I grew up on a steady diet of hardcore historical strategy games.
There was the venerable Civ 2, where I would basically play Turkey in the World War 2 scenario on repeat for days at a time on a Mini-ITX-in-a-box computer I had built with a jerry-rigged 20 lb. LCD screen pulled from a cop car. Then there were the venerable Europa Universalis and Victoria series, which my middle school friend introduced me to and which started a long love affair with Paradox Interactive. At one point, I remember even buying PDF’s of their public financial disclosure statements and learning just enough Swedish to translate them because I was so fascinated by their games and wanted to learn everything about them.
Aside from those blockbuster hits, there was a whole host of titles now considered obscure, like Imperialism (1 and 2), Balance of Power: The 1990 Edition, Inca and Hidden Agenda, to name a few that I really enjoyed. I also played a lot of not really historical but historical/political-ish RTS games like Tropico, Command and Conquer: Red Alert, and Age of Empires (loved the “Enemies of Rome” campaign in the AoE 1 Gold Edition, especially getting to play Hannibal!) Finally, there was my favorite game of all time, the legendary Renaissance Venetian trading simulator that has yet to be beat, Machiavelli the Prince.
Those games got me through my childhood. At a time when things weren’t great at home and I didn’t really fit in with any group at school (not even the nerds), single-player historical strategy games let me build my own world and kingdom. They let me feel like I could build the walls to protect myself that I never had in real life. If I wasn’t able to be accepted for who I was outside of the confines of my room, at least I got to be myself through my game worlds. Social/multiplayer gaming–whether for PC, console, table top or card-based gaming–and the nerd culture that developed around it never appealed to me for that same reason. Gaming wasn’t my community. It was my highly personal refuge.
Now that I’ve grown up, I realize that I can’t build walls around my life and I can’t make a perfect, controlled little kingdom–and I don’t want to anymore. That ambition was a survival mechanism, blocking me off from the full range of emotions (and pain) that life affords. Yet there’s something that still appeals to me about the ability to find one’s identity through games and I think that it doesn’t always have to come from a wounded place. Games can inform how we see ourselves through their stories, colors and mechanics.
Despite the fact that I shunned connecting with others through games for so long, an important part of my desire to pursue game development now is to find community as well. A lot of people find comfort in sub-communities that are really blunt about this identity function, encouraging people to dress up as their favorite characters (i.e., cosplay) or become different characters (i.e., LARPing). Those have never felt quite right to me. But I love the idea of finding people who are fellow truth-seekers, who want to improve their lives by learning from history and by questioning, rewriting and valuing historical narratives. Maybe through game development I can start to form the core of such a community.