Great ladies of history find a new home in strategy games
Paradox Interactive creates elaborate strategy games that are unusually popular with women. Susana Meza-Graham and Sara Wendel-Örtqvist explain why.
This year, for International Women's Day, we got all of 23 daylight-saved hours. Just as many women take more than they're offered, though, some games found cool ways to celebrate the event.
Swedish company Paradox Interactive is releasing a downloadable content pack for its forbidding grand strategy game Europa Universalis IV that adds women of history like Queen Elizabeth I, Caterina Sforza, Sophie Germain and other people I'll just act as if I don't have to look up.
Paradox works mostly with hardcore computer strategy games. Historically that's a majority-male audience, but it's diversifying fast. I play Crusader Kings 2 a lot, a dynasty-building game that taught me what "agnatic cognatic gavelkind" means, and in that game it's generally exceptionally difficult to elevate a daughter to become a ruler, moreso than a son. You know, because of our favorite phrase, "historical accuracy."
But the fans went ahead and made a mod that blows open the game's gender succession rules, for people who want to play "Crusader Queens." (There's also a Game of Thrones mod, if you're more interested in fantasy geography than real).
Such modding is a huge part of the PC gaming community, and Paradox tends to support and enable its players' creativity.
Paradox's chief operating officer is Susana Meza-Graham, and she says she loves working in the demanding strategy game space. "I love that the games we develop and publish within the strategy space matter for others," she says. "We have countless examples of teachers using our games as a way to bring history, politics and economics to life for their students."
She shows me a TED talk from Alex Petroff, who at 6:38 minutes in says Paradox games have helped him run an NGO dedicated to getting rural people out of poverty in the Congo.
"We've never gone out of our way to label a game as typically 'male' or 'female'," Meza-Graham says. "Instead we try to find appealing ways to communicate the merits of the game and what makes them special and worth playing."
Crusader Kings II in particular has a higher ratio of female players than many of the company's other strategy games. Meza-Graham puts the total at about 40 percent.
Game developers often tell me their theories that having character portraits, avatars or more human stories amid the over-arching simulation seems to attract more women players. I remember when the chilly online space simulation EVE Online, another vastly male-dominated strategic title, thought introducing player avatars and letting them explore space stations would create more player diversity than simply pushing space ships around the screen (the site I covered that news for back in 2007 is long since lost to the winds).
"With Crusader Kings II, we deemed the stories the game allows the player to tell as the most important thing about the game to get across to players," Meza-Graham says. "That game is every bit as filled with history and strategy as our other games are but it's just presented in a way that appeals to a wider audience."
The open-ended experience of strategy gaming, where the priority isn't necessarily a 'win' state, can be a challenge to get across, she says. "When we launched Europa Universalis III in 2007, the biggest challenge I found when talking to our distributors and sales partners was explaining 'how you win the game', and why 'winning" was not necessarily the end goal of the gaming experience we'd designed," she says. "It was a completely foreign concept that many could not wrap their head around."
"Today, by focusing more on the narrative and the journey that the games take you on, more people are realizing that there is no 'one way' of playing these games," she says. This flexibility -- and a continued focus within the company on improving tutorials and making the games more accessible (rather than less deep or less complex, importantly) -- lets even incredibly niche computer games continue to grow their audiences, and Meza-Graham says both Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II continually break their concurrent players records even today.
Sara Wendel-Örtqvist is a narrative designer at Paradox's development studio, currently working on Europa Universalis IV, including the new content pack featuring historical women. She says developing the events and characters for the game took a lot of research, including some good old Wikipedia combing for women fighters, women rules, and famous women.
"There are limits to this process, of course. You get about 100 search pages with pretty much the same women each time, but sometimes you strike gold," she says. "One article I read talked about famous Muslim women, and among them I found Sayyida al-Hurra, a Moroccan pirate queen, who I implemented into the game."
Though she tried to ensure historical events starring women figures would "fire" for players all across Europe and among the game's different centuries, it was challenging to span all areas: "Some countries inevitably got more events than others," she reflects. "Hopefully, we get to make events next year too, so that more women for other countries than the ones I've mentioned are implemented into the game."
"When I had found enough women that were interesting to write about, I started scripting. All events have a trigger for the year the woman was born and when she died, to ensure that Catherine the Great does not pop up earlier than the 18th century or that La Malinche pops up before 1496," she says. "Then it's just a matter of making the options for each events interesting, balanced and inspired by history somewhat. It takes time to research, script, write and balance a hundred events, but the result is, I hope, great."
Paradox Interactive's games, Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II, are both available on numerous retail and digital platforms for $39.99.
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