Everything I Needed to Know about Politics I Learned from Medieval 2: Total War

My interest in how gaming and politics often mix isn't a new one.  For example, take this editorial I wrote in 2008 (then, like now, we were on the cusp of a big election) explaining how a solid strategy game like Medieval II: Total War could actually be an edifying experience when it comes to explaining the political art of nation-state politics.  While M2TW might no longer be the top dog in the strategy genre (Crusader Kings 2 would be my new champion), the lessons that M2TW taught me are as valid now as they were in 2008...or 1008 A.D. for that matter.  

Someday I really need to revisit this topic using CK2....

With the recent release of Grand Theft Auto IV, the uber-bad boy of video gaming, a great deal of ink and airtime has been devoted to bemoaning the evils of modern gaming.  Now, while I do believe there is more than a little truth to the criticisms that have been hurled at Rock Star Games’ latest effort to push gaming’s envelope of toleration, I also believe that there is much ado about nothing surrounding this issue.  Just because there are those individuals who revel in ever acting the part of the class clown, this does not mean that an entire industry is to be condemned.  After all, does the awful cinematic work of Ed Wood cancel out the excellent work of Samuel Bronston?  Of course not.  Likewise, the shock-tainment titles of gaming do not cancel out the better titles of more serious studios.

Being a strategy gamer at heart, one of my favorite series has always been Creative Assembly’s Total War franchise.  Combining historical realism with solid game design, Total War should be exalted by media pundits with as much enthusiasm as they exert upon condemning GTA IV.  After all, it is not every day that you have a game that excites teens as well as history professors - now, there is a story!

Alas, because TW will never give the player a chance to beat a medieval wench to death and steal a getaway horse afterwards, this game, and others like it, will forever go unnoticed by media pundits.  What a shame, for TW really is a remarkable game.
Recently, I installed the magnum opus Stainless Steel mod for Medieval II: Total War and have been hooked once again.  The many enhanced features this mod brings to the game make it seem completely new and most definitely improved.  And as I devoted more time to my favorite historical addiction, I began to realize just how informative this game can be.  In fact, I realized that a game such as M2TW can be downright educational in matters political. 

Here are some of the lessons I learned from the tutelage of Medieval II: Total War:

1)    Unabashedly mine vital natural resources:

In the Middle Ages, as now, natural resources were essential for the functioning of society.  Unfortunately, some of these resources are quite scarce.  What is a king to do when confronted with the need for resources that are difficult to obtain in sufficient quantities? 

Well, I suppose one solution would be to decree that my kingdom’s “addiction” to natural resources must be broken!  Sure, certain natural resources are valuable to the functioning of the kingdom, but that is hardly a sufficient reason to rape the earth!  No sir!  My people must forgo mining in their own backyard and just do without, no matter what hardships result.  In the meantime, just make do with a whole host of unsatisfactory substitutes bolstered by a small and vulnerable trickle from other kingdoms. 

Yeah, that’s not going to happen.  Of course, the wise solution is to mine every available deposit!  Build those mines like there is no tomorrow!  And when you run out of deposits, be ever on the lookout for others.  TW has taught me time and again that this is the sensible and successful path.  A kingdom that controls its own resources is a secure kingdom.

2)    Free trade benefits all:

If you want a kingdom’s coffers to be full, you must engage in aggressive free trade.  Oh sure, the merchants from Palermo are going to squawk about the fierce economic competition coming out of Venice, but the truth of the matter is that trade is a net gain for all involved.  A free trade policy not only provides exotic commodities not readily available in your kingdom, thus keeping the citizenry happy, but also creates jobs in the process (after all, the supply chain requires buyers, sellers, transporters, bankers, and more).  

There is always a temptation to deny trade rights to certain factions, such as the uppity English or the pushy Moors, but unless war is imminent, you will do more harm than good by denying your merchants access to every possible trade gateway.  In M2TW, protectionist policies lead to empty coffers.  Busy ports, on the other hand, leads to a contented people and enough money to build that cathedral the pope’s been asking about….

3)    Keep the treasury full:

You would think such an idea would be manifestly clear.  Alas, the record amount of deficit spending taking place in Washington D.C. renders such a conclusion false.  This is a dangerous mentality.

M2TW has made it abundantly clear that a treasury in the red is as much an enemy to the life of your kingdom as an invading army.  When you lack the money to hire armies and to build the cornerstones of a society, you are handing your enemies an unsheathed sword.

4)    A common culture binds a society together:

The modern world likes to pride itself on diversity.  Now, in and of itself, that is not a bad thing.  As America has amply proved to the world, a melting pot society has the potential to unleash the collective wisdom of the world within your borders and that is definitely a good thing.

However, as the term “melting pot” indicates, diversity must never supplant a common culture.  Every civilization is predicated upon a core set of beliefs that serve to bind its diverse members together.  If those core principles are whittled away or completely discarded, the glue that binds society goes with it and results in this:

M2TW makes it clear:  doing all you can to bind your citizens together in a common culture is preferable to the anarchy that must inevitably result from common discord.  To stand up and publically affirm that “we hold these truths to be self-evident” is not only praiseworthy, it is also an entirely necessary statement from the king of any land.

5)    Leaders lead from the front:

 Once upon a time, an actual king or lord would personally lead his men into battle; indeed, he was expected to.   With the arrival of the modern conception of the nation-state, such a dangerous practice was quickly abandoned – no doubt to the relief of monarchs everywhere.  With the rejection of such a practice, the actual dangers of warfare slowly receded from the safe enclosures of statecraft. Could this be one of the reasons why post medieval ages witnessed unprecedented bloodletting?

Now, I fully agree that the horribly precise nature of modern warfare makes the presence of a national leader upon the battlefield downright suicidal. But having said that, I do think it is completely necessary that any king (president, PM, whatever) should know what it is like to be on a battlefield at the vanguard of his realm’s troops just so they are ever mindful of the nature of war.  It is for this reason that I thought it was a wonderful display of wisdom and chivalry when young Prince Harry demanded to serve in Iraq.  If only more would-be leaders were so bravely inclined….

 6)    When you go to war, hold nothing back:

As Mill once remarked, “"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things….”  Sometimes a kingdom needs to exert military force in order to ensure its survival.  This is not a crime.  What is a crime, however, are those timid souls who would take a kingdom to war with a half-hearted effort, thus insuring a martial contest that accomplishes little more than the spilling of blood. 

When you go to war, you go to war with everything you have and mercilessly pursue the enemy (but always being sure to show mercy to a defeated foe) until a manifest victory is achieved.   The fighting may be tough, the casualties may mount, but you have got to remain committed to the effort until you can bring your troops home in victory.  Anything short of this resolve is, well…unbecoming of a king.

By the way: this does not mean that you do not take full advantage of your envoys to help bring about a victory that arms alone might not be able to achieve.  M2TW has made it very clear that opportune diplomacy via an articulate diplomat can work wonders!  Cannily treat with your foes – with the emphasis on ‘cannily.’

Those are six quick lessons that M2TW has taught me with commendable clarity.  Unfortunately, after following the 2008 presidential campaigns, I am starting to believe that the simple wisdom found in a game might be absent from the real world halls of power.  Perhaps we should take up a collection and send one copy each of the Medieval II Gold Pack to each presidential contender?  


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