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’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.