Twoscore and Two Years Later: The Wait for a Different Civil War Game

2014 has seen the release of two strategy games pertaining to the American Civil War: the expansion for Ageod’s Civil War II, entitled The Bloody Road South, and Game Labs’ upcoming Ultimate General: Gettysburg, currently in early access. Both games, while featuring different aspects of the war, still fall under the same umbrella genre of “strategy.” 

This is not a new trend. From Avalon Hill’s 1958 Gettysburg to the famous Terrible Swift Sword, the Civil War has been a well-represented strategy genre well before video games existed.

Terrible Swift Sword:  the only game to last longer than the actual battle of Gettysburg. Image from  Amazon.  

Terrible Swift Sword: the only game to last longer than the actual battle of Gettysburg. Image from Amazon. 

Large video game developers like Sid Meier and Sierra have tried their hand at releasing Civil War games, and sometimes the Civil War is included as an aspect of strategy games, such as Paradox’s Victoria series. But these games are still only featured in the strategy genre. Aside from the occasional game such as Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, where the Civil War is used as a backdrop, quite possibly the most defining moment of American history remains locked out of the greater gaming pantheon.

This seems strange, since the Civil War holds its own in other media forms. Movies such as Glory, Cold Mountain, and Gone with the Wind have won Oscars. The book The Killer Angels won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and inspired the show Firefly. Ken Burns did the impossible and got the American people to watch PBS with his documentary series. 

So why does so little Civil War material exist in video games outside the strategy genre? The answer is somewhat complicated. It would inevitably work better in some genres than others, but what follows is a list where the Civil War could reasonably have an appearance and why they may not have materialized.

Simulation: Reenact the Lord of War opening!
The Civil War marks one of the first instances a country actively practiced “total war,” where the country devotes not just its soldiers, but its civilians and resources, to fighting and winning the war. In total war the line between combatant and innocent blurs, and while civilians do not fight on the front lines, they may still work in a factory making weapons or on a farm growing soldiers' future meals. The concept of total war was the justification for Union General William Sherman’s famous March to the Sea, in which his strategy destroyed Georgia’s economic infrastructure in hopes of ending the war sooner.

Simulation games, which can be as serious as Microsoft Flight Simulator and as light as The Sims, can cover theoretically any aspect of life to be simulated. These types of games allow a subject to explore the Civil War without making the umpteenth military strategy game. Game developers could create a game where the player runs a series of factories and tries to supply the optimal amount and ratio of weapons to the front while having to deal with shortages caused by the prolonged war effort. How successful you are in manufacturing what the war effort needs could have an effect on an (offscreen) battle, thus giving you the satisfaction of gamer’s purpose. Simulation games could also provide an educational aspect for those really looking to delve into the guts of the war, as there is far more to winning this kind of conflict than simply just fighting.

So why has no major game been made yet?
Simulation games rarely need historical context in order to entice players. If you want to run a war’s logistics, you could just as easily make it any modern war. Even a simple desire to run a business doesn't require a war setting. It would have to take some specialization -- either that or just sticking the Civil War in as part of an attention-grab -- to make the simulation game Civil War-specific.

Shooter: All the joys of reloading with less of that pesky “shooting” aspect
Before I start justifying why a game should force a player to kill another American in first-person, a short history lesson is required before you conclude that I want to create the next insider terrorist training program. 

Since the proliferation of gunpowder, there have been two types of warfare. The first type existed when the weapons were not as powerful or accurate, which meant people lined up side-by-side in tight formation and shot at each other.

Screenshot from  Empire: Total War  by Zach Yost.

Screenshot from Empire: Total War by Zach Yost.

The second, more recent type developed thanks to mobile warfare, airstrikes, and much more powerful weapons. As per basically every military FPS, this style is far more interesting to play with. The Civil War mostly followed the rules of the first type of warfare, where playing any game as an individual soldier (as opposed to a strategy game, where you usually play a general) the first type is far more constricting. 

Why are there no Civil War shooters?
You would probably get one weapon, most likely an inaccurate musket, and maybe also a pistol if you’re an officer. You would have to reload after every single shot, and getting three shots off per minute is considered successful. There’s very little, if any, freedom of movement, as unit cohesion was all-important back then. And your shots would usually target large masses of enemy soldiers, which will not test your skill. Reaching for Call of Duty yet?

If you like how the concepts of morality and how a single soldier’s motivations play out in this particular setting, a far more fitting genres of game can explore these ideas while limiting all of the shortcomings listed above.

RPGs: No, I don’t mean give the soldiers rocket launchers
To me, this is the most puzzling category. 

The possibilities for this kind of game are numerous. Here is one potential game story: someone who has realistic justification for not being on the front lines (a woman or an older man, perhaps) wanders around the United States looking for a wounded family member. Over the course of the war, they could visit the rioting New York, the battlefields of Virginia, the burning Georgia, the under-siege Vicksburg, and, yes, the truly wild West. They could meet people along the way that are appropriate for the era, like deserters or military widows or escaped slaves. Do I need to go on? I feel as if I touched upon five or six games that are already out in this paragraph alone. The Civil War setting is basically tailor-made for a sprawling role playing game.

In the past two years of gaming, when subjects such as racism and jingoism (BioShock Infinite), the nature of war and violence (Spec Ops: The Line), and morality have been tackled, any fear of developing a Civil War RPG due to possible controversy should be nonexistent. In 2014, fears of talking about slavery and America’s checkered past in the context of a video game should not be an issue. If anything, it would deepen the story’s richness. Obviously the institution of slavery is a bad thing, but that does not automatically make every single Southern soldier a villain. Every person involved in the war had their own individual motivations, goals, hopes, and fears, and a good RPG could explore that.

So where are the Civil War RPGs? 
The best answer I can come up with why this genre stays uncovered revolves around practicality. Most of the AAA RPG developers create their own franchises and universes. Bethesda and BioWare are each juggling multiple well-established series, and Rockstar usually tackles modern settings (aside from the Red Dead series). Ubisoft, if it keeps pumping out Assassins Creed releases, could get around to the Civil War eventually, but that’s far from a given.

Conclusion: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the game
Despite everything outlined above, I remain optimistic that a spectacular non-strategy Civil War game will emerge in this console generation. Video games are still a very young form of media, but storytelling and scope have grown by leaps and bounds since the turn of the millennium. Eventually, someone somewhere will come out with a Civil War game, and I will be the first in line waiting to play it.

Zach Yost is an educator in the Washington, DC area who teaches high school students from a wide variety of backgrounds. He keeps telling himself all of his strategy gaming experience will be good practice for when he finally gets on “Survivor.”