Video games of the alt-right

As political ideologies shift dangerously towards the far right, no-one is safe: not even the historical games manufactured by Paradox Interactive

Art: Matthew Fisher

“Sick of feminism and progressivism being shoved into all forms of media by their cultist adherents? Then this is the mod for you!”

These are some of the opening lines of the description for ‘Make Space Great Again — Play as Europeans Only’, a game modification (or mod) that players can add on to alter an original game known as Stellaris.

Stellaris is a strategy game, wherein various civilizations vie for control over the galaxy, and where one of the playable civilisations is humans. In the far future world of Stellaris, humans are represented by people of varying race, and feature male and female characters with names from varying linguistic origins.

But the ‘Make Space Great Again’ mod creator — who goes by the name ProgenyOfEurope — could not stand this future society where the varying cultures of humanity work in cooperation. So they created a mod that allows consumers to play as an exclusively white human race, with only male leaders. Just in case its name hasn’t given away the politics of this mod, it also includes a feature where, if you play as the White Human Race, you can have Donald Trump as the leader of your interplanetary empire. Unfortunately the mod doesn’t also include the ability to govern by erratic 2 a.m. tweets. Sad!

At the request of Paradox Interactive, the gaming company that published Stellaris, the mod was removed from Steam — a major online source of game mods — shortly after the mod was made available.

This incited a fiery response from the mod creator, who described Steam’s move as part of an “Inquisition.” Alt-Right blogger Hannibal Bateman — who proudly cites Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer as a friend — also jumped to the defense of ProgenyofEurope, declaring this was an example of “Cultural Marxism” and “a war [on] White males.”

ProgenyOfEurope is also the creator of another, less ambitious mod, one that was restricted to making all humans uniformly European. This mod was originally taken down with the ‘Make Space Great Again’ mod. However, it has since been re-uploaded with permission from Paradox. According to ProgenyOfEurope’s mod description, the conditions on this mod staying online are that he moderates the comments section to prevent anything that is “EVEN REMOTELY TRIGGERING FOR SWEDES,” that he does not link to his Youtube channel, and that certain offensive language is removed. And yes, in case you were curious, his Youtube channel is exactly what you’d expect from someone with the username ProgenyOfEurope, Fake News allegations and all.

A key element of the alt-right’s response to the banning of the mods was to point to two other mods, one which allowed you to create an exclusively African version of the human race, and the other which allowed you to pick within the game between European humanity, Asian humanity, Middle Eastern humanity and African humanity. The first of those mods has now been taken down, although it is unclear as to who is responsible for this. The se cond one remains online. The key distinction Paradox appears to have made between these mods and ProgenyOfEurope’s mods is that their comment sections were not incredibly racist.

This spat is merely an example of larger conflict within the gaming community, which began with what is known as the #GamerGate saga. For the uninitiated, depending on how you look at it #Gamergate was either a dispute over ethics in video game journalism, or a time when female video game writers were harassed over Twitter by what is now known as the Alt-Right. At its core, the point of contention is clear: are video games meant to be “designed for straight, white men” — as ProgenyOfEurope puts it — to the exclusion of all others? Or should they also be spaces for women, people of colour, and people of diverse genders and sexuality?

While much of the online community is fairly skeptical of these racially tinged mods and the Alt-Right, much of the pushback has come from Paradox itself — though given the fact that Paradox allowed the “Whites Only” mod to be re-uploaded, this seems more like the pushback of a company concerned largely with minimising negative publicity, rather than of an ideologically committed organisation. To Paradox’s credit, they released a free expansion for their games called ‘Women in History’ on International Women’s Day in 2015. The changes made were rather small, but tried to emphasise the various and important roles that women played in governance between 1444 and 1815. Unsurprisingly, internet commenters described this as “descent into feminist lalaland.”

To the Alt-Right, these discriminatory mods for Stellaris and the pushback from Paradox are part of a wider cultural war for control over video games, and popular media more broadly. To me, this is yet another example of the craziness that Paradox Interactive’s games seem to bring out in people.

While Stellaris may deal with a potential future of humanity, most of Paradox Interactive’s games pay homage to our past. Many of their best titles take the form of intricately complex grand strategy games, which require players to simulate the history of the world and spend a lot of time staring at maps.

While Stellaris has attracted the attention of the growing Alt-Right, Paradox Interactive’s other games, which focus on intensely historical simulations of medieval Europe through to World War II, have attracted the attention of a far older phenomenon: old school European nationalists.

The key feature that distinguishes Paradox’s games from Age of Empires, or Civilization, is that they take place on a fairly historically accurate map of the world, where the States control various pre-defined provinces. They are set during discrete historical periods, with time moving year by year. Rather than playing from the birth of civilization through to the space age, Paradox games have set time periods and the focus of each game is to simulate something comparable to history.

The mechanics of the games are designed to reflect the nature of the era they’re representing; Crusader Kings (1066 — 1444) is all about managing royal families, and feudal vassals; Europa Universalis (1455 — 1815) simulates trade, and colonisation; Victoria (1836 — 1936) pays a lot of attention to the rise of nationalism, alliances and modern political parties; and Hearts of Iron (1936 — 1948) is all about simulating World War II. To most people, the level of historical detail in these games is excruciating, but to their fans it’s what makes them great games.

So when you’re picking between playing as Muscovy or Lübeck in 1444, the question isn’t which one has better special abilities, but rather whether you’d like to play as an Orthodox power in Eastern Europe with the potential to unite Russia, or as a small city-state in northern Germany. The fact that the game takes place on an accurate world map means that Paradox Interactive has to decide what the provinces are, which country controls them at various points in history, what religion the people of that province follow, and what culture they’re a part of.

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Art: Ludmilla Nunell

You can only discuss Paradox’s games on the internet for so long before people start to (very loudly and persistently) argue that Paradox has totally screwed up when drawing country borders, deciding which religions go where, and what cultures people follow. Some of these people arguing are massive nerds (like me), who get kicks in ensuring absolute historical accuracy. But a large portion of the rest have perceivably less noble intentions.

Given the relatively recent history of violence over borders, religion and control in the Balkans, many of these arguments tend to fixate on that region. It’s quite common on Paradox forums for a user with a Croatian flag as their display picture to come up against a user with a Serbian flag picture over what a Balkan province should be called, whether it was Serbian or Croatian in 1444, and whether demographic maps from the 19th century are more reliable guides than maps from the 11th century. To my knowledge, this is the only time people under 50 get this worked up about cartography.

This pattern of trying to reshape Paradox Interactive’s telling of history to favour one’s own nationalist narrative has been taken to a bizarre extreme by Vitosha Studios. Vitosha created one of the most notorious mods for a Paradox Interactive game: “Steppe Wolf”. The aim of the modified game is to expand the Paradox’s ‘Europa Universalis III’ game from being one that covers the period of 1444 — 1815 through to one that covers all history from 11 CE to 2010 CE. This was one of the most ambitious mods of its time, and it was also one of the buggiest mods of its time. It would frequently cause the game to crash, many of its mechanics did not work, and it was incredibly slow. Yet if a player could get past flaws, the mod was apparently an incredibly fun experience…if you could deal with the fact that Bulgaria seemed to occupy an oddly central place in the game.

This mod’s skew in power dynamics was not surprising though. Vitosha is a Bulgarian group, and they claim that the mod is “changed in a historical way (from a Bulgarian point of view).” In practice, this meant that Bulgaria was by far the most powerful country in the game, and would frequently end up ruling much of the world. Even more bizarrely, Bulgaria would often split up into various Bulgarian successor countries that would regularly declare war on each other. To Vitosha, changing the games to be more historically accurate necessarily involved making Bulgaria the most powerful country in the world.

Both these intense forum arguments, and the peculiarities of Vitosha Studios are part of a wider issue: the large fan base that Paradox Interactive games have among old-style European nationalists.

The humour of the online community for Paradox games probably does quite a bit to normalize this type of nationalist expression. It is commonplace to joke about the atrocities that you’ve committed in the game. A lot of the time, this doesn’t have a particular political bent; the most common type of jokes are about playing Crusader Kings where people have murdered their character’s family members to ensure that the right people inherit their feudal titles. The behaviour is fairly commonplace in the game, and jokes about it mostly reflect on the commonality of what contemporary society would deem horrendous crimes.

Yet some of these jokes do take on a political tone, even if the author themselves does not hold any particular view on the matter. A common joke used within the community is that a goal they’re aiming to accomplish, or have accomplished in a game is to “Remove Kebab.” This typically refers to removing the Ottoman Empire from Europe or from existence, but it is often broadly applied to defeating Muslim states within the games.

A specific joke about targeting Muslims is notable on its own, but the history of this meme is nothing other than disturbing. Those who know their memes may be familiar with the music video “Serbia Strong,” made by Bosnian Serb soldiers as propaganda, paying patriotic tribute to convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić. The phrase “Remove Kebab” in the video refers to the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims during the 1990s. The video became the subject of numerous parodies in the mid-2000s, and its aggressively jingoistic nature was a large part of the joke. To reference this video in part is to mock it, but also to engage with its awful origins. Jokes about “Remove Kebab” in the context of Paradox games have a similar tone: sure, it is so clearly ridiculous and mocking of the ethnic cleansing being referenced, but at the same time the popularity of the joke normalises the nationalistic attitudes it reflects.

What makes the Paradox games unique is also what probably attracts their more problematic fan base. The ability to play as almost any country, on a realistic map, means that you can create an alternate history to your liking. To most people, this means playing games for the challenge, or because they’ll be interesting. But it also provides the option to play the game to create the “correct” version of history, where your nation assumes its rightful place in history.

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Art: Ludmilla Nunell

To some degree I understand the urge to use the games as a form of historical wish-fulfillment. I must confess to once deciding to play as a Central Asian Steppe tribe that converted to Judaism — that bit isn’t the wish-fulfillment, it’s just delightfully obscure history. I took that character, and established a Jewish kingdom in what is now Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and Kazakhstan, before moving south to conquer Jerusalem, build the 3rd Temple and re-establish the Kingdom of Judaea. This sort of thing is the crazed fantasy of the Israeli right wing — which I certainly don’t identify with — but playing through history as a dynasty sharing identity traits with me, and seeing them succeed was an admittedly enjoyable experience.

It’s when people take this urge too far, and go beyond the confines of the game itself that it becomes problematic. The game creates the space for you to enact your idealised history, but taking it one step further to demand that the game creators reflect that nationalist narrative in their telling of history speaks to a darkers, suppressive urge of humanity.

This is further driven by the fact that given that Paradox’s games aim to simulate history; it often means the atrocities of history are included in gameplay as well. If you’re playing as England, you can colonise North America, and extinguish the indigenous peoples and cultures there. If you’re playing as Serbia you can take control of the Balkans, forcibly convert them to Orthodoxy, and eliminate other ethnicities. So if your nationalist fantasy involves the elimination or humiliation of ‘rival nations’ these Paradox’s games provide a space for that, without any need for mods.

It also means that when Paradox Interactive takes down your mod for being racist, you can claim that they’re hypocritical “Swedish cucks pushing a Leftist political agenda.” HS