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Revisionism in Game Design?

April 15th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Design, History

Wonderland has posted an interesting complaint about the upcoming Age of Empires 3 game. The native population in the game will be mostly allies of the players, and not the targets of genocide, displacement or sport hunting as was often the case in history.

The writer notes:

I have a quote in my head that I read, probably in Edge years ago, that goes along the lines of, “the majority of kids in the U.S. who know what a ‘trebuchet’ is learned it from Age of Empires”. Can’t dig it up, of course (grr), but .. if this revisionism is true – and it’s only reported at the moment – I’d say that this could do a lot of harm.

I have to disagree with him, even though the issues are real. As I wrote earlier, there are serious problems with using strategy games to teach anything. No WW2 games ask the player to liberate death camps, and no American Civil War game deals with the ugly facts of slavery in the south. But, I would wager, most people know about the death camps and understand that, at some level, slavery was a major part of America’s history. There is quite a bit of difference between learning what a trebuchet is and learning about the major events in our nation’s history. Historical trivia and historical themes are not the same thing.

However, this does not get Ensemble and Microsoft of the hook. The tension between natives and the European colonists should not be included just because it is historically accurate (when, after all, have the Age games been about historical accuracy?) but because it would make for a better game.

There has been no shortage of games about the colonization of the Americas and they have all tried to deal with the issue of European/Native antagonism differently. Conquest of the New World had a native nation with weaker tech and different victory conditions, but also random Indian villages that produced goods, helped the player or hindered him/her. Seven Cities of Gold, based as it was on the Spanish exploration, made the Indian towns people to exploit or too conquer.

No game did it better than Sid Meier’s Colonization. It is an average game in many ways, but it got the dynamic between history and gaming just about right. First, in most cases the native tribes would be welcoming and helpful. If good relations were maintained, they would supply you with goods for trade and you could plant missions in their villages. These outposts of Christianity would be greeted either well or poorly, depending on past relations, but could produce new citizens for your towns as Indians slowly converted to the new religion.

As you and your European neighbors expanded, though, many of the tribes would grow wary and there would be isolated attacks against settlers who strayed too far away. You were faced with an entirely logical choice of maintaining good relations (and maybe using your friends as a buffer between you and the Dutch) or razing the villages to keep the investments alive.

More often, however, you would burn an Indian village because it was near a silver vein, or surrounded by tobacco. The Aztecs and Inca had cities of gold and were targets because you needed gold to win the game.

Here, the game forces the player to make historical choices, even if it is in a cartoon world. If you let the Aztecs be (because you are moral), you have to also protect them from your rivals so that they don’t profit from your mercy. If you arm the Cherokee with muskets and horses so they can survive, you are also setting up a potential problem if they ever turn against you – or you against them.

This is brilliant game design that doesn’t flinch from history. It also doesn’t shove the players’ faces in the fact that this process was brutal in many cases. It treads the line between fact and fantasy, but all historical strategy games do.


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