Victoria 3: How Historical Strategy Games Shape Views on the Past

Written by Aleksandrs Skulte

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been obsessed with Victoria 3, a historical strategy game. Victoria 3 is made by Paradox, a Swedish video game company specializing in strategy games. The game is set in the Victorian period and beyond, starting in 1836 and ending in 1936. This period was a time of massive transformation: the world’s population roughly doubled, countries rapidly industrialized, many vital technologies were invented, new social movements emerged, and public health advanced massively. Paradox seeks to capture this era of dynamism and change with the newest iteration in its Victoria series. The player controls a country, its economy, diplomacy, trade and military but emphasizes economic aspects. All one billion people alive in the 1830s are represented, with the population only growing as the game progresses.  

Games such as Victoria 3 have a large influence in shaping young people’s perceptions of history, much more so than most historians. The strategy game industry is expected to grow from $25 billion in 2022 to $34.5 billion by 2026 (Statistia, 2022). Their influence on the public’s perception of history is similar to that of television shows and movies. However, video games, and consequently the history portrayed, is interactive. I believe this has a few important effects.  

Victoria 3 is good at teaching historical, political and economic concepts as well as the time period in general. The government of each country is represented by interest groups which include intellectuals, industrialists, trade unions, rural folk, landowners, armed forces, the church and the petit bourgeois. Each interest group has its own ideology and policies it wants to pass. This game shows how different groups throughout history may have opposed or supported certain policies and therefore affected the course of a nation. For example, if you try to ban slavery in the US from the onset, the landowning interest group will rise up against you and lead to the American Civil War. With the rise of industrialization and greater wider electorates, the power of these interest groups also changes. Industrialization and greater literacy mean more literate workers in your country, consequently boosting the power of trade unions which allow you to pass more progressive legislation. On the other hand, the landowning interest group tends to lose power as voting laws change from landed voting towards universal male suffrage as landowners lose their ability to influence elections. Playing the game makes the player feel how the Victorian era was an era of such profound change.  

The cost of war is another important concept that Victoria 3 simulates. Each war has a count of how many were dead and injured, as well as a metric which tells you how much has been spent on soldier’s wages and war material. The dead and the injured from your wars are also a cost as they are unable to work, and therefore take a toll on your economy. There are countless other mechanics, such as legitimacy, institutions, and revolutions in Victoria 3, which provide an interactive experience and introduce the player to causality, a key aspect of history.  

Victoria 3 also makes its players think about historical contingency and alternate history as it centers on the player making history. In one of my playthroughs, due to its massive industrialization campaign and colonialism, France became the preeminent power by the nineteenth century. In another, Mexico had stopped the US from acquiring many of the territories that became US states in the real world. Such scenarios lead players to ask what-ifs, which is an intriguing exercise but is generally avoided by historians due to the difficulty in pinning down cause and effect in history.  

Screenshot of Victoria 3 (Paradox Development Studio, 2022).

There are, of course, slightly troublesome aspects to the history Victoria 3 expounds, especially in regard to colonialism. In the previous iteration of the Victoria franchise, the game divided the countries you could play as “civilized” and the countries you could not play as “uncivilized”. These terms were used to show the European colonial point of view at the time. However, it was nevertheless problematic because it led the player to view colonialism in precisely this way. Victoria 3 now uses the less problematic but still flawed terms “centralized” and “decentralized”. This is an issue as it causes the player to view the “decentralized” nations (most of them being African) as relics of the past, with their only purpose in the game being for the player to colonize them. In addition, the abhorrent realities of colonialism are not felt by the player in the game. For example, in a game where I played as Belgium, the lands which I colonized had the standard of living rise rapidly from extremely low levels before I colonized the territories to some of the highest after. The populations of the colonies are portrayed as prospering even though, in reality, colonialism is at its heart very cruel and extracting from its populations.  

Overall, however, historians should view historical strategy games such as Victoria 3 as their friends rather than their foes. There are issues inherent to the genre, such as oversimplification and the misrepresentation of concepts, yet many of these issues are also found in other forms of popular media. Every depiction of history has its flaws. In my view, historical strategy games interact with history a lot better than films and television shows do, as they encourage the player to look at the bigger picture and engage in historical processes and concepts. They spark a fascination in history as a broader subject in a way movies and shows cannot due to the dynamic interaction between the player and the game and their unique ability to show change over time. Thanks to games like Victoria 3, we can expect a new generation of budding historians who will reshape our view of history.  


Bibliography

“Strategy Games – Worldwide: Statista Market Forecast.” Statista. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://www.statista.com/outlook/dmo/app/games/strategy-games/worldwide#methodology.  


Featured image credit: Victoria 3 Art. Paradox Plaza. Paradox. Accessed November 7, 2022. https://forumcontent.paradoxplaza.com/public/711150/The%20Art%20of%
20Victoria.pdf. Used under fair use policy.

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