Sid Meier’s Colonization: Is it offensive enough?

Nov 23, 10 Sid Meier’s Colonization: Is it offensive enough?

The premise behind Colonization has been controversial since the game’s inception. For those who are unfamiliar with it, Colonization puts players in the shoes of a European power and sets them loose to colonize the Americas. Originally released in 1994 an updated version of the game was released in 2008. Many people could relate to Variety blogger Chris Morris’ reaction when he apparently “literally exclaimed holy sh*t” at the offensiveness of the idea. As Morris put it, “A game about colonization that’s entirely about controlling the settlers can either force the player to do horrific things or let him avoid doing it and whitewash some of the worst events of human history. Either option is offensive.” Among the most problematic elements of the game’s structure is the fact that native peoples and Europeans are not even algorithmically the same kind of people. Native peoples are unable to establish new cities, they simply wait for Europeans to take advantage of them in trade or obliterate and loot their civilizations. Consider that a great game strategy is to send missionaries to native villages and then attack those villages. The native converts abandon their villages and flock to work in your cities as you continue to pillage their former communities. The mechanics of the game suggest and reward this behavior.

In short, at the codebase, Colonization is racist and offensive. But wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, any game about that period in the Americas be racist and offensive, if it were even remotely faithful to that time period? And what lines have we drawn in accepting the fact that video games allow you to play more abstracted bad guys such as gangsters, murders, and thieves.  Is a historically accurate “bad guy,” a state sanctioned one, any different? If we are to play historical games, how many options would be available if we were to cut out the disturbing parts of history? Building a game around a way of seeing the world, around a particular ideology, can be engaging as well as troubling.  Colonization is problematic, but the mechanics of the game offer players the opportunity to think about the games model of the history of conquest and exploitation.

Playing as the colonizer

You can see from the box art that the game situates the player in a triumphal role. With that said, I would hazard to guess that very few of the games players would identify themselves as fans of the historical idea of colonization. Instead, the game provides a place to explore, to play at war. While this is the appeal of the game to a new player, I would suggest that the experience of playing the game, of coming to understand the algorithms and mechanics of the game as a player, does not glorify colonization but actually undermines that glorification. The game does not make one feel good about the colonizers.

Feeling guilt as the colonizer

I bought a copy of the original version of Colonization when I was in the sixth grade.. I had spent the previous year or two exhaustively playing the original version of Civilization and the prospect of a similar but different game was exciting. As with Civilization, I played the game repeatedly, first learning the basic rules and then trying out a range of different play styles. For details on the rules and system I would suggest the walkthrough, Winning at Colonization or Economic Warfare for Fun and Profit. At first I played as the French and the Dutch. The French get bonuses to interactions with native peoples and the Dutch get bonuses to trade. In both cases, I would try to rewrite history and coexist with native peoples. After exploring this side of the game, I eventually played a bit more as the Spanish, who get bonuses to the gold they loot from destroying native cities. Exploring that part of the game was engaging, but it always brought with it feelings of a kind of guilt. Exploring the possibilities provided by the game was always engaging, but particularly in these cases I would not call it fun.

Films that explore the world from disturbing points of view are in some ways less controversial than games that do the same, think American Psycho or I Shot Andy Warhol . The interactivity and agency that players experience in games make playing from disturbing points something that many people are still uncomfortable with (c.f. State of California, or reactions to Super Columbine Massacre). But player agency in games provides the ability to provoke feelings of guilt for their in game actions. The power of this guilt suggests a potential for games that portray disturbing points of view as potent vehicles for exploring the past. In my own experiences with Colonization, experimenting with scenarios in the game, thinking through how it represented the mechanics and ideology of this period in history helped me to develop more nuanced models of that history.

Experiencing the Banality of Evil through an allegory of control

I recently bought the new version of Colonization and was struck by another part of the game:  It quickly became boring. As you ramp up your colonizing, the game is primarily about the logistics of gathering raw resources, turning them into commodities and selling finished goods back in Europe. Managing a networking of ships to transport those materials and commodities becomes the central activity of the game. As you become mired in the banality of logistical shuffling, you are struck with the ennui of the bureaucratic evil at the core of the game. The cover of the game shows men (and only men) of action, but your “glorious” conquest is rewarded by endless project management and accounting: a sort of spreadsheet of cultural domination. The city screen, one of the games primary interfaces, demonstrates the core role of these commodities. At the bottom you see a list of your various resources. The view of your city shows what raw materials your settlers are cultivating, and how those resources are being refined.

The way a simulation can put you in control of a set of competing values in its algorithms is something particularly novel. As Alexander Galloway suggests these kinds of games are always an “ideological interpretation of history” or the “transcoding of history into specific mathematical models” (102-103). What I find particularly interesting in this case is that the games models are similar to the actual way that states “see”. Like states, these kinds of games make people and landscapes into resources and commodities. Galloway’s Allegories of Control (pdf) are similar to what anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott discusses in his book Seeing Like a State. Through a series of examples of failures in governance, Scott explores the way governments make nature, cities, and people legible through categorical and numerical simplification. Games like Colonization in effect let you see the world in the kind of ways a state sees the world. This is a particularly powerful lens for understanding the past.

Colonization’s failing is that it is not offensive enough

Ultimately, my problem with Colonization is that it is not offensive enough. In particular, there is one glaring omission. There is no slave trade in Colonization. In this capacity, it does significantly whitewash history. If a game is to enable us to see the world as a European colonial power, particularly one focused on commodities, it needs to incorporate triangular trade. Can you imagine how powerful this would be? If the game forced players to make decisions about trade routes in Africa?  If it forced them think about the results of the commodification of people but still presented information about those who died in transit and died from disease and starvation in colonies? I understand why the game does not incorporate this history. In it’s current form it invites significant criticism for it’s portrayal of conquest of indigenous people, adding slavery would make the game far more offensive. Further, there is a cultural norm about misrepresenting or ignoring the history of slavery in mass media (c.f. The Patriot). Curiously, the much less historically specific Civilization games have long incorporated slavery.  Not including slavery in Colonization is in some ways much more offensive.  If someone wants to play a game where they replay the colonization of the Americas shouldn’t they have to think about the history of slavery as well?

Colonization remains a popular game. When Chris Morris’ blogged his concerns he received 280 comments, largely in defense of the game. His reactions to the themes in those comments give you a sense of their tenor. His post was subsequently covered on Kotaku and The Escapist. The game offers substantial promise. I have suggested that while the cover glorifies colonization, the experience of the game undermines that glorification. The game ultimately lets players experience a range of emotions as the explore the possibilities which are provided by the algorithms of the game. However, does side-stepping the history of slavery whitewash the game?  I am not begrudging the developers here. I think the reason slavery is not a part of this game has a lot to do with self-censoring, and I can only imagine the kind of bad press they would have received if they did include slavery. So, if we are really going to get serious about historical games do we need more sophisticated views on what kinds of identities and roles games let players take on? More directly, do you think Colonization is offensive? Or do you agree with me that it isn’t offensive enough?



6 Comments

  1. Great post Trevor, it is always interesting to consider how historical sim games like this create simulacra of history and how those simulacra represent cultural bias and attitudes towards history. We get to see what we really feel guilty about culturally and what we are okay with. Ultimately it is the implicit revelations that are more telling with regards to our cultural values than explicit decisions and I love how you get around to that argument in this piece.

    What intrigues me is if we go one step deeper and think about the political economic decisions that the developers and publishers make in setting content limits. Why did they think it was okay to make the natives mindless primitives unable to advance in civilization while but that it was not okay to include slavery. Clearly the impact on sales would have played a role in that decision, and that could tell us a lot about the industry, the gaming community and society as a whole. I wonder if there are any examples of games where this kind of mistake has been made and there has been a palpable economic backlash felt by the producer?

    Great post!

  2. Colonization is offensive, but in the same way many video games are if we bother analysing what they’re “about”. Most games these days glamorise and simplify extreme violence and driving vehicles recklessly, neither of which is exactly responsible. Heck, it’s hard to create a videogame that isn’t going to offend somebody. Even Sim City gets up the hackles of some of the pro-business lobby who think it presents government control as the solution to societal problems (I’m not kidding).

    Colonization is just a game, it’s not a real history lesson and it’s not a remotely realistic portrayal of the period. Not only does it ignore slavery, its presentation of the native Americans is woeful. For starters, it presents them as essentially identical whereas in reality they were distinct civilisations. The Caribbean tribes were primitive and friendly; the Great Plains tribes had a loose societal structure but were an effective military force if provoked; the Incas were advanced city-dwellers and the Aztecs were both advanced and as brutally imperialistic as the Europeans (it’s often forgotten that when the Spanish conquered the Aztec capital they were backed by native American troops keen to join anyone who would rid them of their oppressors). Playing Colonization none of these distinctions are visible: Aztecs are just Sioux with different-shaped “town” icons.

    Despite all that, it’s fun. If you know the period well its limitations grate (why can’t we play the Incas and have a shot at pushing the Spanish back to their galleons?) but, at the end of the day, it’s just a game and it’s fun in its own way. I’ll gladly call it a entertaining strategy game and a travesty of history in the same way I’ll call GTA a fun videogame but a appalling approximation of how the real world works or ought to work.

    • The native tribes are as “essentially identical” as the europeans are. Their differing bonus’ and AI models lead to markedly different interactions in exactly the same way that the algorithmic bonus’ of the different european nations lead to different play styles. Certainly even an ardent minmaxer would think twice about taking on the Sioux.

      Certainly it’d be great to see more history in there (things like the Seven years war being much more influential) as much as it would to be able to play with history (push the spanish back into the sea etc.) and as mentioned above it really should have slavery. But one of the more effective things in the game (something it shares with Alpha Centauri) is that you see each of the differing models in the game, no matter which one you choose. I’m usually the English or Dutch and whether I like it or not the Spanish will be there and behaving in their usual bloodthirsty fashion, you could argue that this lets me feel unwarrantedly good about still being a colonial opressor, and you’d likely be right but there’s something about the consistency of factional behaviour that almost feels RTS and ‘epic’.

  3. Locke /

    Slave trade is included in the game but I believe the developers really didn’t want to offend people by making one of the worst violations of human rights beneficial to the player and make it a centre theme in the game (for example, using the game mechanics it would be difficult to justify giving up slavery, wheras slavery in civ4 incurs unhappiness (not present in colonization) once a nation discovers emancipation). So therefore by including the offer of either supporting slavery (raw goods bonus) or emancipation (ideological bonus) Colonization offers an interesting choice to the player that I dont think is meant as a thought provoking desicion, more of a gameplay mechanic. I dont think the purpose of having the choice of adopting slavery is to make the player feel guilty, rather simply to complement what the other does not. Raw goods can be obtained by ideological bonuses. Raw goods could also be sold to purchase specialists to create these ideological bonuses. Also Natives possess a unit (native) that is able to settle new cities and the natives also have basically the same features as the europeans barring historical differences (such as natives trading with europe would be historically inaccurate, as would natives possessing technology the match the europeans).
    Altogether I thought this game was rather enjoyable and I also liked the idea of consequences to actions, such as selling the natives guns would ensure rich trade but would bring a new and more powerful unit into play for that nation. That also sortof balances out the idea that you can “take advantage of the natives” as doing so with the most lucrative resources (guns/horses) actually works against you if you choose not to pursue friendly diplomacy. The only thing natives seem to lack in is that they are unable to produce technologically advanced goods such as guns and tools, which is entirely fair and historically accurate as native tribes in the americas had no metal working or smelting technology so their resources for tools consisted of wood, stone and bone.

  4. T.Chicken /

    I think why they didn’t put slavery in the game, I think it will be annoying for gamers having too much slave (land ranout) and unable to free or free but difficult (Free Black during colonial time face discrimination).
    P.s- Native American Converts have penalty in manufacturing (like Making booze, rolling cigars and making coats), do you think it is because of racist employers

  5. A small correction:

    On declaring independence from their host, nations in the 2008 Colonization were given two options, each with distinct bonuses: slavery, or emancipation.

    But yes, of course it would have been better had the game included the full shebang of triangular trade., and deeper options in terms interactions with Africa, African leaders, etc.

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