“Slaves are self-explanatory”: Silencing the Past in Empire Total War (2009)

Age of Revolutions is happy to present its “Art of Revolution” series. You can read through the entire series here as they become available.

By Thomas Lecaque

Empire: Total War (2009) allows gamers to rewrite history, but only certain parts. You can enact the French Revolution in 1701, 88 years ahead of schedule. With an image of the Bastille burning as the header, the “revolution” event will say: “The capital has fallen to revolutionary forces! The old order has been removed and its leading members publicly executed, a fitting end and an example to those who would plunge us back into tyranny!”[1] If you are fast enough on the offensive, and conquer England, Scotland, and Ireland, destroying the faction Great Britain, the United States will spring into being in the thirteen colonies. You can likewise move the end of the tsars from 1917 to 1701, give birth to the Young Turks in the early 18th century, or have something akin to the revolutions of 1848 a century in advance. Empire: Total War—the fifth entry in the video game series—takes imperialism and conquest into a massive turn-based 4X (a subgenre of strategy games, Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) game that GameInformer’s review praised for “the studious attention to historical detail, ambitious web of political intrigue, and spectacular battles place this game in the pantheon of strategy greats alongside Civilization and Age of Empires.”[2]

What you cannot do is see an independent Haiti rise, or watch the Haitian Revolution play out, or liberate Saint-Domingue from France. Despite 11 playable empires, 31 nonplayable countries, and 14 revolutionary countries that emerge in colonized spaces if their imperial captor is destroyed, Haiti is deliberately removed as a possibility.[3] There is no Haitian faction, and, indeed, there is no Haiti—Hispaniola is a single unit in the game, with the Spanish settlement Santo Domingo as the city in the center. For a game set in the 18th century, the French colony (with its 450,000 people, 90% of whom were enslaved) entirely removed, a Haitian Revolution is made impossible, and, indeed, the entire narrative of slavery and the revolts of enslaved peoples against their captors is erased. Far more than “silencing the past,” to use anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s title, Creative Assembly has erased Haiti from their entire world.[4]

Alyssa Sepinwall has shown that this is not new. In her new book, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games, she cites“the relative invisibility of this event in cinema, especially compared to other revolutions.”[5] And given the focus on revolution in the game, it is a fair question why Empire aggressively wipes it from the map. Creative Assembly has pointed out in the past that they do not aim for accuracy, but what they describe as “authenticity.” As Fraser Brown described it in an interview with members of Creative Assembly, “So much of the study of history is focused on cataloguing the mundane minutiae from the lives of now long-dead folk, and these countless little facts don’t necessarily translate very well to a medium more interested in entertainment. Worse, they could bog a title down in needless detail. ‘Fun wins out over strict, dogmatic adherence to the history books,’ he clarifies.”[6] The problem, of course, is that erasing Haiti from history, erasing Haiti from this game, does not merely represent “mundane minutiae” or a concern about “dogmatic adherence to the history books.” It is a long-term white supremacist imprint on history, historiography, and popular memory—it is a deliberate choice by historians and by the United States that is being mirrored deliberately in this video game.

So, leave it to Trouillot to tell historians how to identify such imprints and the silences they craft. Historical narratives are produced in a way that “involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production.”[7] Historical narratives as they are produced in video games follow this same problem, and reinforcing cultural narratives that represent a deliberately populist and reductivist construct only compound these problems. This is perhaps especially true when it comes to portrayals of colonialism, where the primary market is, in fact, settler colonial society—and thus games tend to reinforce the worst aspects of that mytho-history and worldview. Strategy games tend to be especially bad at this. As Beth Dillon describes the mechanics of Age of Empires III,

Regardless of whether you are playing colonialists or Natives, the mechanics remain largely the same: mine copper, silver, and gold; chop down trees; gather berries; kill animals and collect meat; kill treasure guardians and collect treasure; walk and reveal the map; attack and defeat enemies or defend territories; build trading posts and receive resources or allies.[8]

Empire: Total War, despite having an expansion called the “WarPath Campaign” (with its own host of problematic concepts), is an aggressively colonialist game—you play a European imperialist power in the eighteenth century engaging in aggressive imperialism.

In this case, you see it in the silences. Trouillot tells us this—“Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing.” But Empire: Total War silences most traces of enslaved people and of slave revolts.[9] Plantations are an integral part of the game, but the text accompanying them merely says:

Plantations are labour-intensive, especially during harvest time. They may not be necessarily profitable without indentured or slave labour. Slaves are self-explanatory, but indentured labour was the result of the European taste for transporting convicted felons to their colonies. Once a criminal record, several years of forced or cheap labour was imposed on him or her, and this indenture could be traded to a plantation owner. It was possible to buy out an indenture and become free, an option that was rarely available to slaves.[10]

The game is built around the mechanics of economic development, but this is the only mention of slavery and enslaved peoples. The mechanisms of revolt and revolution, either empire-wide or provincial, are absent. If, as Sepinwall writes, “Most efforts to make video games on slavery have proven bitterly disappointing,” Empire’s choice to pretend it does not exist is even worse.[11] Indentured labor is made comfortable within the game—“transporting convicted felons”—and slavery is made less than a footnote. In this way, Creative Assembly chooses to bypass any moral dilemma in their grand narrative of imperialism and settler colonialism.

Trouillot wrote that “the convention that enslaved Africans and their descendants could not envision freedom—let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom—was based not so much on empirical evidence as on an ontology, an implicit organization of the world and its inhabitants.”[12] Empire: Total War falls into this trap, deliberately and willfully, however much the mechanisms of the game rely on revolution, on plantations, on empire, on the change of government, on armed struggle, on changing the world. Allowing Haiti to exist in that universe, allowing Haiti to be free, allowing Haiti to BE is something they cannot conceive of.

Empire: Total War is now twelve years old, and games are getting better—the 2013 Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry, for instance, offers one of the better Euro-American portrayals of Haitian slave resistance.[13] But Trouillot’s work is still relevant, day after day, as the fundamental problems of representation and of the portrayal of Haiti in popular media and culture, and certainly in video games, have not been solved.


Thomas Lecaque is an Associate Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, located on Baxoje, Meskwaki and Sauk lands. His primary research area is on the crusades and apocalypticism in the High Middle Ages, but he teaches broadly in medieval world, vast early America, and video games and history courses. He can also be found @tlecaque.

Title Image: Caribbean map from Empire Total War.

Further Readings:

Dalleo, Raphael. American Imperialism’s Undead: The Occupation of Haiti and the rise of Caribbean Anticolonialism. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2016.

Dillon, Beth A. “Signifying the West: Colonialist Designs in Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs.” Eludamos 2:1 (2008). https://www.eludamos.org/index.php/eludamos/article/view/vol2no1-10.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press, 2004.

Sepinwall, Alyssa Goldstein. Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2021.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.

Endnotes:

[1] Creative Assembly, Empire: Total War, Sega, March 2009. PC.

[2] Matt Bertz, “Empire: Total War, An RTS with Exceptional Depth and Historical Accuracy,” GameInformer, September 22, 2009, Accessed October 1, 2021. https://www.gameinformer.com/games/empire_total_war/b/pc/archive/2009/09/22/review.aspx

[3] Fraser Brown, “Placing authenticity over accuracy in Total War: Rome II,” PCGamesN, August 23, 2013, Accessed October 1, 2021. https://www.pcgamesn.com/totalwar/placing-authenticity-over-accuracy-total-war-rome-ii

[4] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).

[5] Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and video Games (Jackson: The University of Mississippi Press, 2021), p. 3

[6] Brown.

[7] Trouillot, xxiii.

[8] Beth A. Dillon, “Signifying the West: Colonialist Designs in Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs,” Eludamos 2:1 (2008), https://www.eludamos.org/index.php/eludamos/article/view/vol2no1-10.

[9] Trouillot, 49.

[10] Empire: Total War

[11] Sepinwall, 185.

[12] Trouillot, 73.

[13] Sepinwall, 193.

One thought on ““Slaves are self-explanatory”: Silencing the Past in Empire Total War (2009)

  1. I fully agree that slavery is glossed over in this game, and a full explanation of it should have been included in the flavor text for plantations. The Haitian revolution, however, is mentioned in the flavor text for the abolition of slavery technology.
    There should be some nuance in the conclusion though. Ultimately, developer time is limited and not everything can be included in a game. Should Haiti be included into the game? Perhaps, but you could similarly argue for the representation of nations such as Serbia, the Kalmyk Khanate and the Khivan Khanate. Even Switzerland is missing from the map.
    In fact, the game doesn’t even properly represent pike warfare, which was still the dominant form of warfare in the early 18th century. And that in a game that is completely devoted to 18th century warfare! Empire Total War was a project that was far too ambitious for the time the developers were given, and it shows.

    Like

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