is a Loaded Word
To belong to an institution is to see the world through the eyes of said institution and the second we cease to see the world as individuals is the second we begin to degrade, dehumanise and distort our fellow humans. Experience invariably teaches us that institutions are not to be trusted; from church to corporation, family to state, we burn our fingers time and again and yet we keep coming back… this time it’ll be different! Communism didn’t have a chance! The Free market was insufficiently free! I won’t make the same mistakes my parents made! We keep coming back because we crave the feelings of belonging and togetherness that only social groups and institutions can provide.
When I wrote my original column about the allure of seeing like a state, I argued that the urge to see like an institution was spiritual in nature and born of a desire for escapism:
While there is no meaning to be found in the real world, we can still construct fictitious worlds in which meaning has a place, where moral choices are simple and our actions make sense. We can escape to these worlds and so feel the warm glow of consolation whilst also realising that the consolation, much like the world, is the product of our imaginations. Strategy games help us to escape to a world dominated by rules that are just as objective as they are easy to learn; they help us to embody a different class of being and so feel the consolation of victory whilst remaining fully aware that all of this is entirely imaginary. Like the first snows of winter, truth lies on the human mind in a wide array of depths. Some truths are deep enough to swallow us up to the waist, while others barely wet the soles of our shoes.
While I still think that our willingness to surrender our individuality to institutions has something of a spiritual dimension, I now realise that the joys of submission can also be far more basic. We keep joining groups because being part of a group feels good.
To be in a large group is not just to experience the same things at the same time as a large group of people, it is to experience things in a qualitatively different way: Music sounds better at a concert than when listened to on an iPod. Comedies provoke more laughs when seen in a cinema full of people. Sporting victories seem more significant when experienced alongside tens of thousands of fellow celebrants. As a species, humans crave these moments of mass psychology because they allow them to stop thinking and feeling like humans. However, as much as we adore these moments of collective subjectivity, we are also acutely aware that to join a group is to submit to a group and when a group turns ugly, our experiences and actions will be far darker than anything we might have achieved or experienced as individuals.
The Roman Empire drew a sharp distinction between the reasoned debate and civic engagement of the polis and the boisterous passions and potential for violence displayed by the turba or mob. This distinction continues to the present day when people will rejoice in the patriotism of sporting victory but recoil in horror from the exact same patriotism when it turns sour in the ashes of defeat. People lining the streets to celebrate Britain’s Olympic victories are happy crowds while people singing the national anthem whilst posturing in front of a line of police are deemed to be hooligans, thugs and an angry mob in need of putting down. This distinction is even reflected in our political sphere where politicians speak to crowds and champion the democratic will of the people while any grassroots expression of political passion is ignored, tied up in red tape or kettled into oblivion. As a species, we love communities but hate mobs even though the only difference between a mob and a community is whether or not you approve of the group’s actions.
The French poet Charles Baudelaire exposes this tension in his prose poem “Crowds” by opening the poem with a defence of individuality and closing it with a celebration of those who live their lives embedded in crowds and communities. Balanced between these two extreme and irreconcilable joys is the position that Baudelaire hoped to assume:
The solitary and thoughtful stroller finds a singular intoxication in this universal communion. The man who loves to lose himself in a crowd enjoys feverish delights that the egoist locked up in himself as in a box, and the slothful man like a mollusk in his shell, will be eternally deprived of. He adopts as his own all the occupations, all the joys and all the sorrows that chance offers.
Trapped between our fear of turba and our yearning for togetherness, we tie ourselves in endless hypocritical and absurd knots. In a brilliant piece from the London Review of Books on the so-called multiculturalism of London, James Meek quotes the Estonian philosophy Slavoj Zizek as follows
Today’s liberal tolerance towards others, the respect of otherness and openness towards it, is counterpointed by an obsessive fear of harassment. In short, the Other is just fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this Other is not really other… My duty to be tolerant towards the Other effectively means that I should not get too close to him, intrude on his space. In other words, I should respect his tolerance of my over-proximity. What increasingly emerges as the central human right in late-capitalist society… is a right to remain at a safe distance from others.
This desire to be a part of a community whilst also keeping said community at arm’s length reflects a profound ambivalence towards social institutions. Previous generations trusted religion, family and community to deliver the goods but rather than surrendering to that experience, we spend fortunes attempting to reverse engineer to collective experiences: Food tastes better when eaten together and so individuals spend fortunes on expensive food which is then eaten in silence. Marriages seem more significant when they bring together entire communities and so individuals corral huge groups of complete strangers into conference suites and stately homes and hope that something positive will somehow emerge from the spending spree.
Aside from recreating the moral challenges of family life, Crusader Kings II also does an absolutely brilliant job of recreating the seemingly random nature of collective experiences. Indeed, the more your dynasty expands, the more weddings and educations you are called upon to manage. However, while your skill at managing these elements may increase over time, your ability to see and control the development of your family as a whole decreases as the size of the family increases. What this means in practice is that, while you may make all of the right decisions about education and marriage, some generations simply do not work: Sometimes you wind up with an imbecile at the head of your family, sometimes the skilled are murdered by the ambitious, sometimes great marital alliances are dissolved by the death of a foreign leader. For every generation that works and thrives together there is a generation that sulks, resents and murders one another to the detriment of the individuals, the family, and the government. The unease we feel about the institutions that surround us is best encapsulated by the double meaning of the word ‘belong’ for while belonging to an institution may help us make sense of the world, it also reduces us to the status of things that are owned by their inhuman bureaucracies.
Playing Crusader Kings II is an incredibly rewarding and cathartic experience as it reminds us that it is not only the state, the corporation and market that define our worlds but also the family. To play Crusader Kings II means never looking at your family in the same way again.