Have you ever had that feeling when you just stare into space for a minute, because there has always been an obvious solution to a problem but you just didn’t see it before? Happened to me. The problem is the representation of female leaders in 4X games:

bust of Hatchepsut, 5th Pharao of the 18th dynasty in Egypt
Hatshepsut, 5th pharao
of the 18th dynasty in Egypt.

Tine Rassalle (@Tine_Rass) and I are working on a paper together concerning female representation in historical digital strategy games. As you can imagine, a lot of games depict mostly male leaders and, of course, I get that. If you look at history, it seems quite patriarchal, heck, still today it seems that most of the „Very Important People“ are male. A game that claims to be somewhat authentic would put a male king on the throne. Of course, there are always a few famous exceptions, such as Cleopatra (Hatshepsut would be cooler, but hey), Boudicca, or Queen Elizabeth I & II, but in general „men rule“.

Female representation: This trick from Civilizations II will shock you…

Analyzing several games, I noticed that strategy games have dealt with the depictions of their rulers in different ways, and that there are a variety in ways women have been included or excluded from these games (wait for the article for details 😉 ).

But then there’s Civilizations II. Which simply always gives you the option between two leaders. One male and one female. For every civilization. And that’s it.

And I was struck mute for a moment.

Yes! Of course…

Such a simple solution. And the game was released in 1996. Of course I‘m not the first to notice this contribution to gender equality in games, but I want to develop the thought a bit further:

picture of Mao Zedong and Wu Zhao as leaders in Civ II
Mao Tse Tung and Wu Zhao
from https://civilization.fandom.com

In Civ II, the two leaders don’t have to have anything to do with each other, so, there are Wu Zhao and Mao Tse Tung for China and yeah, about 1300 years between the two. And there are some reallllly bad calls in my opinion, such as the Zulu leaders Shaka and Shakala, where Shaka is a well known person, but Shakala just makes this name sound female in Westerners ears (and the Urban Dictionary gives a new meaning to shakala today)…

Powerful women as wives and mothers

But Civ II made my mind spin: Who invented the idea that there was one ruler who completely and utterly dealt with everything? Isn’t that by itself completely a-historical? Hasn’t there always been a number of advisors swarming about, deciding stuff on their own, at least partly? An EMPIRE is a big thing, nobody handles that all alone! And I guess all rulers had at least one wife. Can anyone really assume a wife wouldn’t have had any influence at all? At the very very least she is the mother of the heir and don’t tell me that’s unimportant.

The past is full with powerful wives, if you only choose to look. I’ll just give a few examples here. In Egypt, the power of royal women is well documented in paintings and reliefs and the „Great Royal Wife“ had a number of official functions (sometimes that of the “God’s Wife of Amun”), as they had in several other African societies, e.g. in Kush.

I remember my old Ancient Near East professor telling us that in the Hittite Empire, if the king was out of the capital, his wife took over all of his duties. Well, he said, the king had to travel a lot for ritual functions and wars so it seems inconceivable that the wife wasn’t very well versed in political matters and may have influenced the state dealings a lot even when the king was “in town”.

Talking about the queen being mother of the future king, „Queen Mothers“ had importance all over the world, e.g. in the Ottoman Empire, where they were called Valide sultan and were very powerful.

Female power: historical after all

So, if you wish to represent women as leaders in games and you want to stay close to history and don’t want to offend your male gamer base by going completely female, simply give us the wives next to their husbands. Give the wives some realistic powers and voilà. Historically accurate, easy to understand, much more realistic.

I mean, I would prefer if we were always given the choice of a queen / empress regnant (queen / empress reigning alone with the same powers as a king / emperor – and there are many!), but… baby steps, right?

Sophie Schmidt

Founder & Editor

About the Author

My name is Sophie, I am a prehistoric and computational archaeologist and have been research associate at the Universities of Bonn and Cologne, as well as for the NFDI4Objects project at the German Archaeological Institute. I teach statistics for archaeologists, work on new methods in settlement archaeology (GIS, geostatistics in R and stuff) and am interested in archaeogaming. Now I started my PhD-project on the 5th mill. BC in Brandenburg (that's North-East Germany).

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