Crusader Kings 3: Eugenics at Play

Paradox’s recent historical strategy release Crusader Kings 3 contains an approach to disability and genetic tailoring that raises some pretty big red flags.

With a broad range of control over power grabs in medieval kingdoms, from the court chambers to the battlefields, Crusader Kings 3 manages to build a lot into the interactions between its characters. How these interactions go is managed according to a series of ‘traits’ which describe each individual – through body, personality and all – which they either inherit or gain in the trials of medieval life. In this way, the game simulates a simple genetic approach to human lineage, the chance of inheriting ‘traits’ increasing according to whether parents and partner’s grandparents share genetic material, the outcome of which is mostly present and read in a character’s description. Associated ‘Dynasty’ systems are used for creating and controlling legacies that outlive your origin and last through the ages, allowing dynastic heirs and their families to have ongoing roles in the quest for power.

On the surface these are decent and impressive design feats — but under the hood a more concerning image arises of the interaction between trait and legacy, particularly concerning disability traits.

Q&A from the FAQ page - Question: How are disabilities, be it mental or physical, represented? Answer - As respectfully as possible. While they do have character penalties associated with them, we strove to ensure the penalties were as medically accurate and took care to avoid falling back on stereotypes.

While in the FAQ for Crusader Kings 3 Paradox maintains that disabilities are represented ‘as respectfully as possible,’ with only ‘medically accurate’ penalties that don’t fall back on stereotypes, this is unfortunately untrue. 

Below are listed examples of non-medical buffs and debuffs associated with inheritable and acquired traits which show an approach that regards disabled bodies as uniquely repulsive:

  • Lisping: -5 attraction opinion, -2 diplomacy
  • Giant: -5 attraction opinion, +6 prowess
  • Dwarf: -20 attraction opinion, -4 prowess
  • Club Footed: -10 attraction opinion, -2 prowess
  • Hunchbacked: -30 attraction opinion, -2 prowess
  • One-eyed: +10 dread, -2 prowess, -5 attraction opinion
  • One-legged: -10 dread, -4 prowess, -10 attraction opinion
  • Blind: -10 dread, -10 prowess, -10 attraction opinion

These are categorically ableist stereotypes, to a degree that is shockingly upfront and directly relates to the dehumanizing attitudes that people with disabilities face daily. The debuffs on attractiveness are especially hurtful and as far from ‘medically accurate’ as possible. In a review for Vice, Gita Jackson reflects that events in which these traits’ debuffs are invoked are the only time at which the game feels cruel and that disabilities remain the point at which empathetic design fails.

Relying on a false notion of ‘medical historicity’ which punishes the disabled body won’t help, as there is no way in which the numerical statistics applied to these factors are supported by the complex ways varied medieval societies, and structures within them, responded to, or caused, disabilities. As Edward Wheatley writes in his 2010 book Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability, “While blind people across Europe shared certain experiences because of their disability, there were also substantial differences in its construction from country to country. Such differences separated France and England in spite of their intertwined history in the Middle Ages.” (p. 29) Where blinding was a common punishment practice in France a new culture and medical response developed around its blind citizens, and their associated status, as opposed to England, where blinding was uncommon, and a less active approach persisted.

Detail from a medieval manuscript; person with beard, eyes closed, wearing long patchwork brown beige cape with hood over head, blue shoulder bag on right hip, holding long cane vertically in left hand, holding dog leash in right for a middle sized brown dog, apparently leading the person;
Manuscript of the Decretals of Gregory IX, 13th Century France.

If all that weren’t enough, new features in Crusader Kings 3’s dynasty system that integrate these prejudiced impressions are further cause for concern. Changes to the dynasty system, the addition of houses, and skill trees to control your dynastic path, were apparently introduced to build on the preceding game by giving the player more control over the minutiae of legacies. The ability however to turn this into a historicized human breeding program creates an unsettling parallel with eugenics.

This invocation may appear extreme, however, when the combination of bodily prejudice and breeding emerges from a system built on genetic principles, there is a word we have for that. It is one thing that a search for the term ‘eugenics’ in the paradox forums brings up multiple pages of results, but the language behind this developer diary on a specific branch of upgrades to bolster Dynastic legacies is particularly unsettling:

“The Blood legacies were briefly covered in the previous Dev Diary, and remain my personal favorites. They affect the inheritance of traits, and can even make your Dynasty known for showing certain traits! This legacy track is optimal for those wanting to play the breeding game, trying to get the best possible rulers to succeed them.”

The developer describes each branch of the ideal ‘breeding game’ legacy track, with its associated perks and the most telling examples below: 

“Noble Veins has two bonuses; firstly it improves the chance of inheriting good congenital traits by 30%, and then it adds 30% to the (admittedly small) chance for new good genetic traits to randomly appear. Quite a good starting Legacy, allowing you to kickstart the breeding game.

Resilient Bloodline is much like Noble Veins, but it reduces the chance of bad genetic traits appearing randomly or propagating, also by 30%.

Architected Ancestry allows you to select one of the following traits to more commonly appear among your Dynasty Members: Beauty (Tier 1), Physique (Tier 1), Intelligence (Tier 1), Fecund (50% more fertility), Giant, Dwarf, Scaly or Albino. This one is fantastic for roleplaying, as having a dynasty of, for example, Giants makes for a very interesting story.”

In these officially released words, there is a distinct lack of acknowledgment of the history and meaning behind phrases like ‘bad genetic trait’, ‘good congenital trait’,  or ‘desired inherited trait’. These are inescapably eugenic ideas, and cannot be reconciled in good faith. Even if there is no malicious thought intended, there is malice pre-existent in the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘bad genetic trait’. At a time when people are being left to die in an untreated pandemic, and with us still frequently bombarded with the ideas that disabled people are a burden on society and themselves, a bestseller creating a system of breeding where disabilities are sorted into ‘bad’ genetic traits should be more than a footnote to our discussions.

The design idea for instance that there is a congenital trait for intelligence, and that it is tiered between the ‘imbeciles’, the ‘stupid’, or the ‘slow’, is not a medieval idea, it is a modern eugenic one. We only have to compare it to the clinical tiering of ‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’ and ‘morons’ used by Edmund Burke Huey, in a 1912 book where he refers to “defectives, often more fertile than normal persons, who are breeding tainted human stock,” to see how the game more closely resembles early 20th century bodily sciences than anything medieval.

The extract from Burke-Huey's book, occuring on a page break (6 - 7) so split into two images: "The feeble minded are divided into three classes: Idiots. —Those so defective that the mental development never exceeds that or a normal child of about two years. Imbeciles. —Those whose development is higher than that of an idiot, but whose intelligence does not exceed that of a normal child of about seven years. Morons. —Those whose mental development is above that of an imbecile, but does not exceed that of a normal child of about twelve years."
The second part of extract.
From Burke-Huey’s 1912 book Backward and Feeble-Minded Children.
An unsettling insight into eugenic thought.

Paradox has struggled with its content’s inherent appeal to far-right supremacists before and with Crusader Kings 2, found their motifs and gameplay hijacked by Neo-Nazis. According to David M Perry, writing about the design steps taken by Paradox in response to Crusader Kings 2’s appeal to the far-right, the vision of Crusader Kings 3’s is eminently more global and interconnected, less appealing to a Neo-Nazi vision of a white middle-ages. Medievalism is unfortunately prone to hateful ahistoricism, and as historian Dr. M. Rambaran-Olm writes, detailing the problems in Old-English studies, catering to supremacists affects these histories at all levels, and actively holds Medieval studies hostage.

So if, for instance, in the code of conduct for Paradox’s forums they explicitly denounce Nazi thought, how were such ableist genetic systems implemented in Crusader Kings 3? That could potentially be chalked up to a lack of forethought about what eugenics is.

Eugenics is not simply a historical process, something we eventually stopped the Nazis from doing and which went away, but a mode of supremacist thought about the human body. It is hatred masked as a pseudoscientific thought experiment, which poses some people as categorically inferior. It is eugenic ideals that formed Nazi policy and led to the Holocaust, which led to the attempted erasure of indigenous people across the world, in Canada for instance, and which originated in the scientific moralities of Victorian Britain. It is the idea that is explicitly supported currently by far-right extremists, and affects people daily, as in the continued presence of acts like the mass hysterectomies reported at immigration centres in the US in 2020. It is not innocent, it is not divorced from history, and its inclusion in a medievalist alt-history game, cannot be seen in a way that does not fundamentally skew the game’s politics towards catering to intolerance. This doesn’t concern the intent of Paradox, there is no accusation, it is a basic premise of modern life, that there is no such thing as a eugenic system that does not cater to supremacy.

An awareness of the very idea of eugenics would have helped Paradox to avoid degrading its disabled players with the lazy, ahistorical, ableist stereotypes it deploys and the associated breeding game. In fact, an awareness of the history of eugenics and its continuation among us is essential to everyone. Since a recent study shows that Holocaust denial is at a level of around 23% amongst young Americans, game designers, especially in the historical strategy field, must be more thoughtful. It must become a basic foundation of game design that it does not cater to eugenic play, that disability stereotypes are banished, and that this most degrading supremacist form of thought isn’t the space in which people are made to play.

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