War’s a Beach: Surf and Sand in Strategy Games

If you do a quick Google image search for “beach,” it might strike you that most of the photographs, whether taken in Panama or Ireland, are crafted similarly: sun, sand, some trees, maybe a lone recliner looking outward into the ocean. What unites all these images of the beach, apart from style, is the lighting. It suggests that at the beach, it is always summer. This eternal season lingers in our imagination as a time of leisure and a space of play, in which the border between land and sea becomes an equally timeless playground, away from the anxious tick-tock of the work schedule, our bodies free from many a social constraint (just try doing a cartwheel in a busy street of a major city at midday and notice the looks you get). 

But what happens when that play is rigidly structured into a game where freedom is of a different kind? In strategy and tactics games, whether real-time or turn-based, the image of the beach has its utopian associations transformed, and is actively reconfigured as a site where pleasure is only to be had in death.

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Panzer General (1994)

Welcome to Paradise

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition made the otherwise rudimentary (but still nice to look at) beaches of the original into an isometric version of the global beach photograph. And while it does consider different climate settings, the wintery versions of northern beaches still have clear-blue, calm and steady oceans. The wilderness of roaring seas and hostile weather do not exist: the relative agency of Nature is erased by sheer human will, and only other humans disrupt the pleasant scenery. After all, we’re not there to enjoy the aesthetics, we’re there to burn forts to the ground and kill enemy fleets and soldiers. We’re there to claim a territory, and the beach is the (beautiful) frontier which allows it. 

Older games like Pacific General took care to depict the “Polynesian” standard configured in the mid-20th century, to which our current image of the beach is beholden, contrasting its vibrant and relatively complex color palette to the duller and much simpler one used for European theaters of war in Panzer General. The Polynesian beach had everything the global north tourist wanted: opalescent tones, bronzed bodies, and the kind of sand that would begin to be imported and exported to places where it did not occur naturally; it is the basis of the results you got in your Google image search.

In Pacific General, the theater of war retains this warmth and placidness, while in Panzer General it is mostly grim. But in both, the fluidity of the beach as frontier means access to greater territory control and greater freedom of movement.

Age of Empires II (1999)

These military games emphasize that border character of the beach, the way in which it both divides and connects two types of space. The flexibility it offers to the regular vacationer, as a place of self-reflection and relatively free expression, as well as the hardness of the sea as the limit of movement, are translated in RTS games into a line that offers both extreme vulnerability and its opposite. In the Cossacks series, for example, your transport ships can carry dozens of soldiers at once, but when it comes to disembarking, they do so in orderly single file, widely open and susceptible to enemy fire. Freedom of movement comes at the highest of prices. 

Regular tactics in these games are to deploy turrets and ranged weapons facing the beach: the role of World War II’s Normandy in the military imagination and a wider public is, in this sense, fundamental to the “castle-less siege” nature of beach combat in games. At the same time, the sea is usually inaccessible for certain kinds of units, and sea-bound war machines are nigh-untouchable unless countered by opposing nautical forces. Like the US warships roaming the Persian Gulf, they exert a pressure on the border that hardens it, turning the beaches into sites of dominion over life and death. Control, whether by means of the immediate death of humans or at the safe remove of a warship, becomes of utmost importance.

Expeditions: Viking (2017)

Greetings from Europe!

In a few German beaches, like those in the island of Sylt, sandcastles have been forbidden at least since the 1990s, and in many others the local governments have set strict limits on height and width. In that country, the tradition of building these forts was well-established in the 19th century, and is very unlike the little, ephemeral games we’ve come to associate with sandcastles. Instead, it consisted of erecting enormous structures that would allow you to lay claim to a bit of beach.

After WWII, German tourists brought this tradition to other parts of the world, where it was often received as the stubborn remain of imperialistic nationalism, made more aggressive by the fact that the tradition included the raising of flags.These tourists were unintentionally sending signals of a particular way of thinking about territory that was far from innocent. The manner in which they laid claim to small areas in foreign beaches echoes all the way back to how Christopher Columbus arrived to the island of Guanahani (in the Bahamas, a popular vacation destination today) and staked a claim on both the land and its inhabitants in the name of the Kingdom of Spain. Depictions of this event usually involve the raising of flags (or crosses) and a clear view of ships in the distance, both of which the natives, always perplexed or in awe and terror of this “divine” arrival, do not have. The beach is always the border upon which all of this happens.

Games like the Expeditions series, even when they’ve tried to adopt a non-Eurocentric perspective, tend to embrace the personal narratives of conquerors for whom this border is but the first step in a heroic tale. Battles on the beach, in which the sea is like a wall to your soldiers’ back, mean that you can only move forward, into lands and through people whose tales are the tragic underside of yours, subjected to exploitation and new forms of death. Behind you is a physical hard limit, but also an open social and political channel to empire, meeting precisely at the beach. 

Civ 6 Power Walls
Civilization VI (2016)

Peace, Love and Sandy Feet

Paradigmatic in its Eurocentrism and its understanding of history as one of progression from lower to higher societies, Sid Meier’s Civilization works as a good example of the beach understood as (military) communication nexus. Its visual design abstracts the aesthetics of the dominion of paradise into the barely drawn outlines of land masses. Beaches are literally the borders between hexes, the doors to the resources of the seas and the open-ended connections of trade routes freer in movement than those confined to roads or railroads on land. The freedom the beach represents here is the freedom to exploit, the freedom to move your troops across vast distances in half the time it would take by land, the freedom to ignore the hard, oceanic wall and lay claim to whatever lands and peoples lie beyond.

In 1968, the close association between liberty and the beach was sloganized by the student movement in France thusly: “beneath the paving stones, the beach”. However, in thinking about the function of the beach in these genres of video games, we can see the phrase reversed, their militarized and colonialist lens turning the utopian elements of this border space on their heads. In the beach we find a freedom not from oppression but to oppress, a simultaneously hard and soft limit in which power does not dissolve but becomes concrete. “At home I might be nothing,” says an early 20th century British vacation postcard depicting a working-class girl in a beach in On Holiday: A History of Vacationing, “but here I am at least something!”

The beach that promises the dissolution of classes and the shifting of gender norms turns in these games into the site where “something” means, for the most part, a (beautiful) casualty, a tool of warfare, a colonizer, a colonized, a vehicle for imperial interests, an icon in one of a myriad deadly tales nonetheless mired in pleasure.

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