The Politics of Age of Empires II
I’ve been playing a lot of Stellaris lately, but as a kid, the only computer game I really played much was Age of Empires II (AoE2, as in ay-oh-ee-too).
In AoE2, you grow your medieval civilization from a tiny Dark Age village to a sprawling Imperial Age empire. There’s something very satisfying about seeing your color grow and spread across the minimap.
The game dares you to juggle everything in real time: creating villagers, managing your economy, scouting your enemy, building barracks, training soldiers, micromanaging their approach, timing a key upgrade to swing an early battle—and all that for a basic raid! It’s a lot, but it’s a lot of fun if your nerves can handle it.
But lately I’ve been considering AoE2 from a non-isometric point of view.
In his book Games: Agency as Art, Thi Nguyen emphasizes that our game values are often artificially clear.
And we like this:
Value clarity offers us relief from the evaluative complexities of life, a shelter from the difficulties of assessment and commensuration. Value clarity boosts our experiences of functional beauty, because the functional beauty of an action is clearer when the action’s goals are clearer… Goals are part of the specification of alternate agencies, and it is easier for us to find our way into a novel form of agency when its ends are specified clearly and precisely.
Not all games encourage or benefit from value clarity. If we’re forced to standardize rules for numerically judging who’s “best” at competitive yo-yo, the rules we make will inevitably oversimplify and flatten the values we actually care about.
But Age of Empires II traditionally gives you just three paths to victory: build and defend a Wonder, collect and defend all Relics, or win by Conquest and eliminate all your enemies.
Victory is all-or-nothing: you win or lose, that’s it.
And most online players actually play with just one victory condition: Conquest.
Even so, very few online games actually end with you tracking down and killing every last enemy unit. You’re supposed to resign once the game is lost, which is not when your army is destroyed, because that’s easy enough to build back.
It’s when your economy is destroyed.
So in practice, the victory condition is killing enough enemy villagers to make your opponent resign. Surprise, the empire-building game’s win condition is to commit war crimes!
Obviously, an empire-building game like AoE2 has to enact substantial political commitments just in order to function. So here’s an administrator’s vision of the world: Villagers cost exactly 50 food every time, interchangeably do whatever work you give them, and never rebel (though they can be converted by enemy monks). The folk who form the backbone of your society are abstracted away as tireless economic producers. Once born, they cost you nothing and selflessly provide you with 100% of their labor value until they’re killed. Their well-being is represented by 40-point health bars.
Of course games have to simplify, and these choices drive enjoyable game play! But they also make very significant political simplifications. AoE2’s a strategy game, Ricky, of course it cares how hard you work your villagers and how many of the enemy’s you slaughter. But we’re just here for the real-time strategy of building and deploying units and counter-units, charging in my knights to cut down your trebuchets before they reduce my castle to rubble. It’s just a game! Why can’t you just enjoy it? I am enjoying it! But imagine someone who simply dismissed the politics of a movie like Braveheart. And unlike movies, games invite players to act, not just spectate. Age of Empires II lets you viscerally live out an idealized, enjoyable understanding of war that satisfies a very appealing power fantasy. You can right-click on my Town Center to attack it and flush out all my villagers. But that power fantasy is certainly not politically neutral. (Note I’m not yet saying it’s bad!) This helps explain the player’s weird role. In AoE2, the game lasts for centuries, but if I want, I get to pause time and tell everyone exactly what to do next while I eat lunch. I can exert total simultaneous control as far as I can see. Whose political perspective is that? Am I playing as God? As Empire? As Mode of Production? And why can’t I see through the fog of war without cheats? AoE2 gives us a really satisfying sense of control amid the real-time chaos of leveraging the economic forces of feudalism into violent devastation for any and all opponents. And the politics actually change when you play with other people online, because you aren’t allowed to constantly pause everyone else’s game during an online match. You have to accept less control and more chaos, and now you’re trying to beat real people.
So why do we like that? I...don’t know. It seems a lot more complicated than saying “human nature” and calling it a day. I think there’s a lot of interesting work to be done clarifying both the appeal and the politics of empire-building games like AoE2. To be clear, I’m not arguing that any of this makes empire-building games bad, Age of Empires II isn’t canceled. But I do think we need to come to some kind of reckoning with the politics that are definitely in the game. On that note, here’s my least-favorite card in Terraforming Mars: