Hearts of Iron 4 is one of the most complex games I’ve ever played. The World War II-themed grand strategy game, just like everything else from Paradox Interactive, has been continuously updated since its release in 2016. But this next bit of downloadable content, titled Man the Guns, may be its most controversial yet.
In a daring bit of counterfactual history, Paradox will allow players to revive the Confederate States of America, commonly known as the Confederacy, and lead them into war against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
This tidbit isn’t featured prominently in the launch trailer. Instead, it’s listed at the top of the bullet points in the formal description of the DLC’s content, alongside the opportunity to decolonize the British Empire. Paradox refers to the political party as the Old Confederacy, but there’s no beating around the bush here. The group is intended to be successors to the same white supremacists who fought to preserve the institution of slavery in the 1860s.
Of course, Paradox has been exploring these kinds of counterfactual histories for more than a decade. The original Hearts of Iron came out in 2002. Its current iteration represents the cutting edge of a long tradition of wargaming that goes all the way back to the Prussians in the early 19th century. If you know your history, or make even the most feeble attempt to read between the lines, the series already allows you to participate in some of history’s greatest atrocities and war crimes. The argument for the inclusion of a revived confederacy seems to be a simple as, “What’s a few more?”
This is an inherent problem with wargames that model off reality. Not everything can be XCOM or Advance Wars. It’s likely that my comfort level with similar games like Axis & Allies and A House Divided has to do with cultural, temporal, and geographic distance. But playing a campaign about the Confederacy returning to power seems fresh, immediate, and disturbing. Thinking about my problems with it have me considering why I failed to be unsettled by other games.
I reached out to the team at Paradox, and asked for an interview to understand why they decided to include this option. Given the timeline to get this DLC out the door, they said it proved too difficult to organize the right people until some time in March. Instead, game director Dan Lind sent me the following statement:
Over the years of its life, Hearts of Iron IV has developed into a game about alternate histories as much as a game about the Second World War, and our expansions to the game have highlighted alternate paths in the ideologically turbulent 1930s and 40s. It is a game where you can restore the Kaiser to the German throne, lead a Communist revolution in France, and fight for Indian independence while Britain is busy at war. Most nations in Hearts of Iron customarily find paths through game decisions to three major ideologies: Democracy, Fascism, and Communism.
In this light, the idea of a revived Confederate States of America in the Man the Guns expansion is very much in line with how Hearts of Iron has progressed. The trope of a sustained or revived Confederacy is an old and common one in alternate history fiction, so it makes an easy foil as the Fascist offshoot of an America that was pursuing policies anathema to the old South.
Just as the presence of the Third Reich in Hearts of Iron (or many other strategy and war games) in no way indicates an endorsement or promotion of Nazi ideas, the fictional construct of a reborn Confederacy says nothing about Paradox’s position on racial equality or the clear injustice of the Secessionist cause in the American Civil War.
Man the Guns also includes paths to quickly desegregate the United States, hasten the decolonization of the British Empire, rule the Dutch colonies from Jakarta and make Trotsky the Communist ruler of Mexico. Earlier expansions dealt with the struggles of South African autonomy, Chinese collaboration, a militant India, and a restored Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Many of the alternate history paths we outline may be controversial in the nations involved. Paradox itself is becoming a more international company, now employing staff from over two dozen different countries, and while we are continuing to improve our understanding of what is culturally appropriate worldwide, this is a subject where we will always have more to learn. We appreciate being taken to task when we slip and are grateful for the honest and direct feedback from our community.
Personally, I’m not sure what to think about this. Germany and Japan participated in WWII. The CSA didn’t, and while fans have been modding them into the game on their own for years, the official inclusion is deeply unsettling.
I’ll need to wait and see what Man the Guns plays like when the DLC arrives on Feb. 28.