Not many game designers would dare to create a video game that purports to simulate the entirety of World War II, from high politics to economics to logistics to battles themselves. The creators at Paradox studios, however, have created such a game in Hearts of Iron IV, or (HoI4).
Hearts of Iron is an immensely complex game, wherein players control a country and, through the games’ dozens of tabs and hundreds of controls, manage everything from diplomacy to heavy tank production to battlefield maneuvers. Hearts of Iron is particularly beloved by history buffs, who revel in the game’s huge assortment of mechanics. It is the second most popular and the highest rated World War II game on Steam, the world’s largest gaming platform. I myself have spent far too much of my life playing this wonderfully intricate game. But lots of detail does not, in itself, mean a historically accurate experience.
Like any game, HoI4 exists to give players an opportunity to experience its cool mechanics, especially those that portray the logistical and tactical side of warfare. That means that the game pushes players into fighting wars as soon and as much as possible. That, as well as other eccentricities of the game’s design, mean that the game rewards the type of behavior exhibited by fascist regimes, and punishes those of democratic ones. That, coupled with the game’s erasure of the worst aspects of Nazi society, offers a misleading portrayal of history.
The clash of political systems, (democracy, fascism, communism, etc.) defined the Second World War. While Hearts of Iron IV does include these ideologies, they play a bizarre role in the game. Each country is classified as either democratic, fascist, communist, or authoritarian (a miscellaneous category describing absolute monarchy, conservative military juntas, or tribal systems). If a player invests enough time and effort, they can change their country’s political system.
Changing a political system is often highly desirable, because fascist and communist countries are far faster to mobilize their economies and to initiate war than democratic or authoritarian countries. Fascist/communist governments, for example, can switch to a “War Economy” almost immediately, while democracies must remain at lower mobilization levels until the breakout of war. Fascist countries, especially Germany, receive other mobilization bonuses as well, such as strong national ideas and focuses.
This portrayal of ideology is problematic for a few reasons. It gives fascist/communist countries far more options than democratic ones, particularly if your main goal is to go to war (the only time you can use the majority of the game’s mechanics). As a result, it’s rare for players to willingly play democratic countries, preferring to either pick non-democratic countries or convert democratic ones into non-democratic ones through coups and civil wars. The fact is a bit odd, because if we look at real diplomatic history, fascist states tended to have far fewer options than their counterparts. The Nazi state’s entire diplomatic policy had been laid out a generation before, in the 1920s, in Hitler’s book Mein Kampf, in which Hitler described war with Poland and the Soviet Union as inevitable and desirable. Far from expanding anywhere and anytime, Hitler was razor focused on a few rivals he deemed idealogical opponents.
The popular portrayal of Nazi Germany as a hyper-efficient and fully mobilized state is also not accurate. Between 1939 and 1943, for example, the percentage of German workers engaged in war-related industries remained essentially unchanged, from 14.1% to 14.2%. In the same period, the United Kingdom’s mobilization went from 15.8% to 23%. (That and other economic metrics cited here.) The numbers suggest that Germany’s economic mobilization was not actually faster or more efficient than democratic countries.
The game’s misunderstanding of economics doesn’t stop there. The goal of the game is more or less explicitly to mobilize your economy as efficiently as possible for war. At the start of the game, the majority of a country’s civilian factories are devoted to producing consumer goods. Consumer goods, however, have no impact on the game, so the goal is always to reorganize your economy so as few factories as possible are producing consumer goods and as many as possible are building military factories and other war-related products. The mechanic is designed to simulate the classic “guns or butter” tradeoff of economics, wherein leaders must decide on which sector to allocate scarce resources.
This is, to put it bluntly, economics as a fascist perceives it. Hermann Göring declared in 1936 that, “guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat.” Economists would disagree. In fact, much of the reason for Nazi Germany’s previously stated lack of industrial mobilization was an inability to integrate the war effort with the civilian economy. In addition to increasing historical realism, adding some incentives to keep factories producing civilian goods would make the game more interesting. Instead of being a race to make the most guns and the least butter, the game would be about creating a balance between the two, just as in real economics.
The game also doesn’t fully account for the connection between politics and military strategy. In HoI4, for example, having Adolf Hitler as your leader provides a +25% bonus to political power, one of the strongest buffs in the game. Benito Mussolini, for example, gives no special benefit, as do most of the game’s leaders. Franklin Roosevelt’s ability is actually a disadvantage, providing a diplomatic penalty to dealing with Germany. The game seems to be suggesting that Hitler was a most effective leader of the World War II era. Nowhere does the game account for the fact that Hitler’s erratic and autocratic leadership caused immense problems for the German war effort, both on a strategic level and operationally. Hitler, and the Nazi ideology he exemplified, were a leading factor in Germany’s defeat. The Nazi government elevated countless men to high position whose only qualification was loyalty to the Nazi regime (with the incompetent Göring being the best example), and the party’s fixation on a genocidal war against the Russians led to the horrendous strategic error of attacking the Soviet Union.
If I were designing HoI4, the first change I would make would be to give the game’s portrayal of ideology an overhaul. Each political system should bring meaningfully different playstyles to the game. Instead of being condemned to an interminable wait before engaging with most of the game’s mechanics, democracies should have internal politics. Fascism and communism, on the other hand, should be distinguished from both each other and from democracy through a series of buffs and debuffs that accurately characterizes each form of government. I am honestly shocked that, after more than five years of constant development and feature updates, the developers of HoI4 have never meaningfully expanded on the game’s simplistic ideology system.
As it is, the game reverts to everyone playing like a fascist. We use propaganda to increase war support to enable more expansive military laws. We turn to totalitarian ideologies in order to escape the crippling debuffs imposed on democracies. We expand at the earliest opportunity so we can get a change to use the game’s elaborate warfare mechanics. All in all, it’s a pretty (and inaccurately) positive portrayal of totalitarian regimes.
Warfare and civilian casualties
Enough talk of politics and economics, how well does Hearts of Iron IV simulate warfare? The answer is, pretty well. The game’s emphasis on terrain, morale, and supply lines all fill holes often ignored by war games.
There is, however, one glaring omission in the game’s simulation of warfare: civilian casualties. In the magical world of HoI4, civilian casualties don’t exist. That, or they are so insignificant as to be not worth reporting to the player. Players can see the number of military causalities, but has no indication of how the war has affected civilians.
This is, to be very clear, a huge omission. Roughly three civilians died in WW2 for ever one soldier. Ethnic cleansing and genocide was an important part of Nazi ideology, and all involved countries understood killing civilians to be an important part of strategy. In addition to destroying factories, American bombing campaigns on Germany were intended to kill munitions factory workers and scare them away from their jobs. HoI4 erases all of that.
This peculiar blind spot can have strange effects on the gameplay, too. In HOI4, nuclear weapons are a strangely weak tool. When used, they destroy nearby factories and infrastructure, but do little else. That’s because, in the game, the immense loss of civilian life caused by nuclear weapons is absent.
Of course, it’s not hard to see why the developers decided to steer away from counting civilian deaths. If people playing Germany had the option to initiate the Holocaust, who knows whether people would turn HoI4 into some kind of sick competition to kill the most innocent people? All the same, we shouldn’t give the developers too much slack. They were the ones who decided to create a comprehensive and accurate World War II grand strategy game. If you go to all the trouble of accurately recreating logistics, technology, tactics, and the like, surely there is also an obligation to recreate, or at least acknowledge, atrocities and murder.
All this is especially relevant because a small but active section of the Hearts of Iron IV community has in the past advocated for hate crimes. In 2019, the official HoI4 discord server (including over 10,000 members) was shut down in the aftermath of the Christchurch mass shooting. As a Discord Safety Representative wrote, “There are, unfortunately, users on Discord that have openly celebrated the attack and called for more violence, including server owners and administrators, who used the reach they had to spread such content.”
I don’t want to suggest that most HoI4 players engage in that kind of behavior. Most are, like myself, totally normal people without extremist views. All the same, the incident serves as a reminder that even historical strategy games can’t escape from modern issues, and designers must be exceptionally careful about the kind of message their game sends.
Still, it’s pretty satisfying to encircle 2 million enemy troops.
This article is indebted to Johannes Aschim, whose Master Thesis on the portrayal in Germany in HoI4 informed several of my points. You can read it here.