Offworld Trading Company

Growing Up with Strategy Games

dune screengrab

Rob is about to graduate from the University of Waterloo with a Masters in Experimental Digital Media. He somehow managed to write this piece while grappling with a debilitating Stellaris addiction. He studies interactive fiction and roguelikes and is hard at work on DernRL, a traditional roguelike based on the career of Laura Dern.
Do not @ him.

Dear Soren Johnson:

I grew up playing strategy games. When I was young, my friends and I were a dorky carbuncle fastened to a desktop computer, hotseating our way through the demo for Heroes of Might & Magic, hollering as Gandhi nuked us in Civilization, fiddling with our dial-up modems to silence the squelch so we could play covert games of Command & Conquer after we were supposed be in bed, and skipping classes in university to play Just One More Match of Starcraft. I had to leave my Starcraft and HoMM III discs in the care of a close friend so that I’d actually graduate.

After graduation, when I came back, it was for strategy games: Dawn of War and Crusader Kings and AI War and Civilization IV (and Civ IV’s countless mods). I came back to play Galactic Civilizations II. GalCiv2 not only captured my imagination but inspired Tom Francis to write one of the most incisive, engaging, and hilarious pieces of games writing I read in 2007. It’s easy to write off Francis’ war diaries as funny goofs, but they demonstrated what can happen if you stretch a game’s mechanics to their breaking point, and how those mechanics can also reveal fissures in the original design (or in Francis’ case, how 4X games, for all their attempts at rendering the complexities of cultural and diplomatic systems, still leave the path of the genocidal despot as the path of least resistance).

Francis’ war diaries demonstrated the promise of writing about games in a way that is not married to the review or preview. They recalled the history of the after-action report, a genre of writing that serves as the soft tissue between strategy games as entertainment software, strategy games as military simulation, and strategy games as historical fetish. This confirms what you and many other writers already know: games writing exists within a larger history of genres and modes of communication. Games writing never has and never will exist in a vacuum unto itself, in spite of how cloistered it felt throughout the early decades of what is now a massively popular industry. The concerns that animate Francis’ GalCiv2 war diaries are, for example, what makes the Breaking Madden series so successful and so eminently accessible to a wider audience than gamers or sports enthusiasts. Above all, in their willingness to be playful with their subject matter, Bois and Francis make accessible a genre of game that can feel stodgy through over-governance by rules and data. For someone who, in 2007, felt like they had to choose between comedic consumer advice or formal academic writing, this was a revelation.

I’ve been studying and writing about games and game design for a while. I help out with this site (First Person Scholar), a middle-state games criticism publication, and I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to write about games and the culture that surrounds them. In addition to your Designer Notes podcast and blog, I’m inspired by other strategy game writers: Rob Zacny, Tom Chick, and Troy Goodfellow are all staples when I write or talk about strategy games. The one sentiment consistently expressed among all these writers is that games (especially strategy games) are cultural objects worth writing about with care and thought, in part because games cannot help but say things about the world around us through their rules, narrative framing, and design.

I write this, Mr. Johnson, because your work resonates with me. I respect you and I think when you write, you aim for the same targets I do. On paper, Offworld Trading Company is exactly the type of game that sparked my interest in strategy games in the first place. It’s receiving some very positive press and has already sold over 100,000 copies. That’s great. I hope it does well for you.

I won’t be buying it, though.

It has to do with your company’s co-founder and president Brad Wardell. Wardell’s decision to associate with a group of people that have had demonstrable and undeniably negative effects on the gaming industry is something I have a lot of trouble with. While that group may adopt the language of platform holders to hold their harassment at arm’s length by calling it the work of “third-party trolls,” they still provided the platform for those abuses to be carried out and are unable (but more often unwilling) to take responsibility for that.

Back in 2007, you wrote:

I personally despise ideologies because they inevitably lead to a belief that there is one set of solutions to the world’s problems. One set of solutions means all other options are heretical, which means they must be controlled. Ideologues put ideas above people, which is the beginning of terror and oppression. People are more important than ideas.

You referenced that passage again in 2015, in a phenomenal post entitled “This Game Kills Fascists.” A charitable reading here is that, in your mind, blind adherence to a specific ideology leads to an “ends justify the means” approach to political and social praxis. This all-or-nothing approach is precisely what Katherine Cross addressed in her 2014 piece “We Will Force Gaming to be Free: On GamerGate and the License to Inflict Suffering.” There, Cross clearly and prophetically laid out the perils of the means used by the group that your company’s co-founder and president happily caters to, and how those strategies are uniquely disposed towards no end but more harm and misery to people that dare to disagree with them, or indeed simply say something they don’t want to hear:

A careful examination of GamerGate reveals an anarchic social movement that is now fully given over to paranoid purge logic, purist orthodoxy, deep suspicion of outsiders and institutions, and, above all, a willingness to believe that the ends will justify the means. This conviction all but ensures that the movement will continually violate its own stated principles in order to achieve them, layering terrible irony atop terrible irony.

A less charitable reading of your passage about ideology – in isolation from the rest of your writing on the topic – could be easily flipped by that group, of course: games are objects for personal enjoyment and to write critically about any other aspect that isn’t related to the promise of the marketing materials is to, in their minds, needlessly politicize the personal. When that group the co-founder of your company claims allegiance with claims to have no agenda, it is itself pushing an agenda, an ideology where their opinions and thoughts exist in a historical and cultural vacuum, shorn of context or historicity such that any attempt to suggest historical or cultural context for what they do in their spare time is seen as an unwanted invasion.

Philosopher, literary critic, and media theorist Eugene Thacker opens the first book of his three-part Horror of Philosophy series by saying:

The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part. (In the Dust of This Planet, 1)

One of the central themes of Thacker’s project is to explore the commonality between the horror genre and philosophy, as both are (in Thacker’s estimation) uniquely concerned with the threshold of our capacity to understand the world. While Thacker’s work is concerned with the limits of the scientific method and the rise of fundamentalism and mysticism in response to that, the world is also more socially complex. Thanks to globalization and new platforms for global organization and social engagement, raising awareness and engaging in activism for a range of topics that had long been kept to the periphery of mainstream media has never been easier. And against a backdrop of economic stagnation, ecological, social, and political upheaval the desire for a feeling of control and clarity is something I can certainly understand.

If someone’s understanding of “freedom of speech” emerged alongside a complete lack of consequences for or criticism of that speech, the thought of offering their opinions to a world which will not think twice about criticizing your words for a lack of nuance, or understanding, or empathy is certainly daunting. In a historical moment where we have the greatest amount of access to platforms to express ourselves and communicate with other humans, it should be no surprise that those platforms are buoyed atop a raging torrent of pain, anguish, and confusion. I understand the impulse to preserve the private sphere from this public realm, even as those desires can run counter to one’s own principles or interests. However, at the core of this desire can live a desperate wish to return to a time where it was acceptable to be, as Wardell once described himself, “an inappropriate, sexist, vulgar and embarrassing person” on your social media accounts and in person without the imposition from what can seem like an unending parade of aggrieved parties.

I am inclined to agree with Liz Ryerson’s assertion that the feelings of disillusionment and disempowerment felt by the group that Wardell so cheerfully encourages are real and that:

if we want this stuff to go away and stop being a problem, in whatever form it takes, then we need to be able to map the source of it, to provide context, and to understand that at some fundamental level we’re all in this together. – “On ‘Gamers’ and Identity

As much as blockbots and dissociating from the group can blunt their ability to directly and arbitrarily demand attention or dogpile unsuspecting targets, that doesn’t address the problem directly. It’s treating a symptom, not the cause, and even as people curate their own block lists or sign up to communal block lists out of a necessity because they’re tired of having the same circular conversations on demand, they know that this is a piss-poor solution. At a certain point, I can fathom or at least understand someone who is trying to engage in a good-faith discussion with that group. I certainly put in my fair share of that work over the years, but as someone with ever-dwindling free time, keeping a Twitter account that’s largely free from unwanted noise is also necessary.

Also, as someone who’s studied a lot of rhetoric, I recognize that there’s also a lot of people within that group for whom there is no compromise or satisfaction. What troubles me is that Wardell’s interactions with this group have less to do with an attempt to address those concerns in a constructive manner and more to do with settling his own personal scores with games journalists and complaining about his Metacritic rating to a crowd that is only too happy to pillory a properly painted target – often independent of an ethical motivation to do so. This is a group that has antagonized and threatened people I care about, whose work I value, who love games and love writing about them, but do so with incredible trepidation because the prevailing effect of the group that Wardell so casually chats with is that gendered insults are normalized, rape threats are “just jokes” and women can be fired by their companies simply because it’s more convenient to do that than to think about the message it sends to other women in the industry.


I’m not a fool. I’m sure there are plenty of Brad Wardells in the industry that just aren’t as outspoken on social media. As the memes have it, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Strategy games aren’t always a sure bet, and getting a publisher to back a strategy game is tricky. Launching on Steam isn’t the sure thing it used to be (a topic I spoke with Chris Park from Arcen about at great length earlier this year). Short of Paradox, I can’t think of another publisher that might go in for Offworld Trading Company off the top of my head. Wardell has been a known quantity in strategy games for some time, so it makes sense to go where the money is.

Perhaps you were friends with Wardell before this. While the vast majority of my friends are socially progressive, I certainly have a few that are, well, unapologetically inappropriate, sexist, vulgar, and embarrassing. Most of them are all bark and no bite. While they identify as conservative on various topics, most will barter ideology for empathy when it comes to individuals, especially in private. Maybe Wardell is like that. I don’t know, because all I’ve seen is a man who’s willing to alienate potential customers to favour a group that has a history of documented abuses so long that it’s a waste of precious word count to list them. I see a man who has certainly had his share of conflicts with the enthusiast press and I can’t help but read his interactions with that group as a cynical method of carving his pound of flesh from precarious writers and critics. I see a man who is married to what he perceives as a bright-line ideology of hateful speech without consequences, a man who will force gaming to conform to that ideology, regardless of the harm this poses to other people.

I do not expect a response to this letter.  Not because I question your ethics or morals, but because conventional public relations wisdom in the videogame industry is transparent and unequivocal in its cynicism: silence is rewarded. Withhold dialogue and let the passage of time suffocate the opportune moment of action. There’s no discussion, no exigence, no obligation to change or reflect on anything. Videogame culture through the lens of PR firms is nothing but the mechanical undulations of a demographic purchasing and re-purchasing products. Any form of discourse beyond Metacritic ratings is unintelligible within that system.

I also don’t expect you defend or explain your association with Wardell. Doubtless you’re well aware of Wardell’s association with that particular group. Doubtless you were aware of this before getting into business with him. That association is what it is. As I’ve said: I hope Offworld Trading Company does well. I hope you continue to build on your reputation as a thoughtful game designer.

I just also hope you continue to act and think about videogame culture with the same care as you have in the past. I hope you mean what you say when you say that people are more important than ideology, and will think about what that entails as you move forward with Mohawk Games. I hope you think a little more about your off-the-cuff and maybe a little-too-breezy response to this question during your Reddit AMA:

“Does Mohawk Games currently/plans to employ anyone that identifies as part of the Mohawk people? What is your opinion about using the name of a living culture for your company? Are you or your company currently involved in indigenous game development efforts?”

Just in case you forgot, you responded with:

Actually, our Art Director is part Mohawk! Can’t say we’ve been involved much in indigenous game dev but would be happy to hear about it. (For the record, we are named after the hairstyle, not the tribe.)

I hope you do look into the work of Elizabeth LaPensée, as another response suggested.

And I especially hope you paid attention to this last response (downvoted so much that its score is too low to appear in the thread):

Hello Soren!

It’s indeed currently very difficult to find out about existing indigenous game development. Here is an example of a yearly game development workshop by the Mohawk community which produces Mohawk games on unceded Mohawk territory:

Unfortunately when people type “Mohawk Games” in a search engine today, what comes up is a white man’s game studio rather than actual Mohawk games – this is making it even harder for anyone who might be interested in finding out about indigenous game dev! (Including indigenous people who might hope to see themselves represented in games!)

PS: The Mohawk haircut is itself named after the Mohawk nation. This association between the haircut and the name is not based on any real history, though, but on a trend of racist and stereotyped depictions of indigenous people in mass media. Do you think that it would currently be too late for you to avoid further reproducing the long history of settler colonialism on this continent by fixing your studio’s name? As you might have heard with the Washington Redskins case for example, the public conversation is gradually changing around the topic of appropriation and representation of indigenous identity by settlers, and you probably don’t want to find yourself later implicated in this debate because of what seems to obviously be honest mistake!

What would be the main obstacles to picking a different name? I hope a solution to this problem can be found that does not involve simply erasing the existence of indigenous people, as is so often the case!

Strategy games are known for indulging in complexity, for rendering intelligible for players the complexities of the interplay of systems of power throughout history. Making these types of games requires a certain healthy respect for the constant dialogue between the quantitative (demographics, population movements, etc.) and the qualitative: the squishy human foibles, the flux and flow of oppression and freedom. Finding the humanity in all that complexity, is, as you’ve noted, of paramount importance. You know better than most how hard it is to get your feet under you within the videogame industry. I suspect you can also appreciate the profound pleasure of seeing something you care about reflected back to you in the media you engage with. Whether it’s some particular historical moment that you find fascinating, or a cultural touchstone depicted with care and thought. These things are incalculably important to young artists, budding developers, and prospective fans. I wonder if you realize that you’re in exactly right place to do real, measurable good and give back to a genre of game that has already given you so much. I’m not speaking here of obligation, but opportunity.

I believe that you have the capacity to realize that your personal intent behind naming your company Mohawk, behind working with Wardell, behind writing about games with such passion and clarity only goes so far. And that your public actions speak far louder than the intent forged in the privacy of your own mind.

I’m not writing this letter to shame you into action. I’m not writing this letter to call your ethics into question. I’m writing it because you seem to be a thoughtful person. I’m writing this because I cannot help but write it. I am writing this because the president and co-founder of your company expects that people who do not agree with his public persona should not write about the games that his companies put out. It’s a strange call for ideological purity or just another way to enforce the point that silence is better PR than conversation or criticism.

So much of games discourse is governed by its need for controllable PR. The optimal, game-breaking strategy is silence. I’m writing this because I still hope that water can find a crack. I’m writing this because every part of Austin Walker’s Why We Write is real and true.I’m writing this to speak to the part of you that believes in a better industry and a better game can emerge from self-reflection and care.

And above all, I’m writing this because I think we both love these games so much we can hardly stand it.