Counterfactual History and Game Design Practice in Digital Strategy Games

Ylva Grufstedt

Forskningsoutput: AvhandlingDoktorsavhandlingMonografi


This thesis explores counterfactual history and game design practice, and how the two concepts relate to digital strategy games. The approach is interdisciplinary and has epistemological footing in history and game studies. The aim is to investigate developer understandings of history and game-making contexts, and their subsequent influence on representations of the past. This is a case study of two games made by Paradox Development Studio: Europa Universalis IV (2013) and Hearts of Iron IV (2016). Specific attention has been paid to the design and application of counterfactual history in order to explore how it can be studied and understood through games, as well as how developers navigate design practice with regard to historical verisimilitude.

The study builds on two sets of materials. The first involves qualitative interviews with game developers and associated beta testers at Paradox Development Studio in Stockholm, Sweden. The second involves a game analysis and technical reading of the digital strategy games Europa Universalis IV and Hearts of Iron IV to highlight how developer statements relate to artefact design. The technical reading was done using the games’ files – scripted content and localisation – that were then analysed through a framework based on counterfactual history as uses of history.

The results identify game-industry specific frameworks that influence how developers navigate their understanding of the past. These frameworks, in turn, influence, for example, practices related to the sourcing and omission of content, as well as the role of beta testers, whose efforts and perspectives play a significant part in the games’ design and content. Design goals such as monetization and replayability appear to, in part, frame how synergies between mechanics and counterfactual scenarios are designed.

Furthermore, it is possible to discern ways in which historical culture imposes itself on the design of counterfactual scenarios in both games, mainly in the implementation of goal-setting and emergent stories. Demonstrable differences in counterfactual design appear related to historical period and themes depicted. The results also show how design legacy, genre convention and player expectations frame the design of counterfactual history and the use of history, based on the interplay of historical verisimilitude and challenging gameplay.
Tilldelande institution
  • Helsingfors universitet
  • Fewster, Derek, Handledare
  • Trenter, Cecilia, Handledare, Extern person
Tilldelningsdatum14 aug. 2020
StatusPublicerad - 14 aug. 2020
MoE-publikationstypG4 Doktorsavhandling (monografi)


  • 615 Historia och arkeologi
  • historiebruk
  • game studies
  • game design

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