This historical strategy video game challenges the player to take up the reins as a European prince and conquer the world.
Sources (taken from screen captures in the game):
For this article, I will be looking at the geopolitical representation of the European continent in the video game Europa Universalis IV. Published in 2013, EU4 (as the game is colloquially known) makes perhaps the most famous example of the historical grand strategy game genre. The game presents the player with a meticulously researched map of the entire globe in the year 1444, divided between hundreds of individual “nations,” each of which is in turn divided into provinces. The player can choose to play as the omnipotent “puppet-master” of any nation on the map, guiding it through history from 1444 to the game’s end date of 1821. An individual game can be joined by as many as 256 players, each acting as one country in the world; however, many users play the game alone, going up against computer-controlled enemies. Every colored-in country on the map is available to play, from the Cree people in North America, to a feudal duchy of the kingdom of France, to the Timurid empire. Every nation not chosen by a player is instead controlled by artificial intelligence, so that all nations are guided through history in a randomized way even without the influence of players. As shown in Figure 1, each colored region represents a playable “nation.” The smaller shapes are the game’s atomic geographical unit, the province. In 1444, many provinces are uncolored—these are “uncolonized” provinces, open to be colonized with little resistance by any nation that pursues that agenda. The primary objective of the game is military expansion, and although there is no defined end goal, the game rewards aggressive military expansion, and is most fun when you, as the player, are swelling your territorial holdings to include much of the world. In my most successful game, for example, I played as Habsburg Austria, and by 1821 my empire stretched from Yorkshire to Kyoto, including all of Europe and much of Asia.
Figure 1: Europa Universalis IV map of the world in 1444.
Europa Universalis IV, developed and published by Paradox Interactive Studios, makes for an unusual historical/historiographical document, in large part because the researchers and authors who created the game’s historical realism are unknown and uncredited. Paradox Interactive is located in Sweden, and many of the lead developers are Swedish. From the game’s credits, for example, we know that a Johan Andersson holds the title of “Creative Director,” and that Guillaume Hébert-Jodoin and Jorge Câmara had the role of “Additional Research.” But, with the information given, we do not know who wrote the historical “flavor” texts in the game, or who directed the game’s philosophy toward history. The most information that we have on the development team is that it is staffed largely by white European men. This paper will unpack and examine the game’s construction of Europe for its players, rather than the individual ideologies and social contexts of its creators. It is worth noting, furthermore, that EU4 is one of the most popular games in its genre; in March 2021, the game peaked at over 25,000 concurrent players, and since its release in 2013, an estimated two to five million copies of the game have been sold. This game has become a vehicle through which millions of people across billions of man-hours have engaged with European history, and this fact is worth keeping in mind as we think about the game in a historiographic context. Europa Universalis IV makes for an unusual document, but it nevertheless documents European history in ways books and other non-interactive media cannot.
Figure 2: Europa Universalis IV opening screen.
As the title suggests, Europa Universalis IV focuses primarily on the experience of playing in Europe. As the player guides a nation through the game, historical events and decisions pop up for her/him to engage with; for example, in the War of the Roses, an England player has the option of choosing a king from the houses of York or Lancaster. Likewise, ruling Austria in the 1500s, the player can choose to grant concessions to the peasantry during the Great Peasants’ War of 1525, or brutally crush the rebellion. Non-European regions of the world also have events like these, but on the European continent, nearly every country has an extensive catalog of historical events, decisions, and ideas drawn from the development team’s research.
But even before the timeline begins, the game centers the player’s focus on Europe: launch the game, and you are immediately presented with a map of Europe and a number of textual descriptions of the state of political affairs on the European continent vis-à-vis the rise of the Ottoman Empire. EU4 holds an incredible amount of information about Europe across the centuries—this article will specifically analyze the ways in which the game constructs Europe as a geopolitical concept around its start-date of 1444. The game’s developers could have situated EU4’s Europe as being on the verge of colonial explosion, or on the verge of the scientific revolution of the early modern period, or the development of gunpowder weaponry, or on the rising hegemons of Spain, France, and England in western Europe. However, they did not. I argue that the game’s developers constructed Europe around three key factors: the concept of European universalism, the geopolitics of the Holy Roman Empire, and the external threat of the rising Ottoman Empire.
When a player launches Europa Universalis IV and chooses “Start Game” on the main menu, they are presented with the screen shown in Figure 2. This choice of focus is telling on its own. The game’s timespan (AD 1444-1821) roughly covers the “early modern” period of history, and though the player can pan around the globe to choose any of the nations represented in Figure 1, that the game draws the player’s attention to Europe immediately enforces a Eurocentric narrative of the continent’s presumed centrality. Borrowing the vocabulary of world systems theorists Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, Europe is right away established as the “core” of the global system, leaving the rest of the world visually peripheral and thus presumably politically peripheral as well.
The player first encounters this core-periphery model in the game’s name alone. The phrase Europa Universalis (Universal Europe) creates this core-periphery model immediately. Anti- and post-colonial theorists and historians since the mid-20th century have argued forcefully against the self-supposed universality of European rationality and humanism that European colonial empires so frequently used (and still use) as a casus belli for expansion into lands outside Europe.
Two examples seem particularly relevant here. First, let us look at Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe; Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Chakrabarty argues that in order for post-imperial India to fully dislodge itself from the ideology of British colonialism, Indian scholars need to also dislodge themselves from European Marxist thought, because Marxism (presumed to be universally applicable by many anti-colonial scholars) only grasps politics local to Europe, and cannot speak for the unique experiences of non-European nations. “No country… is a model to another country, though the discussion of modernity that thinks in terms of ‘catching up’ precisely posits such models… The universal concepts of political modernity encounter pre-existing concepts, categories, institutions, and practices through which they get translated and configured differently.”
The second work that bears mentioning here is Walter Mignolo’s Local Histories/Global Designs. Mignolo argues that Europeans intentionally used the concept of universal truth as justification for subjecting the world to their economic demands and military expansion: “Global designs clash with local histories of migrants and nation-states who always lose the game of ‘free trade’. At some point these phenomena, which have been surfacing [since 1500, as the author says earlier] with growing intensity, were described as ‘the contradictions of capitalism.’ But there is no such contradiction: it is the very logic of coloniality, that moves the world, but it has to be disguised with the rhetoric of modernity, of salvation and progress.” The global designs of which Mignolo speaks emerged during the early modern period, as empires like the Spanish and British sought to legitimize their military expansion and missionary efforts against native peoples in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Although I do not believe the creators of Europa Universalis had this in mind, the title of their game nevertheless grasps the importance of its period of history as a crucible for the eruption of European universalist rhetoric. Europe, per the game’s start, is the center of the world; the player should play in Europe and expand outward into all the world’s peripheries.
But Europa Universalis defines Europe as a continent beyond this surface-level Eurocentrism. Thinkers around the world have historically used a multitude of conflicting political and cultural definitions to construct Europe as a cohesive continent. Europa Universalis’s developers titled the November 11, 1444 start-date “The Rise of the Ottomans,” in reference to the rapid military-political expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th-century. The particular date, November 11, marks the day after the Battle of Varna (November 10, 1444). Why this moment exactly? I will examine that briefly. Given that we know the game centers on Europe, it becomes necessary to critically examine the decisions the game’s developers made to best situate their game in a European history. The developers could have chosen May 22, the date of the Treaty of Tours, which marked a significant truce in the Hundred Years’ War. They could have chosen 1451, the birth year of Christopher Columbus. But they chose to begin the game instead in the aftermath of the Ottoman armies crushing Europe’s last and strongest line of defense in the Balkans, before that Turkish-Islamic empire swept into Europe and continued increasing its hold on western Asia. Let us examine this choice further.
The game also provides a brief text (seen in Figure 2) describing the geopolitical environment of the Varna Crusade before the player even chooses a nation. Once the game begins, the player will progress through a great deal more historical “flavor” text and descriptions of the specific country they chose, but this text on the Varna Crusade will always be the first piece of historical writing that a player encounters upon entering Europa Universalis:
Rumors of Ottoman weakness caused Pope Eugene IV to call for a crusade against them in 1443. With the West still embroiled in the Hundred Years War, the King of Hungary and Poland, Wladyslav III, took on the cause to finally expel the scourge of Christendom from Europe. Led by general John Hunyadi, The White Knight, the Hungarian army saw some initial success, but was ultimately defeated. The abdicated Sultan Murad II came back to aid his son and led the Ottoman army to victory at the battle of Varna where King Wladyslav was killed. Peace was eventually signed but the way for further Ottoman expansion into Eastern Europe now lay open.
This text mentions the Hundred Years’ War, it is worth noting, but only in the context of the Varna Crusade, to explain why western Europe could not field armies for the fight against the Ottomans. This text situates the player at a particularly exciting moment in European history, foreshadowing the potential aggression of the “terrible Turk” into the European center but leaving the narrative open enough to excite the player to try and reverse that course where Europeans in real history failed. The final sentence particularly leaves the reader wondering what could happen next? It draws the player into feeling threatened at the hands of the Ottomans, tantalizing the player, saying the way for further Ottoman expansion lies open, what are you going to do about it?
EU4’s presentation of the Ottoman threat as critical to the idea of Europe holds a great deal of water in historiography. Since the recession of Islamic power in the Mediterranean in the 12th and 13th centuries—when Catholic polities conquered southern Iberia, Sicily, and the Aegean islands from their historical Muslim lords—Europeans had not experienced significant threats from peoples outside their continent. When they did, for example at the hands of the Mongol Empire in the late 13th century, they wrote about it not as an attack on “Europe” but on Christianity. As historian Peter Burke argues in his article “Did Europe Exist Before 1700?”, “the central distinction between Them and Us in the Middle Ages was between pagans and Christians… In the medieval repertoire of concepts expressing group identity, ‘Europe’ had a relatively minor place.” Only with the rise of the Ottoman Empire on the southeastern frontier of the Catholic world did the group identities of Christianity and Europe begin to intertwine.
Burke lists three main stages in the growth of the concept of Europe as a coherent political unit in early modern Europe, the first of which is the Ottomans: “The invaders were as fearsome to westerners as the Huns or the Mongols had been but there was one important difference—the Turkish threat lasted longer. The Turks defeated the Christians at Kosovo in 1389, at Nicopolis, on the Danube in 1396, and at Varna, in modern Bulgaria, in 1444, before taking Constantinople in 1453.” Thus the failed crusade at Varna marked Europe’s “last stand” of sorts against the existential threat of the Ottoman Empire, before it dealt the final blow to the old world by taking Constantinople and ending the Roman Empire once and for all. “The Grand Turk,” says Burke, “did as much as anyone to create the consciousness of Europe in the early modern period. A common danger encouraged a sense of solidarity… The Turks were infidels, so ‘European’ meant Christian.”
This is, of course, a reductive understanding of European identity which—like EU4 itself—makes the history more convenient to read but does not address the full complexity of the issue. However, Burke is certainly right that the Ottomans helped Europeans achieve self-definition. Europa Universalis IV creates its Europe in simplistic but still very real opposition to perhaps the most enduring threat Christian Europeans had ever felt: the Ottoman Empire. The player, thus, is challenged to take up the European battle flag and lead the charge against the “Terrible Turk.”
Figure 3: The continental boundaries of EU4’s world. Europe is light blue.
While Europa Universalis IV uses the Ottoman Empire to define Europe from the outside, the game sets up Europe from within as a sort of solar system revolving around the Holy Roman Empire. Choose any nation with its capital in the light-blue region (Figure 3)—from Scotland or Portugal in the west to Novgorod or Serbia in the east—and the game presents you with the same message about the political environment of your nation: “Europe is home to the Holy Roman Empire, a giant, but largely divided, Empire that dominates the German and Northern Italian regions. Upon the death of an Emperor the Imperial Electors select his replacement by voting. A member can become an Elector by being granted an Electorate by the current Emperor or inheriting an Elector.” This description of Holy Roman imperial politics and game mechanics continues ad nauseum; the critical point here is once again the decision the developers made on how to stage Europe for the player. They could have introduced the player to the geopolitical diversity of the continent, from merchant republics like Novgorod and Venice, to feudal kingdoms like England or France, to theocracies like the archbishoprics of Mainz or Liege. They could have spoken again to the variety of military conflicts shaking the continent in the mid-15th century, from the Hundred Years’ War to the Polish-Hungarian attack on the Ottoman Balkans or the Castilian conquest of Andalusia. But per the choice of Europa Universalis IV’s developers, Europe centers around the Holy Roman Empire. Gameplay evinces this as well; of all the regions in the game, the Holy Roman Empire is the most dense with unique and engaging gameplay mechanics. Nearly every one of the microscopic imperial princes has its own historical flavor events and decisions for the player to work through.
The intimate link between the Holy Roman Empire and the idea of Europe as a coherent unit also has deep roots in the historiography of Europe. Peter H. Wilson’s Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire (2016) argues this (in my belief) most effectively. In this encyclopedic work, Wilson shows that the Holy Roman Empire sat at the crossroads of nearly all European politics and culture, with deep ties to spheres as disparate as the British Isles, Iberia, Scandinavia, Russia, the Balkans, and the northern Mediterranean. In his introduction, Wilson sums up rather the complexity of the discussion on which we cannot elaborate here:
The Holy Roman Empire’s history lies at the heart of the European experience. Understanding that history explains how much of the continent developed between the early Middle Ages and the nineteenth century. It reveals important aspects which have become obscured by the more familiar story of European history as that of separate nation states. The Empire lasted for more than a millennium, well over twice as long as imperial Rome itself, and encompassed much of the continent.
It is no coincidence that the Holy Roman Empire defines the whole environment of Europe in Europa Universalis IV, from the eastern Baltic to the western Mediterranean. As the temporal arm of Christendom, the Holy Roman Empire drew in polities from all across Europe, and designed to expand outward to hold all of Europe within its embrace.
As a historical document (or collection of documents), Europa Universalis IV draws its players into a unique experience of Europe and European historiography. After reading about the state of European affairs in 1444, the player is then challenged to take the reins and lead the European continent to an era of unprecedented glory and riches. As this is a piece of entertainment media, all texts in the game, and all decisions the developers made about what to include and what to leave out, were in some way made to enhance the player’s immersion—to suck the player into the geopolitical world in which they play. Europe as a continent contains untold multitudes of identities, networks, and ideas of itself; the developers could have built the game to reward international cooperation, cultural diversification, and economic development as the player’s primary goals; but it does not. Rather, total war and winner-takes-all imperial politics are the name of the game. Europa Universalis IV presents an engaging take on the idea of European identities as defined by military defense (against the Ottomans) and imperial expansion.
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Burke, Peter. "Did Europe exist before 1700?,” History of European Ideas, 1, 1, 1980, 21-29.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe; Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference,
with new preface by author. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.
Mignolo, Walter. Local Histories/Global Designs. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
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