The Struggle Over Gamers Who Use Mods To Create Racist Alternate Histories

By Luke Winkie on at

Last December, a 22-year old modder who calls himself Ted52 purged the Steam forums for his Hearts of Iron IV mod, Millennium Dawn. Steam’s infrastructure made it difficult to remove unsavoury threads individually, and he tells me he has more control of things over at his Discord channel, where he can eliminate any racists, idiots, and anti-Semites with reasonable efficiency. Ted seems almost bemused by this burden. As someone who’s found himself in the centre of the culture war raging inside of the Hearts of Iron IV mod scene, this is just how things work.

“The immense toxicity that is developed by these fundamentalistic ideological fronts within the community is where my patience ends,” says Ted, when I interviewed him over Discord last year. “I am not getting paid for any of this, and I can’t be bothered to explain to every 15-year-old edgelord who just discovered 4chan last week why fascism is not something I want to see.”

Here’s what Ted is referring to: Paradox Studios’ Hearts of Iron IV simulates the tumultuous political landscape of the early 20th century, from 1933 to 1949. That was an era of fascism, communism, political revolt, and genocide, and the game’s toolkit lets you play with it all. You could, for instance, take control of Parliament, plunge it into Nazism, and replace Winston Churchill with the real-life wartime fascist Oswald Mosley. You can also do the same in Germany and build the Marxist, Soviet-sympathising state that Hitler feared.

Millennium Dawn

Ted’s work in Millennium Dawn essentially does the same thing, except it simulates the political rumblings of the 21st century. Players can control the Islamic State’s caliphate and continue the campaign into Damascus. Or they can pilot the United States, and welcome Jill Stein in as the champion of a new far-left brigade. Ted52 achieves this by reworking the game’s National Focus system, which allows you to determine exactly which policies and ideologies your state will focus on. But like the rest of Paradox’s games, some of Ted’s work on Millennium Dawn has been embraced by the fringes of the ultra right-wing. For instance, the leader of the nationalist faction in the United States is Richard Spencer. If you decide to push the country in that direction, he’ll be made president. From there, you can pass segregatory legislature, introduce former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke as a government employee, and rebuild the country as an ethno-nationalist state. This thread, archived from 4Chan’s infamously turgid /pol/ board, features a screenshot of a Spencer regime in North America, saying, “I guess I have no choice other than to secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” (This is a reference to the 14 Words, a white supremacist slogan.) A few posts down, another user responds: “Hearts of Iron 4 Millennium Dawn is awesome. You can focus on racial superiority.”

This attitude is also reflected in Millennium Dawn’s submod scene. There’s an edit on Steam that makes Lauren Southern, a YouTuber from British Columbia who projects white nationalist values, the leader of the Canadian Libertarian Party, of which she has been a member of in the past. A few months before last year’s political upheaval in Zimbabwe, someone released a submod that implemented the unrecognised colonial state of Rhodesia and its deceased Prime Minister Ian Smith back into Africa. (Rhodesia has long been a touchstone for white nationalists. Dylan Roof, the gunman from the Charleston church terror attack, operated a blog called “Last Rhodesian.”)

This puts Ted in an interesting position. He swears up and down that his mod isn’t meant to be digested as a political statement, or a conduit for some sort of Nazi fantasy, but he’s still been inundated with those kind of fans. “It doesn’t feel great,” he says, when his community is overrun by “either by far-right forces or by trolls pretending to be far-right.” Obliterating the Steam forums, he says, was a necessary first step. Unfortunately, as any fan of Paradox games knows, that air of xenophobia in the scene isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

There’s a long history of racist mods for Paradox grand strategy games. Last year the company stomped out mods for its space sim Stellaris that removed people of color from the human factions and advertised itself with the proclamation, “No multiculturalism here!” There’s a mod for Hearts of Iron IV called “Aryan Goddess,” designed by the ethnonationalist Taylor Swift fan-site of the same name, which has since been purged from the internet. It makes Swift, in full Nazi regalia, the leader of the Third Reich and includes custom tech-tree options like “Bad Blood” and “1989,” both of which are adopted from her music. But perhaps the best and most prominent example is the Deus Vult mod, which, according to Steam, has been downloaded 9,210 times.

Functionally, the mod offers a daffy, puerile interpretation of the 11th and 12th century crusades. One of the most powerful National Focus options in Deus Vult is called “Enslave Saracen.” (“Saracen” is a Medieval-era catch-all for Arabs and Muslims.) The description of the upgrade reads: “The purging of all infidels and saracens will take time, by enslaving them we will have a disposable workforce.” Functionally, it boosts your campaign’s construction speed, expediting your conquest of Jerusalem.

Deus Vult

Obviously, Deus Vult directly demeans the Islamic world, which sets it in an entirely different paradigm from nonpartisan works like Ted’s Millennium Dawn. You can only play as one faction in Deus Vult, The Knights Templar, which holds both Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ in its ranks. There’s a tech-tree option called “Gas, Gas, Gas,” which allows the player to merge their empire with Nazi Germany. “We and the German Reich have a common enemy,” it states. “Together we can destroy our antagonists and rule the world!” The player is also given a chance to sympathise with the Middle East in the form of a National Focus called “Become Infidels.” But it saddles you with a 90 per cent debuff to your National Unity, making you easy pickings for any other country that sets their sights on your borders.

The creator of Deus Vult, a Steam user named TauronSS, doesn’t divulge any identifying details about himself other than that he’s a “Swedish guy” who first got interested in Paradox around Hearts of Iron III. “Memes tend to be offensive and absurd,” he writes to me over email. “I like absurd and offensive jokes, no matter what the subject is.”

His claim that everything in his work is played for jokes is reflected in the name of the mod. The term “Deus Vult” is a long-running gag within the Paradox community. In Crusader Kings II, a classic grand strategy game set centuries before Hearts of Iron, the in-game Pope will occasionally declare a holy war on a specific region in the near East. Those announcements are blessed with the incantation “Deus Vult!,” which translates to “God wills it!” The player musters their troops and sets out on the warpath.

The history of internet verbiage is always complicated, but “Deus Vult” is now the most iconic phrase in the Paradox dictionary. The term was repurposed into an image macro of a Medieval knight, dressed in a white tabard bearing the Red Cross of Constantine, holding a sword over an unseen infidel. Before long, Deus Vult earned a Pepe-like formalization as an online rallying call for the alt-right. Here is that same crusader chopping through a wooden door, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, to confront a screaming man in a turban cowering in the corner. Here he is again, taking up arms to storm a coffee shop promising “100 percent Arabica beans.”

The Deus Vult mod maintains the spirit of the meme: it’s over-the-top, zealous, full of genocidal fantasies of religious and racial purity. TauronSS tells me he wanted to create something realistic: “What would medieval religious fundamentalists do with heretics? Most likely kill them, or at least severely oppress them.” But when I ask him if he injected any of his own personal politics into the code, he demurs. “I’m just messing around with a meme,” he says.

“If there are Islamophobes among those who enjoy my mods, then that’s how it is. I will not start a witch hunt against people who have different political views,” he continues. “I’m just here trying to make enjoyable mods.”

The makers of these games are aware of the issues but have so far exercised a fairly light touch, partially as a matter of resources and partially as a strategic way to avoid giving extra attention to the worst in their community. Hearts of Iron IV game director Dan Lind told me that in 99 out of 100 cases, Paradox won’t squash out mods for objectionable content, and the company is instead inclined to “let the community decide whether they want to play a mod or not.” “There is always a risk that a zero-tolerance approach makes martyrs in a community that has shown itself very able to mobilise petty grievances and overwhelm the conversation,” he says. “It comes down to observation and intuition in most cases, and whether a mod is using a game as creative context, or as an excuse to offend.”

Lind describes parsing the space between authentic and sarcastic hyper-nationalism as a “daily challenge” for Paradox. The term “kebab” is banned from the company’s forums because of its use as a pejorative in the “remove kebab” meme (which itself is associated with an old Serbian nationalist fight song). Deus Vult, on the other hand, is not banned, which makes sense when you consider the heritage of the term within other Paradox series before it was co-opted by the alt-right. “We’re only so many people here, and sometimes we can be late to discover that a meme within our community has taken on an unfortunate new meaning,” explains Lind.

Deus Vult

Similarly, it’s hard to find many people up in arms about the cultural issues surrounding Paradox games in the community itself. Plenty of Hearts of Iron YouTubers have featured the Deus Vult mod on their channel without any serious condemnation—if anything, they seem happy to participate in the supposed joke. You will occasionally find an open discussion about the latent racism in the Paradox community. A Reddit user recently described how he was kicked and blocked from a server after a week of play once the administrator discovered he was nowhite. But there isn’t anything resembling a grassroots movement to snuff out the bigotry at its source.

To be clear, Deus Vult is an extreme example, but that hypernationalism seems to tail everyone who’s making mods in this scene, sometimes in unexpected ways. Look at Fall of Islam, built by a Canadian named Tiago. The title of the mod might come off a little charged, but in practice it’s a fleshed-out alternative history module of Europa Universalis IV that imagines the medieval world if Byzantium never fell to the Ottoman Empire. “In 1444, Arabia has shattered, caused by the many schisms of the faith,” the description reads. “Will you help the Arabs rise again in the name of the Allah and His Prophet, or will you deliver the final blow to his followers?”

The Fall of Islam is polished with a distinct history-nerd touch. A Zoroastrian Persia! A Coptic Egypt! If you’re a fan of medieval history, it’s a fascinating, studiously arranged conceptualisation of what the map might have looked like if the caliphates failed. The vast majority of Tiago’s players seem to digest his work that way, but unfortunately, you can also find comments on the Steam Workshop page that celebrate the mod as a way to actualise ethno-nationalist visions.

“This is how the world should look.”

“Removing kebab from the entire world? Sign me up.”

“Nice, wish it turned out that way.”

Tiago references those interpretations on Fall of Islam’s Steam landing page: “To my Muslim friends, take no offence to this mod! Consider it a challenge!” In the next line he writes, “For everyone else, Deus Vult!” Sure enough, he tells me he’s dealt with angry comments from Muslim users, including a few written in Turkish that he can’t understand. He either ignores them or tries to explain how his mod isn’t meant to be read as a political treatise or a historical rightening. “[My mod] is free for anyone to use however they wish, whether it is to do a Zoroastrian Persia world conquest, a Shia caliphate world conquest or an Orthodox Byzantium world conquest,” says Tiago. “Heck, go for a Buddhist, German-culture, Mali empire run for all I care.”

As for the other, more Islamophobic comments, Tiago leaves most of them untouched on Fall of Islam’s page, he says, out of a firm belief in freedom of speech. Sure, if a user is a problem and repeatedly espouses racist views, he’ll block them, but generally Tiago believes The Fall of Islam’s community should act as a meritocracy. He feels no responsibility to serve as the moral compass for the people who enjoy his work.

“With the world being so politically polarised at the moment, I can see why my mod wouldn’t, shall we say, help the situation,” he continues. “However, I made this mod simply for fun and being able to play the game I love with a different starting scenario.

“There needs to be more civil, rational discussions than ever before. We need to be able to be less ‘butt-hurt’ at everything and listen to the other side for once. You can disagree, and that’s perfectly fine, but there needs to be communication. Simply blocking people you disagree with can only make the wall taller for both sides, which is a great disservice.”

Out of everyone I spoke to, Ted52 remains the only creator who took tangible action to eliminate the racist presence in his mod’s community. The Millennium Dawn Discord channel is curated and mostly tasteful, and clearly Ted believes that the tenor of the community is a personal responsibility, rather than an uncontrollable state of nature. “I have long lost my idealism of bettering people,” he tells me. “Instead, we have set out community rules, with ‘don’t be a douchebag’ the most important one, and if you break that one rule, the banhammer might fall on your forehead.”

Mod scenes are known for their lack of ombudsmanship. That is what makes them special and bizarre. Nobody advocates for publisher approval for everything that passes through the Steam workshop, but it is odd how the far-right undertow in Paradox games has been left unchecked. The people I spoke to for this story all confirmed its existence with a half-shrugged sense of normalcy, as if it’s something that hasn’t been shocking in a long, long time.

It reminds me of a post Ted made on the Paradox Plaza subreddit last November, responding to a thread expressing concern about the number of “assholes” in the Paradox community. “Tankies, wehraboos and just straight up neo-fascists are all to be found among us, that is true,” Ted wrote. “Beneath all that, you will find the great majority of Paradox games players [are] a lovable bunch of people who are connected by their common interest in history, war-deciding dice rolls, dubious combat mechanics, dubious AI, sniffing Swedish video game developers and all the Deus Vult memes you can handle. This is our community, and if we want to have fewer assholes within it, we should work on getting more nice people on board and getting more people to be nice.”

Ted52's logic is sound, but exiling neo-fascists takes more than sentiment. That kind of progress is not achieved by neutrality or meekness, nor the belief that social responsibility is fundamentally detached from video games. Are modders responsible for how their work is interpreted? Do people like Tiago or Ted need to include a disclaimer to educate the angry people in their wake? Does alternative history need to be challenged beyond the merits of its own grotesque imagination? So far, the answer has been no.

Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently living in Brooklyn. In addition to Kotaku, he contributes to Vice, PC Gamer, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and Polygon.