What exactly do we play as in a game of Civilization VI? A leader? A state? A nation? A fledgling empire maybe? It’s a bit of everything, a big mishmash of concepts. At the heart of it, however, lies the idea of the nation-state. Every successful game of Civilization is a story from the birth of a nation-state to its rise to greatness, and maybe beyond to its ascension to the stars.
But hold on. What exactly is a nation-state? According to Merriam-Webster (bear with me), a nation-state can be defined as “a form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state”. In essence, it’s the overlap of several distinct things: a territory, a people, and a state.
Neither states nor groups of people sharing a common identity are new to history. And yet, our concept of the nation-state is a modern development, made possible only through the emergence of nationalism in the 19th century and established through countless revolutions and wars.
Towards concrete ends
The problem with games like Civilization is that they try to simulate history with a concrete end point in mind: our contemporary world. Everything must lead to now. It has history backwards. One aspect of this is that the modern centralized nation-state is projected backwards into history and portrayed as a monolithic, natural constant across all times and cultures.
They paint the nation-state as rooted in an unchangeable essence; not something that’s subject to change and shifting interpretations, but simply something that is. Reading too much direction and continuity into history is not only wrong, but also dangerous, as is demonstrated by various esoteric far-right groups and proponents of ethno-states invoking their supposedly ancient kinship with Vikings, Celts, Romans and Anglo-Saxons.
Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings III is one of the rare exceptions which goes to great lengths to circumvent these issues. It does so by simulating a very alien and idiosyncratic form of political organisation, namely that of medieval feudalism with its web of personal ties.
Simulating medieval feudalism
The feudal society of the High and Late Middle Ages (the period simulated by Crusader Kings III) was organised through exchanges of land, called fiefs, for certain services and obligations, which were usually military in nature. The feudal contract was between two individuals; the person who granted the fief became the lord of the person accepting it, who in turn became the lord’s vassal.
It’s a simple idea in theory but grew incredibly complex as it played out. Let’s say the king of France grants you the duchy of Normandy. You then repeat the process, taking chunks of Normandy and granting them as fiefs, thereby creating your very own vassals, who in turn may do the same with their piece of Normandy.
There’s a clear hierarchy with the king at the top, then you, then your vassals. The thing is: even though your vassals are technically below the king, that does not mean that the king has direct authority over them. They are, after all, your vassals, and their first duty (and likely their loyalty) is to you. The feudal system creates divided allegiances and a patchwork of hierarchies and semi-autonomous actors.
Capturing the complexity and chaos
Now say you, the duke of Normandy, decide to invade England and become a king in your own right. What happens to the fiefdom of Normandy? Does it belong to England or France? Technically, you are still the vassal of the king of France, but only in your capacity as duke of Normandy, not as king of England.
It gets confusing quickly, and Crusader Kings III does a great job of capturing some of that complexity and chaos. By letting you play not as an immortal leader as in Civilization or as a kind of personified will of the state as in Europa Universalis, but as individual and very mortal members of a dynasty, it highlights just how far removed the feudal state was from the modern nation-state.
It reveals the feudal patchwork of medieval states, the kingdoms within the kingdom. Depending on the crown laws and the terms of the feudal contract, a sovereign’s vassals are free to do as they please as long as they fulfil their basic obligations to their lord. It’s not rare that you helplessly sit by watching your vassals tearing each other to pieces over land; all within one state, under a single ruler.
Any sense of national or political unity is put into question. Unlike most games, Crusader Kings III disentangles frequently conflated concepts such as ruler, state, and nation. Rarely do actual or de facto states neatly overlap with nations, that is, the territory of a people with a shared identity.
Dispelling myths in Crusader Kings III
That also means that the fate of your dynasty isn’t welded to a single nation or a single territory. Your Norman king may rule over English subjects without destroying their culture or sense of national identity. Or your dynasty may, like the Habsburgs, be truly ‘international’, with different members ruling over different, far-flung kingdoms.
These are just some ways in which Crusader Kings III puts an emphasis on historical complexity, volatility, and discontinuity, where other games focus on unity and stability. Not only does it manage to bring the strange political systems of the Middle Ages closer to us, but it also does its part in dispelling the problematic myth of the eternal nation-state.