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Culture and Conflict

December 11th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · CGW, History, Society

This month’s Games for Windows has an interesting feature story on the use of Native Americans as protagonists in Age of Empires III: Warchiefs and Prey. Michael Sheyahshe does a good job of getting the viewpoints of the developers on the use of Native American perspectives and voices. Let’s face it, this is the kind of story that you never see in any of the major online sites; only print or feature heavy places like The Escapist would carry this sort of thing and kudos to GfW for carrying the torch of features. (As I’ve written before, PCGamer is the place to go for columns, GfW for features and interviews. And now that PCG’s backpage column is going to Ben Croshaw of Zero Punctuation, that line seems to be even clearer.)

With Prey, I think Sheyahshe elides some of the more peculiar Native images; the use of a desert setting for the Cherokee spirit world (the Cherokees are from the Southeast US, and were forcibly evicted to the barrens of Oklahoma) for example. And I think he misses how much the “mystic Indian spirit guide” trope has been used in almost every pop culture depiction of 20th century natives to separate their lives from that of the majority population. I grew up surrounded by native reservations in Canada; animal spirits are only part of a very diverse culture that, in many cases, still values hunting animals, too.

Sheyahshe does, however, make an important observation about the place of Natives in Age of Empires III.

While the idea of a screaming mass of Sioux warriors may seem somewhat stereotypical, there are a couple of things to keep in mind: 1) the warrior mythos (indigenous, in this case) lends itself well to a videogame about warfare, and 2) this very scenario has surely played in the hearts and minds of many indigenous people throughout the years. [Lead designer Sandy] Petersen supports this idea: “Our game…is about territorial expansion and battles. Thus we didn’t show the peaceful side of, say, the Sioux people – we showed them as aggressive, daring warriors.

The context of the game determines which aspects of which culture will be emphasized. Yes, the Sioux are portrayed as a military force of great power and speed that can massacre civilians at an exceptional speed. And so are the Ottomans. And the Aztecs. And the French. And the Indians. And the Iroquois. For Warchiefs, Ensemble chose three native civilizations that were extensively involved in combat with their neighbors and the European interlopers. And the spiritualism/ritualism of the Native nations is given much greater emphasis (via the fire pit and special technologies for each building) than Spanish Catholicism or Russian Orthodoxy.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on how the Age of Discovery was communicated through the traits and abilities assigned European powers in games about this period. Back then I suggested that it might be a good idea to continue looking at the cultural messages in strategy games since they are very powerful. In the Sheyahshe article, Petersen goes on to say that many gamers were annoyed that the Native powers were so strong since they, historically, lost. So games can counter cultural impressions, too.

I may go back to that project in the new year. I’ve often said that games teach unexpected lessons better than they teach the overt ones. “Silent curriculum” we called it in education school – things that are reinforced through repeated behavior and attitudes instead of through lectures, reading and discussion. (Civility, socialization, popularity, priorities, racism, sexism, etc.)


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Beth A. Dillon

    As mixed blood Anishinaabe and Irish, I’ve always been conscious of Native representations in video games. As I recently completed a paper on a close analysis of Age of Empires III: The Warchiefs, or rather specifically, the single-player campaign Fire and Shadow, I’m quick to add some points. Prey is a matter for another discussion!

    Traditionally, warriors do not just enter or start battles. They are also teachers and communicators. Negotiations of alliances are much more advanced than simply building a Trading Post. Communication is required. To be a great warrior in Indigenous culture is not about territorial expansion and depleting all of the resources as quickly as possible to feed your own Nation’s expansion (or as the game depicts, Empire).

    The very space itself–the land as a map to conquer or defeat–is Eurocentric. The mechanics of AoE, and RTS games generally, are colonialist in design, which creates displacement and misrepresentation when Indigenous characters are put in the player role.

    The use of the Fire Pit reduces dance to a game mechanic that, notably, both American colonialist and Native villagers can “perform” to enhance the forward motion and Western-perceived progress of a Nation. Dances include Fertility Rate, which speeds up the creation of units, Gift Dance, which increases your trickle of experience over time, Holy Dance, which creates “Medicine Men,” Mother Dance, which increases your population allowance, and Fire Damage, which gives you more damage against enemy buildings. The wording should speak for itself.

    Simply giving Native characters additional abilities and the same mechanics as the European characters should not suggest a revisionary history in support of Indigenous peoples, but should rather point out the apparent suggestion in the gameplay itself that Nations in North America would have been much stronger/wiser and survived had they had the “superior abilities” and perspectives of Europeans. For example, resource management is entirely a function of taking, not of replacing. You can’t plant trees or use all parts of an animal. Further, you are stuck in constructions of translating value of gold into units and buildings. There is no support here of trade culture. Trading Post buildings in the game do not actually allow trade, but translate into automatic earnings of resources when a shipment passes by.

    For more on this, including insight gleaned from Indigenous scholars such as Marie Ann Battiste, James Youngblood Henderson, Leroy Little Bear, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith applied to analyzing game design, feel free to inquire.

  • Troy

    Good comments.

    I’m not sure RTS games are necessarily “colonialist”, since that presumes a metropole structure that is absent in most forms of the genre. They are certainly Hobbesian. The presumption is a state of nature with one winner. This is standard for much game design, from chess to Risk to Warcraft.

    There are limitations to the conflict model, especially in RTS abstraction. For example, in AoE3, the Europeans don’t use slaves, their priests are simply healers, and the game itself presumes conflict as the norm – it is an eliminatory genre; there is zero diplomacy in the game so its absence in the establishment of trading posts, war negotiations, etc. is a fact of the genre more than a weakness of the Warchiefs expansion itself. Rise of Nations had some diplomacy, but in all these games, coexistence is merely the stage before beating someone’s brains in.

    As Sheyahshe and Petersen note, the game is about control and conquest, not living with the land. You could certainly make a good city sim with this outline (Immortal Cities: Werowocomoco?) but if the alternative is the original Age of Empires III in which the native populations were simply allies to be recruited for war and nothing else, I think Warchiefs is a step forward.

    From a “pure” game design perspective, Warchiefs is a success because the three native civilizations are much more distinct from each other than the European nations are, a reflection of the diversity of the indigenous peoples sadly missing from nearly every other treatment. Civilization IV, for example, just subsumes all the indigenous peoples under the big “Native American” banner while the Aztecs, Inca and Maya all get starring roles. The lesson is clear; if you have gold and epic pyramids you are distinct. Otherwise, not so much even if you have elaborate agriculture, sophisticated political systems and transcontinental trade networks.

    Still, the Asian Dynasties expansion shows some room for some sort of change. The Japanese are barred from hunting, the Indians from using livestock. Both of these are cultural abstractions from a diet rich in fish and one that eschews beef. Neither is a deep or sophisticated examination of East or South Asian society.

  • Beth A. Dillon

    Consider also depictions of space and time when looking at the RTS design as well, not just the war. Also consider the way in which war is carried out, for what reasons, and how this factors into Hobbes’ state of nature (which I do reference from the work of Henderson on understanding colonialism). The state of nature also concerns the way in which a government rules through fear, and colonialism and Hobbes’ state of nature are obviously not unrelated. See also Poblocki’s “Becoming-State: The Bio-Cultural Imperialism of Sid Meier’s Civilization (http://www.focaal.box.nl/previous/Forum%20focaal39.pdf).

    Sure, AoE3 is better in differentiating depictions between Nations than, certainly, Civilization or even No Man’s Land. Games like Prey and AoE3 have shown that hey, we’ve moved on to at least saying a character’s Tribe (far past the noble savages who are the keeper of their people, protector of their people, savior of their people–Nightwolf, Wolf Hawkfield). But come on, they can do better, starting with actually getting the language right and distinct across different Nations.

    The argument also still stands that if an Indigenous game development team made a game, chances are the mechanics would be Aboriginally-determined and distinct (see also references to the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace research group).

  • Troy

    Oh, there’s no denying they can do better. Games as a medium have a long way to come. People are looking for the medium’s Citizen Kane, where I’d be happy to have the medium’s Broken Blossom.

    Electronic games have tons of cultural baggage that comes from the traditional dominance of a specific subset of the population and all games represent that population’s interests: competition more than cooperation, male more than female, action over planning. They also have features that are innate to being, well, games. Tag, Simon Says, Hopscotch, Checkers, Little Wars…winners and losers are inherent to the form, and destructive conflict is the easiest way to identify who is whom. (Civ 4 is a huge step forward for the strategy genre because of how many different ways there are to win; most strategy games give you one.)

    And I’d never deny that an aboriginal developed game could be very different. It would be ludicrous to assume otherwise. Even European and American developed games in the same genre have very different aesthetics and emphases; cultural values matter in game design and this would be the same for indigenous peoples. Though it would face significant systemic barriers from a continental industry invested in repetition and refinement of certain cultural norms.

    The lack of diversity in development teams is an important thing for developers to address if they truly want to tell these stories, stories that, in my opinion should be told.

  • Beth A. Dillon

    Definitely! I just want to get the point across that the RTS gameplay itself would have to be redesigned to be appropriate for Indigenous representation, understanding games as Zimmerman does–interactive narrative systems of formal play.

    A friend of mine just pointed out a new RTS-like multi-player co-op release coming out:

    “Europa Universalis III is one of the realistic historical strategies of the game world. The game is not about conquering all the world, it is about leading an empire (or a small country) successfully. You must be successful in four areas: Diplomacy, trade, production, war.”


  • Beth A. Dillon

    Or not…

    The New World, represented by Aztecs, Cherokee, Chimu, Creek, Huron, Incas, Iroquis, Maya, Shawnee, and Zapotec, gets the lowest research speed.

    New World 10%, Latin (including European) 100%, Eastern 90%, Muslim 80%, Indian 50%, Chinese 40%, and African 20%.


  • Vic Davis

    I’m sorry but I’ve got to go with the Neo-Realists. It’s all about the position of the state (tribe ?) in the system. There’s no room for Hobbes and human nature. If you want to understand how Cortez conquered the Aztecs then you look at the balance of power among the Aztecs and the other tribes that they dominated and sent to the sacrficial altars. Native American tribes might not value territory in the same way Europeans did but they valued existence just as much…..and the “continued existence of the state” is one of the fundamental things that drives structurally based behaviour in the anarchic system. So I guess my point is that I don’t think most games ‘ approaches in depicting strategy/behaviour of Native Americans is really that far off…..that is to say that you can model them like a black box whose position in the system is important not the contents of the box.

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