Ethical Empires

Curator's Note

Empire management games, or “Grand Strategy” games as they are known, are notoriously impenetrable and cold. Most commonly, the player is given a large, top-down view, and from that high, it can become difficult to imagine all of those little, digital lives. Concepts such as war and conflicting cultures are often left as abstract representations whose ethical repercussions may be comfortably ignored or minimized, and when they are engaged, it is at the will of the player's imagination and heavy interpretation; there is a reason that Grand Strategy gamers have a reputation for being despotic hegemonists while gaming. This isn't an indictment—games can offer a safe space for people to examine new modes of thinking, and players often come away from their Grand Strategy experiences with a healthier understanding of the temptations of dictatorial power.

However, this trend is not a mandate, and clever design can create a lasting impact for players. Grand Strategy games have a difficult time with this, since the in-game response to player action is often as abstract as the action itself (such as the loss of life in war being delivered numerically), but this can and has been surmounted in a surprising way: through the user interface itself.

Stellaris is a space-themed Grand Strategy game released a bit over a year ago by Paradox Studios, whose Grand Strategy games are numerous and well-reviewed. This game allows the player to construct their own empire, placing special emphasis on its governing ethics, such as materialism, pacifism, and xenophobia, and when the player decides to play as a more morally ambiguous empire, the user interface begins challenging them. For example, each population, or “pop,” of approximately 1.5 billion people is not represented with a number, but with a single intricately illustrated and animated portrait of one of the species. Similarly, when managing an entire species—such as committing genocide, enacting slavery, or setting citizenship—the player is presented with a single member of the population. This representation personifies them, potentially invoking stronger empathy.

The text of the game also challenges the player. For example, if refugees from other empires are allowed, the policy reads “Refugees Welcome” with accompanying flavor text, while oppressive policies utilize a similar biased rhetoric. In this way, every policy decision becomes an ethical challenge for the player. These policies are locked for ten in-game years, adding a sense of finality to the decision.


This is a great piece on how games may be able to overcome the presumed ethical constraints of their respective genre. As you mention, large-scale strategy games are often designed from a perspective that deemphasizes the ethical impact of the player’s actions. Yet, even for massive games like these, where it is feasibly impossible to know the unique impact of every action on every individual game character, as you point out, there are ways of collectively representing this impact. What I think your piece does is that it illustrates how genre operates as an inadequate alibi for ethical game design, and that conscientious game designers can create an emotional (and by extension ethical) investment in even the “coldest” of genres. Thanks so much for sharing!

Thanks for your thoughts, Fredrik – I think bringing the idea of scale into the way affect and morality function in games is a really salient point. Grand strategy games are fascinating in that they operate from a “god’s eye” view—reproducing the visual politics of domination through referencing a certain zoomed-out process of viewing the land through overhead map views. (Mapping and games is also something I’ve been working through – how types of power, and empire, are reproduced through the way we conceive of and represent land and the bodies that live on it in video games.) It seems like Stellaris is attempting to do something different by using an animated portrait of an individual as a way to push against the numbers-as-people (“pop”) statistic that are so inherent to the way grand strategy games work. I’ve been playing a bit of Civilization VI lately, and I think you’re right that there is a tendency for these games to have a very zoomed out, and “cold,” approach to the way that bodies and empire function. You bring up the idea of scale, with “zoomed out” views of empire as being in some way “cold” and detached, and the idea of “zoomed in” views of empire, with portraits of individuals, as channeling something different, and perhaps more affective and emotional. You bring up empathy as something that these portraits evoke – an affect that is contested in a lot of queer games circles (for example, here’s game designer Robert Yang’s article that pushes against and problematizes the idea of empathy in games: Is empathy necessary to the way morality functions in grand strategy games? Are empire and empathy necessarily deeply intertwined and unable to be separated? Would it be possible to create a game about empire without evoking empathy, but still able to push the idea of morality which is, as Robert Mejia mentioned yesterday, something that is necessarily emotional and affective? Is it possible to create a grand strategy game from a position of disempowerment, or does that produce a kind of oxymoron? Thanks again for your post – it brought up some really interesting thoughts for me, and I hope to pick up Stellaris in the Humble Monthly!

Thanks for your thoughts and comments. I think, in grand strategy games, morality is already a key factor; after all, this genre is often marketed as allowing the player to explore immoral options. Gamers that play these games often desire these moral quandaries. For example, in Stellaris, there was a call by players for the developers to allow xenophobic empires to raise sentient beings as cattle for meat, a request specifically made due to its ethical problems. These players likely aren't cannibals, but there's a fascination with the unethical which can be explored safely in the game space. By definition, grand strategy games give a large amount of power to the player (though usually direct control is limited), and what they do with that power helps create that ethical experience. I agree with Yang to a certain extent: when wielded clumsily, empathy becomes nothing more than a marketing tool, one that sells the plights of others as a commodity. Games, I believe, can do a bit more, but it's difficult. Robert Mejia cited the difficulty of doing so in his Monday article when he said "That effort to operationalize ethics ironically reduces the ethical weight of these choices to a cause and effect logic." I believe a way to entice the player into a more meaningful and constructive empathy is to be more subtle and use the rhetoric of the game itself, like Stellaris has done. Rather than simply presenting the plights of people, the user interface itself is designed to quietly confront the player for their actions. One irate gamer even attacked the game director for Stellaris for pushing a political agenda when he discovered the wording of the "Refugees Welcome" policy, even though there was plenty other strong rhetoric in the game. I think, in this quieter way, games can create a more active learning space where suffering isn't just consumed. Also, if you're thinking of picking up Stellaris, I would HIGHLY recommend it. Its emphasis away from victory or defeat is one of its best qualities.

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