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Ben Fritz Thinks Colonization is Bad

June 26th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 16 Comments · Blogs, Design, History

Ben Fritz, a video game blogger at Variety has some issues with the upcoming Colonization expansion for Civ IV.

But goddamit, am I the only one who think it’s morally disturbing to make a game that celebrates COLONIZATION? It’s ironic, actually, because just a few months ago a friend sent me a link to some information about the original “Colonization” game from 1994 (pictured left) that this one updates. At first, I thought it had to be a joke, but sure enough, it was real. However, I dismissed it as a relic from a time when neither developers nor players took videogames seriously as media with moral implications.

But the idea that 2K and Firaxis and Sid Meier himself would make and release a game in the year 2008 that is not only about colonization, but celebrates it by having the player control the people doing the colonizing is truly mind boggling.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before. A few times, in fact. The tough issues in America’s history are something that game designers have tended to avoid, for one reason or another.

I’m not going to be one of those morons who says that “it’s just a game” and lets it go. Fritz is right that games should be judged on many of the same grounds as other media that deal with these issues. His point about modern colonization being founded on racist principles is oversimplified but a valid issue to raise.

But with all due respect to Fritz, he’s getting very upset without fully understanding the context.

1. Historical strategy games will always have baggage. Wargames let you play Nazis, Europa Universalis encourages forced conversion and eradication of natives, and Civilization reduces history to a template of invention and warfare. If we choose to only make games about the easy stuff (killing Nazis, ending Communism, feeding the hungry) then you close off a lot of the past to designers. Games can only speak to our history by portraying it, and, like it or not, narratives of conquest (starting small and getting bigger) have always been popular subjects.

2. Colonization is about the United States. The goal is always independence and many of the founding fathers are Founding Fathers. But America was built on the blood of native peoples. Would Fritz prefer a game about America’s rush for independence that starts after the native populations are pushed beyond the Ohio? Isn’t that even more of a whitewash?

3. The original Colonization had a brilliant historical narrative regarding native/European relations. The way the mechanics worked, immediate hostility on the part of the player would be met with quick defeat. You need the natives to survive the early game because they outnumber you, they can train your colonists and they will help you. But as you grow, you will inevitably encroach on their lands and relations will deteriorate. You can win without destroying the natives, but you are forced to make tough choices along the way. I am in no way implying that the genocide of the native peoples was the inevitable result of historical imperatives. But if any game has captured the dynamic between European colonists and the native population, Colonization was that game.

4. It is the duty of a designer to avoid distorting history when possible, of course. But you can never tell the full story, any more than Terrence Malick’s The New World captured the Powhatan response to Jamestown. The criticism that Colonization misses the native point of view is a legitimate point. But you can make that point without getting over-excited about the fact that the story of America’s founding is being told. At least it’s not The Patriot. A game told from the native point of view (assuming that there was a singular point of view, a very debatable point) would run the risk of being Dancing with Wolves – a beautifully shot and well acted movie that told the story of saintly natives as seen by a white man.

Of course, America’s legacy of slave holding is the big silence of game design. Where you can excuse the lack of games that confront the Holocaust because of that event’s singular horror, the Americas were largely a slave economy based on race. It’s a truth that games have been reluctant to accept or acknowledge, probably through fear that someone would interpret this as “celebrating slavery”.

The problem, naturally, is that for all the talk about education in games, strategy games do not teach anything of importance with any great dexterity. The more didactic a game is, the less people want to play it. And if your message is beneath the surface (like the living planet in Alpha Centauri) you run the risk of people missing it altogether.

It is to Fritz’s credit that he is willing to raise this issue, comments on his blog notwithstanding. But, since he certainly accepts that movies can have a rhetorical purpose beyond their surface subject matter (Lawrence of Arabia) or authorial intent (Top Gun), I hope he’ll give Colonization a chance.


16 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    Wow, just wow. Words fail me on how big an idiot Fritz is. I can imagine reading such garbage on the Daily Kos or the Huffington Post, but any place else? Gah, that’s five minutes of my life I’m not getting back…

    Speaking of Sid Meier games I’m surprised we haven’t seen anything on Civ Revolution from you yet Troy. Surely as a die hard Civ fan you’re at least somewhat interested. Holding out until it ships?

  • Troy

    I’m waiting till it hits shelves. Haven’t even touched the demo.

  • GotGame.com

    It happens . . . there are people out there that read too far into things and spoil the experience because of it–seeing the tree and not the forest if you will.

  • Michael A.

    Your point #3 is really what invalidates his whole arguement. IMO, Colonization really handles the problem rather brilliantly – and it is almost entirely the player’s choice whether to eradicate the natives or not.

    With the proper starting nation (French) and the right founding fathers, one could coexist quite handily with the natives in New France (it wasn’t easy – but quite doable). In the long run, I seem to recall it was also a quite effective strategy too – as the friendly natives would send you bountiful harvests and goods, and would assist you in war.

    The alternative (with the Spaniards) of eradicating the natives also worked well, but could often result in long wars recompensed by the plunder. The choice was very much the player’s…

  • andrei.dumitrescu

    And apart from the Spanish none of the other nations really needs to “eradicate” the natives. I tend to play the English or the Dutch and I generally only take out the capital of each tribe at some point in the game to reduce their hostility…

  • Gamer Lamer

    This isn’t Concentration Camp Tycoon where you have to manage “population reductions” or getting more work out of your prisoners. Colonization is an empire building game… so this Variety reporter is a moron. Let’s just pretend history didn’t happen!

  • History: Rated M (Politically Incorrect, Massive Violence, Strong Sexual Content, Smoking) « Broken Toys

    […] the analytical… The original Colonization had a brilliant historical narrative regarding native/European […]

  • Natus


    as usual I appreciate your clear and concise response to Fritz’s thesis, and I find myself in complete agreement. Personally, I can’t wait for Colonization, and I’m a big fan of “controversial” games such as Struggle of Empires, AoE3 (both versions), Puerto Rico (ha!), and of course, Civ itself.

    However, the discussion is an important one, but I think Fritz’s heavy-handed judgementalism doomed both his argument and the discussion. I am in agreement with the majority that gamers can deal with the gray and indeed black areas of history without being glib or ignorant about the atrocities and suffering inflicted.

    But I really don’t understand the vitriol from Fritz’s critics. What’s the big deal? Who cares? Scott and his right-wing ladies protest too much, methinks. Perhaps their vanity has been pricked by the all too evident disaster of our most recent attempt at colonization.

  • JonathanStrange

    I don’t give Fritz any credit for “raising the issue”. No historical game could pass his test. Why should Colonization be held to a higher standard than any other game of its sort? Implying that slavery or racism or displacement of native peoples is a uniquely American “big silence” is so self-evidently wrong that I can only interpret it as just another misguided attempt to feel self-righteous rather than “fix” a historical wrong. One could not play or write about any historical game then without denouncing slavery, tyranny, exploitation, war, religious bigotry, economic inequities, gender issues, etc. Probably best to stick with tic-tac-toe or Tetris.

  • Troy

    It’s not whether or not any game can pass his dubious test. It’s that he is asking a serious question about what these games mean, a question that a lot of people don’t bother asking.

    Now, as a regular reader, you know that I love these sorts of questions. But Fritz’s big problem is that he tried to answer it from a position of ignorance about this game or any other similar game. It’s not that he’s holding Colonization to a higher standard than any games of its sort; it’s that he’s not aware of what Colonization is or any other games like it.

    Other commentators have noted that he had no issue with the violence and more personalized unsavory material in GTA4. Which makes his Colonization stand an odd case to make.

  • JonathanStrange

    Point taken. It is an interesting issue. I still wonder if any of us took too close a long at what we’re gaming about, we’d have some ‘splaining to do. “But, sir, they’re only virtual legionaries. I can’t be held accountable for their loss!”

  • Troy

    Well, the look doesn’t have to be a constant one. I mean, you can analyze something to death and therein lose the broad perspective. The misanthropy of Seinfeld, for example; if you dwell on what a cruel show it is, then you end up missing just how clever it is.

    I’ve written before about the expendable nature of virtual soldiers, how casualties don’t matter all that much in many wargames and how this lack of real sense of sacrifice detaches us from both the nature of war as a human activity and as a strategic problem.

    But asking these questions is a good thing. Someone has to do it, especially if we insist on games sitting at the big table. Not every game has meaning any more than every movie or book does. Still, I don’t think it hurts to reflect a little bit.

    This is partly was Fritz’s column bugs me so much. If he knew anything about Sid Meier as a man or Colonization as a game, then he would know that the developers aren’t blind to these sorts of things. Meier was apparently a skeptic about introducing historic religions in Civ 4, for example, because he wasn’t sure it could be done well. One of the reasons there was no “religious dominance” victory condition was probably because they hadn’t worked how to do it without promoting Crusades.

    Some companies don’t get it, obviously. But I think Firaxis does. Which makes Fritz’s argument all the more annoying.

  • Neil

    Boo hoo. Let’s burn anyone who makes a historical game without preachy Caucasian self-flagellation being shoved in the player’s face, because that’s more important in a game than, say, entertainment value.

  • Natus

    He’s still at it:


    Like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, he just doesn’t know when to stop…

  • Mark

    I think you and Tom Chick have given this guy way too much credit. His preachy PC ramblings are proof enough of his ignorance and disdain for Stategy gaming. I am all for a dialogue among interested people who are open to the idea that they are not all-knowing. Most PC-lovers are too arrogant to even admit the possibility they may be mistaken.

    PC= Political Correctness

  • John


    Good response. I like that you take a much more nuanced approach to criticism of Fritz than most of the comments here, which just seem to be variations on the tired old strawman of “political correctness.”

    I don’t agree with Fritz, by any means, but I do think gamers can often be shockingly insensitive and ignorant. Unfortunately, it seems most of them will indeed dismiss concerns like these with a flippant “it’s just a game,” and it’s a shame. It kills any chance of real dialogue.