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Are War Games Turning People to the Left?

Tom Black

8 May 2023

In one of the most touching moments of my professional life, a young man was enthusiastically shaking my hand after asking me to sign a copy of a book I’d written when he told me that the book was the reason he had studied Politics at university.

I don’t share this as purely a not-particularly-humble brag. Something like this statement is probably a fairly usual thing for authors to hear. What was more unusual was that the book that had apparently ignited a passion to study politics was a book about a video game.

Strictly speaking, it was about a mod - modification - of a video game. Kaiserreich: Legacy of the Weltkrieg takes the WWII-era setting of grand strategy game Hearts of Iron IV and transforms it into a world where, due to the US maintaining isolationism during WWI, Germany and the Central Powers defeated the Entente. The scale of changes around the world would fill five articles, but the nation I decided to write a book about was my own, Britain. The fate of the UK in the Kaiserreich world is that, like France across the Channel, it experiences a Syndicalist revolution in the 1920s. My book, The People’s Flag, was an attempt to flesh out both that revolution, and the governance of the resulting state, the Union of Britain.

Kaiserreich was born in 2005 as a mod for an older version of Hearts of Iron, and I got involved as a developer for a couple of years in the early 2010s. It’s still updated constantly by an astonishingly hard-working and imaginative team of volunteer developers. It has been credited with large numbers of sales of Hearts of Iron IV itself, as people buy the core game simply to play the mod. It has an official merchandise partner. People buy and display flags and posters of the fictional nations contained in the setting. My book is far from the only piece of narrative about it - radio plays, comics, animated series and even fake documentaries can be found online. If you’re not a gamer, take it from me: this mod is very, very popular. After years of feedback suggesting it was expanding some players’ political worldviews, I took to the official subreddit to find out how widespread this was.

The answer was “not hugely”. While my post asking if Kaiserreich had impacted anyone’s left wing politics proved popular and generated a lot of discussion, it’s fair to say that two-thirds of the responses boiled down to “no.” But that last third was more layered than I had expected. Many users had not heard of Syndicalism before playing the mod, and lots talked about general political education being gained through playing, albeit not always in a manner that changed their own views. Some users had their views moved not left but right - a matter for a different article, and something that is more sinister in the fanbases of other mods, such as those which depict victories of not the Second Reich, but the Third.

But there were some outliers. There was much reference to this (allegedly real) graph that shows a strong correlation between Kaiserreich’s move to Hearts of Iron IV and a surge in membership of the Wobblies (the International Workers of the World, who do feature as American radical trade unionists in the mod). Keisis236 said that the mod’s introduction to anarcho-syndicalism “showed me there is an anarchism that could maybe work on a bigger scale”. Future_Advantage1385 credited it with sparking off studies which made them aware of the power and influence that trade unions can wield.

RadSocKowalski was happy to say their views had indeed been significantly altered by what they’d seen depicted in Kaiserreich and in The People’s Flag. Having initially strongly supported the centralisation of power in the name of efficiency, the mod and book led them to conclude that “progress should be the goal of a socialist society, and it doesn’t always go hand in hand with efficiency… the biggest influence Kaiserreich has had on my political views is that I got a more negative view of centralization, as it often leads to a stronger executive power and dictatorship.”

Brandon, who spoke to me in person about The People’s Flag, started young: aged 10, the original versions of Kaiserreich exposed him to politics in general. Socialism he’d heard of, Syndicalism sounded cool and unique. Keeping the passion going through his studies, he’s now working in the Welsh Senedd. “I get to talk about co-operatives and trade unions for a living now.”

But while some people were drawn to the ideas presented by the mod’s revolutionaries, others were made more sceptical of the world they were playing in. “Most of the left wing projects in Kaiserreich are super idealistic, and don't realistically portray that Revolutions are messy,” wrote user BommieCastard. “It's almost utopian in its idealism. As though the omelette got made without cracking the eggs. They inexplicably leave tons of counter revolutionary influences intact and in a position to destroy them.”

There is one obvious reason for this apparent gloves-on approach to revolution - Kaiserreich is a game, one which necessitates the presence of a ‘balanced’ scenario. One where the forces of the Third Internationale are not unstoppable. Their foes can come back for revenge because the game would be less interesting if they couldn’t. Never mind that in the Russia of our 20th century, Stalin didn’t face a tsarist invasion from some rump state in Vladivostok that Lenin had decided wasn’t worth crushing.

Gameplay concerns creating a softer set of revolutionaries is one thing, but my book, while based on the setting, doesn’t necessarily have that excuse. But it’s been fairly criticised for presenting post-Revolutionary Britain as a little too jovial, a tea-and-sandwiches reckoning for those elements of the establishment that do not escape to Canada. That was rooted not in gameplay considerations but rather something I had in common with Sarmatia (who, like me, is British) in his own ideas of a softer form of revolution sweeping Britain.

Experienced political wranglers will also call it naive to depict the governance of a post-revolutionary state as being a series of congresses where factions are fluid and speeches can actually influence votes. Where does one draw the line? At what point does sanitising revolution in the name of taste become the worse act of trivialising the dangers inherent in seeking political change through violence? Truthfully, I don’t know, and I don’t know what The People’s Flag would look like if I started it afresh tomorrow. But the ‘chumocracy’ and government-by-Sorkinesque-speech was drawn from an idealism that I didn’t only pick up from the mod.

The book was largely written when Ed Miliband was about a year or two into being Labour leader. Corbynism, particularly among young people, confused so many ‘centrist’ figures to the point of rage by its apparent appearance overnight. But the support it got from people like me is best understood through that lens of spending five years wanting Ed Miliband to go much harder and sound a lot bit more like his father than his brother. The fruitlessness of that want, followed by Labour’s apparent decision to move lockstep to the right in 2015, led to Corbyn winning the leadership in a landslide. In another example of alternate history being a useful lens, boffins have calculated that the data we have suggests that Corbyn would still have easily been elected leader if the franchise had been limited to pre-2015 members.

Why talk about this in the context of Kaiserreich and The People’s Flag? Because stories motivate people, and sometimes political history - and political alternate history - can tell a story that very much lies in the eye of the beholder. Plenty of Labour members have a friend with a Nye Bevan poster or profile picture whose present-day politics suggest they absolutely would’ve been advocating to expel Bevan himself and his supporters during the 1950s.

Alternate history is sometimes written to be explicitly political, to change minds and set examples by holding up a lens on what did happen by asking what could have happened instead. I recommend Jane Hill’s excellent Reds! for a leftist example of this, its tale of the rise and triumph of a 20th century American socialist republic rooted in motivating change and challenging its reader to question their underlying assumptions about American history, and thus the American present.

The People’s Flag, and the Kaiserreich setting from which it was drawn, was doing something different. An unabashedly geeky project, it’s all a work of entertainment. While authors like Palahnuik have despaired at vulnerable young men taking entirely the wrong messages from their work, there are also those whose near-sole intention was to entertain but whose work takes on a life of its own among an audience searching for meaning. Anti-Trump liberals labeling themselves ‘Dumbledore’s Army’ may have curled the toes of many observers, but there is an interesting point to consider about the political power of a successful work of entertainment. It’s perhaps a form of death of the author - aptly, as the man who created Kaiserreich in the first place removed himself from its development almost immediately.


Kaiserreich’s original creator goes by Sarmatia, and having left the project after a year, he continues to maintain anonymity. He hasn’t spoken much about Kaiserreich since 2006, but in 2021 gave a rare interview to Kaiser Cat Cinema, a Kaiserreich fan project which doubles as the aforementioned merchandising partner.

In it, he’s unapologetic about how the fate of the left in the world he originally built is gentler and more idealistic than the states we saw emerge in our 20th century. He wrote a lot of it listening to Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie as they sang songs old and new of the labour movement. “It sounds like if you take left wing art at its word,” he told Kaiser Cat Cinema, “the [left wing] world might look like this.”

Sarmatia knows his history, and in fact left the mod behind in the first place to concentrate on his PhD in the subject. The work of Eric Hobsbawm informed a lot of the background on which he built the setting, and Hobsbawm himself ‘appears’ in The People’s Flag, chronicling the Union of Britain. With his academic hat on, Sarmatia is insistent that the dominance of Syndicalism is a plausible result of changes that take place in the First World War, which is where all Kaiserreich’s divergences from our reality stem from. “The setting is as much an extension of the 19th century as it is a reworked early 20th century,” he said in the same interview - and I think I agree. The by-and-large trade union support for the First World War, despite the imperialism and anti-internationalist tendencies it strengthened in all its participant countries, created the space for the Bolshevik model of a vanguardist political party instead taking the lead in fermenting revolution. In Kaiserreich, France collapses as Germany goes on the offensive in 1919, but its surrender is caused by the CGT turning against the war for the first time.

“Pre-WWI Syndicalism was about hostility to political parties, localism, bureaucracy, and direct worker action,” Sarmatia continues in the interview, explaining this drew him towards depicting “a form of radical left wing politics that could potentially be more of a direct democracy than what was put in place in the USSR.” But Sarmatia - and other Kaiserreich developers - are aware of the darker side of historical Syndicalism, and the journey of many of its proponents to eventually aligning with fascism in the 1920s and 1930s. There are options for Syndicalism to take this darker path within the game, and The People’s Flag depicts one such, with Syndicalist-convert Oswald Mosley consolidating more and more power once he assumes control of the Union of Britain. Another contribution I played a role in when I was developer of the mod was the concoction of an authoritarian brand of Syndicalism which goes by ‘Totalism’: not quite doctrinaire, vanguard-party-led Marxist-Leninism, but a lot closer to it than what had existed before.

Continuing on the theme of Syndicalism’s extremist bedfellows, Sarmatia said “it lets you mix things up”, depicting historical fascists on the same side as historical communists.

This was definitely something that appealed to me, almost for rule of cool reasons - if you’re remixing history, there’s something darkly interesting about putting Oswald Mosley, Sylvia Pankhurst and Eric Blair in the same government. In Italy, one bombastic leader calling for a robust and centrally-controlled system of Syndicalism goes by the name of Mussolini. (More recent updates to the mod have removed Red Benito.)

Is it Western-centric or worse to say that a better world would have arisen if the radical left had had its 20th century revolutions in industrialised Western European countries? Probably, and although Sarmatia doesn’t claim to believe such, it’s a conclusion that can be drawn from the content of the Kaiserreich world. And while romanticism has its place when constructing an alternate world, relying on a thwarted ideology’s art and music has its limitations – had the Nazis never seized power, if we guessed what they’d be like based on the Horst-Wessel-Lied, our idea of 1930s Germany would have been a land of freedom, bread, and slavery for none.

But I don’t think Sarmatia was trying to make an impassioned case for an oft-forgotten ideology, any more than the other radical divergences in Kaiserreich - Qing vs Kuomintang wars in China, a four-way American civil war along ideological lines, a crumbling but still extant Ottoman Empire - are a sign of an axe to grind for any of the people who developed those ideas into the mod. I think Sarmatia and his successors were setting out to make a fun game in a world that was as different from our own as it was possible to be. I know I was trying to write a book about a revolutionary state that seemed a little kinder than those we saw throughout the 20th century. None of us expected that there’d be some players and readers who’d take something more meaningful from it.


There’s two different flourishes with which I could end this piece. One is cynical, blackpilled even: in a world where ideology was stamped out of Western politics for four decades, a world where attempts to talk about political models even an inch outside the media-enforced mainstream have been mercilessly but chaotically attacked and destroyed. No wonder in this world there are people out there grasping so desperately for an alternative worldview that they land on an almost forgotten school of left radicalism, as depicted in a mod for a WWII video game.

The other conclusion I could draw is that unlikely as it seems, Kaiserreich is a setting whose moment has come. Britain, the homeland of Sarmatia and me, has comprehensively shut down discussion of any kind of radical left solution to the malaise causing the nation to groan under the strain of inequality and stagnant growth. But this rejection of radicalism has been confined to political parties: anti-status quo civil society groups, community organisations, charities and, above all, trade unions have not been this present in public life for decades. Brexit has empowered – among so many other things – collective bargaining in a manner that provides at least a half-decent answer to “how’s Lexit going?”. If young people are finding something intriguing in an alternate history setting that features global revolutions led by the trade union movement, not political parties, is that a surprise, or simply the Zeitgeist?

Both conclusions have some truth behind them. I’ll let you choose which you prefer. It’s a game, after all.


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