The Great Failure of History Theory

Textbook writers lard up High School history books with the Great Man of History Theory.  This theory states that every once in a while a Great Man appears on the scene and with his overwhelming Greatness and Amazing Good Looks pushes history along its course.  The rest of humanity is merely Styrofoam packing peanuts on history’s great froth, unable to do anything or make anything or build anything for ourselves until this Great Player Character of History comes along.  Humanity is the packaging to the Great Man’s super cool deliverable into the stream of time.

Naturally, Great Men are men, white, Western European, flawless of complexion (nary a zit to be found), tall, and with a full head of hair. Unless the Great Man in question is Napoleon. Then they are white Western European men free of acne with amazing hair whose great contribution to history is not the conquest of Western Europe but the uproariously hilarious lack of stature.  Dude was short!  And an Emperor! A short Emperor! Can you believe it?      

The Great Man theory has all sorts of obnoxious and occasionally pernicious effects – a belief than no woman contributes to the overall arc of humanity’s story, a strain of thought which fetishizes “Great Men,” and a mindset of built-in helplessness of humanity’s masses. When the dragon comes to the village,the villagers won’t go get their bows and pikes and take care of their problem; the villagers summon a Hero to rescue them and cower in their homes. When the kingdom faces a great problem, it’s the King who solves it, and never the annoyed wool merchants and clerics and advisors who sit the King down and explain in Parliament how this is going to be solved.  The great generals save the country and the day.  

This is all kind of silly.

Anyone who spends five minutes reading a history book with any depth quickly discovers this theory is garbage.  It’s arguably worse than bad because it presents a view of history where people are helpless against it.  Historians counter the Great Man Theory of History with a more anthropological view.  History is a story of people, movements, thoughts, and adoption of technological change. Historical figures appear like air bubbles rising to the surface of a great sea of change and pop on the mighty timeline of humanity.

This makes somewhat more sense assuming history is a process of economics, people, thought, and change coming together to create a continuous narrative.  And it does match an awful lot of human history.  But it doesn’t explain some of the more pernicious pressures of change usually caused by someone being some kind a dumbass.

I put forth for comment the Great Failure Theory of History.  It states:

At any time or any point in history, a person or group of people will rise to the occasion to fuck up, pull acts of epic douchebaggery or otherwise completely fail at critical junctures when people would really rather prefer a little bit of competence. This opens up opportunities for great change usually to the determent of everyone else and/or someone showing up to clean up the mess. 

This predicates the course of history is gloriously failure-based. History is less defined by the heroic efforts of Great Men but by the incredible and jaw-dropping screw-ups of individuals and collective groups of people.  Usually with pre-meditated intent.

Three examples just to get the mental meat juices moving:

1.  In 1347, the Mongols put the city of Kaffa in the Crimea under siege.  When the Mongol Khan of the Golden Horde, Jani Beg, came down with Yersina pestis, his army had the bright idea to take bodies dead from plague and fling them over the city walls.  Genoans, knowing when it’s a good time to bug out, fled back to Genoa. Too bad their ships were loaded with rats.

Two years later, uncounted millions were dead.  Feudalism was over. 50 years later, Europe would Reboot and start a new operating system called the “Early Modern Age.”  Thanks army of Jani Beg!  You guys are the best.

2. This year is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta which brings to mind King John Lackland, a King such magnificent failure in history Disney animated him as a confused, scrawny, scared lion. (At least he was voiced by Peter Ustinov, which is something.)  Never expecting to lead men he never bothered to learn how to become a leader of men.  In a time when all disputes were settled by particularly pointy pieces of metal, John enjoyed law, legislation and the occasional bout of vicious drunken murder.

He was a French guy who lost a big chunk of Normandy and was now stuck running a hostile island full of blood-thirsty Anglo-Norman lords and pissed off, heavily armed Welsh.  To get back the Empire he managed to lose, he needed an army.   Anglo-Norman lords laughed at the little Norman who misplaced his entire country. They weren’t going to fight for John. He needed mercenaries and mercenaries require cash.  So he squeezed everyone for cash – Lords, monks, merchants in the nascent wool industry,regular people.   The Pope, a bit pissy, put the entire island under Interdict for three years so no one was allowed a burial until John begged back into the Pope’s graces. And John blew all that money and didn’t even manage to get Normandy back. 

Sick of this crap, the Lords forced John to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 and give up absolute his ultimate unquestionable Feudal Lordship.  Sure, the Pope threw out the Magna Carta immediately but by 1225 it was English Law.   Funny thing, though… it was written to only apply to Lords but the Anglo Saxon populace with their non-French idea of freedoms thought it applied to them and it became a fact.   Thanks John for being terrible at Kinging!   

3. One would think the bomb that bounced off the open car, rolled into a group of bystanders and exploded would be a hint to Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophia on June 28th, 1914.  Maybe get inside.  Get some actual security protection.  Abort the rest of the day’s schedule.  Don’t drive around a highly heated and well-armed Sarajevo in an open car.  Instead, Franz Ferdinand gave his speech in public while his car still dripped with blood and core.  And then, they decided to go tour hospitals with injured soldiers. When they got lost, turn down a blind alleyway where karma caught up with them.

Even with Archduke Ferdinand dead, WWI didn’t need to happen.  Maybe if Kaiser Wilhelm II was a teeny bit better at leading his empire and less freaked out about competing with his English cousins on Who Is Most Imperialist.  He didn’t need to declare war on Russia, start a two front war and activate the chain of alliances.  It could have been a regional war between Austria and the Balkins.

But no.  WWI is a entire chain of people making terrible decisions.  Especially Winston Churchill’s disaster in Gallipoli which lead to much of the mess in the modern Middle East…  Sure it broke Europe with the old world and ushered in the 20th century but the cost of hubris is high.

Spend five minutes thinking about almost any event in history, dig around and find the idiot or great movement of idiots standing right behind it going: ”Oops.”

Quick Thoughts about Gaming Hooks

When we write settings and stories for games, they tend toward Great Men.  The hero saves the day.  The old king wisely rules his Kingdom. Problems are solved with the use of force, pointy bits of metal, and a fireball. Get the power-up and win the game.  Tie up the loose ends neatly with no messy consequences.

Success is fleeting but delicious failure is forever.  Stories evolve from messy details, wrong choices, going left when one should have gone right, and staying outside after an attack instead of sensibly taking cover.  We can learn from history – the lessons our history teacher never wanted us to learn. Failure is fun. Failure creates narrative.  Failure makes space for so-called opportunistic Heroes to appear.  Failure brings the low up and the high low.  Failure creates huge opportunities for change.

And most of human history is run by people being humanly stupid.

So… 

1. Big failure is way more cool than an endless string of success.  Success ends the story.  Let the party fail. Not fatally. Just enough to cause themselves more headaches which turn into more story with more consequences.  This turns into story.

2. Trying to clean up the mess from the original failure often results in even more failure.  Let that one sink in for a while, and then roll with it.  

3. Someone out there looks and smells like a super competent Hero with shiny perfect teeth and immaculate hair. People love him and will follow him.  That guy is the villain.

4. Historically, women in seats of authority are uber-competent because they schemed for it and earned it.   Men, not so much.  Kings refuse to King.  Generals lead armies into blind canyons. Great Leaders launch bloody and fruitless wars over dick-measuring competitions.  The quietly competent woman is a thousand times more dangerous than the slicked hair Super Hero.  She’s probably the one who deployed the Hero in the first place.

5. Perception of the past is what wins.  Whatever people want to believe happened is what is recorded and what happened. Truth? My reality is way more cool than yours.

History is the story of the failure of great and powerful people.  The more power, the bigger the unintended consequences.  We can learn a bit and work this inspiration back into gaming narrative for the good of us all.

  • Paul Weimer

    Alexander the Great drinking himself and partying to death in Babylon instead of heading west as he planned to go knock over Italy also counts in your theory’s tally too.

    • multiplexer

      Alexander the Great’s generals didn’t do him any favors after he died, either. Although we do get really cool Greek influence on Afghanistan for 1000 years because of it so maybe that’s a wash.

  • Matt Popke

    The Roman Senate’s handling of Julius Caesar after the Gallic campaign could have been better. Later, Brutus and Cassius stupidly believed the republic would just heal itself if they killed the tyrant. Then Marcus Antonius drastically underestimated Augustus’ ability to wage a war (and got himself stupidly drunk and high while trying to fight it). How much of European history is defined by the combined stupidity of the Roman Senate, Brutus and his co-conspirators and Marc Anthony?

    Let’s not even talk about Russian history.

    • multiplexer

      Or we can go later into Empire and talk about the brain trust deciding to divide up the Empire in four chunks. Thanks Diocletian! Because that worked out well for everyone although it bought the Empire another 100 years of life support and murder.

      Russian history is fantastic! It’s the best! Everyone is drunk.