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This article was published on September 22, 2021

Historical strategy game Victoria 3 will simulate the slave trade. Should it?

It's hard not to flinch, but this isn't a simple issue

Historical strategy game Victoria 3 will simulate the slave trade. Should it?
Tristan Greene
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Tristan Greene

Editor, Neural by TNW

Tristan covers human-centric artificial intelligence advances, politics, queer stuff, cannabis, and gaming. Pronouns: He/him Tristan covers human-centric artificial intelligence advances, politics, queer stuff, cannabis, and gaming. Pronouns: He/him

Paradox Interactive‘s highly-anticipated grand strategy title Victoria 3 is set to ship next year. It’s been over a decade since the franchise’s last title launched and fans are chomping at the bit to see what’s changed. 

One thing that hasn’t changed in Victoria 3 is that it includes a fully-functioning, (somewhat) historically accurate depiction of the global slave trade as it existed at the beginning of the titular Victorian era.

Victoria 3 is a historical nation simulator where you take control of an entire country and try to shape its destiny. At the beginning of the game, a given nation’s historically accurate polices on slavery will be in effect.

Players who choose to play as the US, for example, will inherit a policy wherein existing slaves remain enslaved but new slaves are no longer imported. 

These policies can be changed and, at least theoretically, it should be possible for any nation to embrace or eschew various forms of slavery.

This means you could play through as the US and attempt to abolish slavery immediately as a means to both free people and avoid the civil war. It also means you could play through as the British and re-embrace slavery or choose not to intercede in the Atlantic slave trade, thus allowing it to prosper.

Up front: It needs to be said that Victoria 3 is not a slavery simulator. It’s a complex sandbox that attempts to imitate real history as accurately as possible so that players can then see how things would play out if they (or the nation they control, to be more specific) did things differently.

And this is not the first time a slavery simulation system has appeared in a video game – a similar system existed in Victoria 2.

Per the developer’s blog:

Slavery is, obviously, a horrific crime against humanity and precisely for this reason, many games that have a slavery-related setting or mechanics will either leave it out of the game or abstract it into something that’s less ‘on the nose’ … For Victoria 3, we don’t think these options work for us for two main reasons.

The first reason is … it was an important political issue of the day and was a major catalyst for several significant conflicts, most notably the American Civil War which would be bizarrely contextless if slavery did not play a significant role in the game.

The other, and most important reason, is that through our Pop system we are trying to represent every individual human on the planet from 1836, so what statement would we be making if we simply wrote all enslaved individuals out of history, or reduced them into an abstract set of modifiers?

Background: The blog post is really long and detailed, but there’s a few points that matter:

You, the player, or more specifically the nation you control, don’t receive a direct benefit from slavery. You can’t, for example, cover your land in factories and fill them with slaves so you can pump out a thousand tanks using free labor. Slaves can only work in certain types of building – and manufacturing jobs are beyond their scope.

And you can’t just choose the slavery civic to gain a blanket benefit to production either.

Unlike titles such as Civilization, which take a roundabout approach to slavery, this one expresses the “pros” and “cons” in more than just a basic cost/risk format.

Instead of, for instance, picking the ancient Egyptians and getting a moderate bonus to industry, as is common in strategy games such as Civilization and HumankindVictoria 3 players will have to manage their slave policies manually.

This means abolitionist factions will rise, slaves will naturally rebel and revolt, and more progressive nations will view states that truck in slavery in a negative light. Also, it appears as though abolitionist nations will have automatic casus belli (the right to go to war) on nations that allow slavery. 

From where I’m sitting, it appears as though Victoria 3 will force players to deal with the ramifications of slavery as an ongoing, multi-faceted issue, rather than a static number to manage.

My take: Whew. This is a tough one to wrap my head around. Victoria 2 had a similar system, but it released way back in 2010.

Games weren’t as popular then and the Black Lives Matter movement wasn’t at the forefront of mainstream politics and media coverage. 

On the one hand: This game could potentially serve as a campfire around which white supremacists and other bigots gather to explore their daydreams, build community, and spread their hideous morality.

Anything that can serve as a platform by which bigots might organize, recruit, or thrive should be given deep consideration. 

Intentions aren’t outcomes. And “people are going to do it anyway” isn’t a logical reason to embrace something that could potentially aid in the proliferation of bigotry.

On the other hand: I don’t think the debate boils down to “should a game have a slave trade system?I believe it’s a question of “should historically accurate simulation games exist?

Because, as any historian will tell you, humanity’s ascension from caves to skyscrapers is (and remains) an endeavor of blood, horror, and suffering.

If we can’t approach the idea of slavery in a sober, meaningful way in a video game, what business do we have depicting war or murder?

I think there’s a place in literature for honest, accurate stories portraying the reality of 19th century slavery in the world. And there’s also a place for films such as Roots, or even fictionalized alternate-history epics such as Django Unchained, that take the past head-on and stare at it unflinchingly.

Ultimately, however, I’m not sure if this is a good thing for gaming.

Maybe it is. Maybe it’s the breakthrough we need so that game devs will stop being terrified of pissing off conservative white male Christian gamers who shudder at anything that doesn’t depict scruffy-bearded, brooding, straight, white men as the universe’s only saviors.

Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s a slippery slope.

I won’t cop out here by saying “I’ll have to wait and see how it’s implemented.” I don’t believe the implementation will matter when the game launches. I trust that Paradox is trying to do this in good faith.

For many people, there’s no right way to add slavery to a game like this. And many others are going to dismiss the controversy outright. They’ll say that this is a non-issue and that journalists such as myself are just engaging in it as clickbait.  

As for me, I’m biased. I’m a history buff who loves Paradox’s strategy games. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m even more interested in Victoria 3 now than I was before.

I thoroughly enjoy destroying Nazis, defeating fascists, and eliminating dictatorships when I play HOI4, a grand strategy game that covers World War II. And I’m sure I’ll enjoy kicking the asses of slave-trading nations in Victoria 3.

But, I’ve played enough Paradox games to know that such systems can be just as empowering for those on the opposite ideological end when it comes to topics such as fascism and slavery. And, right or wrong, that bothers me.

Should a game like this exist? I don’t know. But I believe it should be allowed to. 

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