As you may or may not know, I am a member of Steam Century. As an organization, we're a little over a year and a half old. This past weekend, we held our first anniversary game at CONvergence in Bloomington, MN. Despite the work involved in it (believe me, I think I might have done something very bad to my leg joints this past weekend), we had been of the opinion that what we were doing was simply a game, a fun romp. We had never imagined that what we were doing could have any sort of socio-political implications.
Evidently, according to this post by dmp
, it does. Who knew?
This is the map in question.
The main point of the article is to examine the apparent love affair that the steampunk genre has with the glorification of British colonialism and alternate histories. Steam Century is no exception, but it has nothing to do with an attempt to advance any sort of political agenda or put forth any sort of subversive argument against any form of real world government.
No, there is a much simpler reason the Steam Century map looks the way it does. Steam Century is currently based out of Madison, Wisconsin (which in our world is called Yahara). Of the five events we have held, only two of them have been outside of the state and both of them were in Bloomington, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities (which in our world is called Kaposia). Here in Madison, we enjoy a certain amount of geo-political security. Our own country stretches for thousands of miles to the east, west, and south and the country to our immediate north, Canada, is friendly. The biggest fights we have are at Halloween on State Street and can be solved with a couple canisters of pepper spray and a line of horse-mounted police.
I will put this even more simply. The area where Steam Century is based is geo-politically boring as hell.
The problem is that what we do, interactive mystery games, needs a world more interesting than that. Considering that the earliest cast, which dates back to CONvergence '08 and Geek.Kon.08, was made up almost exclusively of a military airship crew, we needed a world where a powerful military presence would be needed where we are located. We needed a setting wherein a military airship would be called in to enforce the law and facilitate the investigation of crimes. In short, it was necessary to make this area some sort of a frontier.
Enter alternate reality. Leaving aside for the moment the question of the ethics of American expansionism, there are very few scenarios under which the US would not have succeeded in the idea of Manifest Destiny that so vigorously pervaded in the 19th and 20th centuries. We could really only come up with two that would have been immediately understandable to our target audience without a very long lecture before every game.
The first idea was that the Confederacy succeeded in breaking away from the US during the Civil War. Such a scenario would have meant that the US' resources were further limited and the land that became the real world US would have been split between two nations. Either way, expansion would have been limited. We didn't go this route because, despite the fact that generations have passed since the Civil War, it somehow remains a touchy subject, both due to the fact that slavery is such a deplorable institution that somehow became the focus of the Civil War and because the issue of states rights versus the federal constitution is still debated today. Basically, we dismissed the idea before anyone had even finished uttering the sentence.
The second idea was to go further back in time and take the US out of the equation all together by having George Washington and the Continental Army lose the War of Independence. Without the US in existence, the idea of Manifest Destiny from the Atlantic to the Pacific would not exist. It allowed us to put a political boarder along the Mississippi, a mere stone's throw away from Madison. It also did not carry the social baggage of the Civil War. The problem was that it alone was not terribly plausible, so we had to look further back in time.
Thus, the French and Indian War became the major point of departure, though not the earliest point of departure on our time line. As much as we Americans like to romanticize the Revolution and attest that we won it because we fought by hiding in the trees while the British marched in lines, that simply isn't so. We won because it became too much of a nuisance and too expensive, both in money and lives, to the British to keep fighting for the 13 colonies. They still had a stake in North America in the form of Canada, so, whatever, big deal, they cut loose the rebelling colonies and largely washed their hands of it. Great Britain needed more motivation to keep hold of the American colonies and what better motivation than it being their last stake in North America. Thus, the British lost Canada to the French.
I understand this irritates some Canadians because it pretty much wipes out Canadian history. Well, not sure what to tell you except to say that American history is wiped out, too. Given that one of our yearly events is held at a convention that takes place over 4th of July weekend, there is a fair amount of irony here. The fact that I was cast as a military, Anglican, monarchist from Cheshire, England was certainly not lost on me this past weekend when I watched no less than four fireworks displays from the 22nd floor hotel room where we were running a portion of our game.
I felt no need to weep at the prospect of the failure of my country to be established. Why? Because it's complete and total fiction.
Our approach to the native civilizations of North America underwent a similar evolution. Originally, we had planned a single nation of confederated Native American nations. But it wasn't too far into the process of creating our map that Steam Century's chairman got into a conversation with a friend of hers who is both an aficionado of Native American history and a Native American himself. I have not met this man myself, but I would very much like to, since his input has been invaluable to the group. He pretty much laughed at the original version of the map and told us that there was no way in hell that all of the Native American nations would have come together in that fashion. They were simply too varied and their outlooks on the European advance was simply too different. Thus, one Native American nation became three; Tekamthi, the Confederation of Plains Nations, and Echota (the latter of which became Elatse after a... er... very interesting conversation between some of Steam Century's members and a need not to giggle every time the name was mentioned... I won't repeat any of it, ever).
Those were the major discussions of which I was a part. Somewhere along the line, there were other conversations about Mexico, the advance of Russia, Texas, and the establishment of the Mormon nation of Deseret. I wasn't in on those conversations at all, alas, but I have confidence that these decisions were not made for no reason at all.
There is another angle to the creation of the Steam Century map which concerns the boundaries between all of these fictional nations. Getting back to dmp's article, a comment was made that using the boundaries of the real world's US states and Canadian provinces was lazy due to the fact that many of those boundaries are simply academic at best. This is something that we have struggled with in the narrative and have avoided by simply not mentioning it. But the reason behind it has anything to do with creating fiction.
Rather, it has to do with the fact that Steam Century is an organization with hopes of expanding in the future. A number of our members are college students who are likely to move to other parts of the country later in life and, possibly, carry Steam Century along with them. In point of fact, this is already happening as one of our members has moved to the Twin Cities area and is beginning to create a second group there. Using real world locations and boundaries gives us a more concrete way of dividing jurisdictions between groups that may form in the future. It's a system that is already in use by groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism and various boffer fighting groups. To be perfectly frank, we felt no need to reinvent the wheel.
The Steam Century map is still an ongoing process. We are currently working on further detail, including naming some of the cities in various locations. Our general philosophy is that a place will have the same name unless there is an historical reason why it would not have that name. For example, a city will not be named after a man who participated in the Revolution, so the name Madison is out. Thus, Madison has become Yahara, named after a local river of the same name, but Eau Claire is still Eau Claire.
The fact that our map is sparking some conversation on the steampunk genre is both heartening and flattering. It means that our little, fun-seeking group is becoming something that has an impact in the genre and is making people think. But dmp's article would seem to ignore the fact that the map is, first the foremost, constructed in order to facilitate a game. It is specifically created so that there are many places where geo-political conflict will take place. It creates story. That's it.