(Post) Colonialism

Click to Colonise: Space, Power and History in Strategy Games (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post, I described how historical strategy games have a natural tendency to function according to colonial logics, asking players to reenact the history of colonialism in order to succeed. I argued that this because this theme has an inherent resonance with games’ frequent use of space as power and the genre’s favouring of macro scales. This means that the history of European expansion becomes positioned as the only path through history. This eradicates the notion of differing cultural worldviews, instead substituting the European historical mentalité as something intrinsically ‘natural’, ‘human’ and ‘inevitable’, thereby diminishing Western culpability for the crimes of colonialism. This is compounded by the fact that strategy games tend to use visual simplicity/abstraction and operate far above the level of individuals, meaning that they also rarely depict the human cost of colonialism, omitting any moral context.

A Question of Genre

Of course, historical strategy games are hardly alone in their problematic treatment of colonial and imperialist themes, as demonstrated by Stefan Aguirre Quiroga’s post earlier in this theme. It is certainly true that even those games that use more literal visual representations in order to make meaning about the past – what I term a ‘realist simulation style’ (Chapman 2016, 59-89) – similarly feature problematic omissions, often creating myopically white (and male) virtual histories.

However, these games also differ because here the question is generally one of aesthetics rather than rules. That is to say, gameplay is not at the root of these kind of games’ lack of engagement with historical themes that exist outside of the hegemonic view of the past that has been formed as a direct legacy of European colonialism, imperialism and racism. These problematic exclusions instead generally occur in important but in some sense ‘surface’ features of the games in question, such as character models. Altering the skin-colour, physical features, or clothes of characters does not usually change the way that games such as Battlefield 1 (DICE 2016) play. As such, changes in these games to acknowledge the role of colonial history might mean reframing in terms of narrative context (though, as Stefan points out, this is sadly also frequently missing), different characters, and perhaps even different settings. And these are all steps in the right direction that should be encouraged. But none of them are likely to change the gameplay itself (notably, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series has changed all the above elements throughout its run, yet its gameplay remains mostly unchanged beyond the odd side quest). That such inclusive changes could therefore be made to these games relatively simply, without foundational redesign, makes developers’ frequent reluctance to do so all the more frustrating.

By comparison, in strategy games, in which depictions of characters are rare anyway, due to their macro scale abstraction of historical space and process, the problem runs much deeper and can’t be fixed with only visual tweaks or the inclusion of a more diverse roster of cultural factions. In these games, the very gameplay, no matter who we play as/against, so often remains entangled in the European colonialist logics that have an easy metonymic thematic fit with the genre’s use of game space as a resource for, and marker of, power.

Can Historical Strategy Games Escape their own History?

If there is such a resonant alignment between colonial themes and strategy game mechanics and form, how can the genre then hope to escape these problematic logics? The most obvious argument is that we might try to change the historical setting of the games to a specific era less commonly associated with colonialism, in an attempt to at least soften this effect. Games such as the World War 2 strategy game series Hearts of Iron (Paradox Development Studio 2002-present), on the surface, seem to somewhat escape themes of colonialism, instead focusing on a conflict that is so often framed as a uniquely Manichean moral struggle that fell outside the typical movements of empires and colonies that makes up so much of our history. And yet this is, of course, merely window-dressing, aided by a European contemporary collective memory that ignores the significant role played by colonial power, troops and resources during that war. We remain dependent on these elements in such games, even if they go unacknowledged within the game’s representation.

Perhaps then we might turn to, for example, the ancient world instead, as in the Total War: Rome series (Creative Assembly 2004; 2013)? And yet, with gameplay and mechanical use of space remaining extremely similar, these games still generally speak a colonial algorithmic language to a contemporary world still embedded in its legacies – even whilst the imagery is of a period that we do not necessarily associate with the recent forms of colonial exploitation that most closely influence today’s geopolitics and intercultural power dynamics. As such, these games may still have the effect of naturalising the notion of colonialism as intrinsically hard-coded into human interactions and history. In fact, this could even have a reinforcing effect because we, particularly in the US and Europe, tend to see ourselves as the direct inheritors of the Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, through simplistic metanarratives that draw straight lines through the past, from the foundation of the ancient world (by way of the renaissance and enlightenment) directly to our own contemporary societies.

We may well believe that these colonial logics are softened or removed in strategy games by simply turning to periods before the height of European global expansion (an obvious flaw with such thinking is that Civilization has a timeline that runs throughout human history and yet has faced the most criticism in this regard). Yet even in this case, we would, at best, end up with vast periods of human history – those in which events have been partially determined by or determinant of notions and practices of colonialism – that remain problematic for strategy games to engage with if they are to deliver the kind of nuance we rightfully, increasingly, demand from our history.

So, is the historical strategy game therefore inherently wedded to the European colonialist worldview because of the natural resonance between this historical theme and the use of space as power in such games? Whilst this does seem to be a difficult problem, it seems too much to say that there is no way out of this for the genre. Every form exerts pressure on the contents it carries and yet, as with language, there always remains the chance to say something that has hitherto remained unsaid. This is perhaps a challenge that will be best faced by the expertise of the developers who professionally design the challenges that millions of us enjoy every day. And yet, perhaps those of us that work with the theory surrounding historical games can at least contribute with some thought-experiments about what such a game might be like.

One possible solution might be to use virtual space to represent something other than physical space. In such a game, gameplay could remain the same and yet the game map could act as a representation of more abstract interpretations of historical ‘space’, such as cultural or intellectual domains and movements. Perhaps in such a game we might not even play as a human faction but again as something more abstract, such as an idea or philosophy. In this way the physical space of the screen could be used as a metaphor for a different kind of historical existent and its movements. The virtual space could still therefore act as an enjoyable competitive environment, but one that would allow for the telling of truly alternative histories. Here, the organic and contagious spread of important ideas could emerge from oppressed cultures, without having to force representations of said cultures into European worldviews grounded in military and colonial dominance in order to achieve a win-state according to the game’s logic. Perhaps players could tinker with structures and variables that alter how these ideas and cultural elements spread. Perhaps they would seek to create a cultural world in which African musical influence permeates the Western world just as it has in reality, though this time through an initial means other than slavery. Or perhaps they would envision an entirely different political world where dominant global ideologies emerge from outside the mentalité of Western neoliberal capitalist democracy.

Admittedly, such a game, which steps so far out of the representational conventions of the historical strategy genre, sounds complex and challenging to design. A large stumbling block exists in the fact that players must find the idea of such an abstract game appealing if it is to gather initial funding for development or make a viable eventual product. But certainly, using space in the historical strategy game with a new level of abstraction, as a representation of something other than physical space, might offer real opportunities for new kinds of engagements with history, whilst retaining core elements of the genre’s gameplay that are often so fun and involving. Furthermore, to use space abstractedly in this manner is not the radical shift it seems. After all, this is how humans conceptually use space all the time. In Metaphors We Live By (1980), for example, Lakoff and Johnson show how we use spatial metaphors to represent so many of our abstract concepts that have no physical presence – such as good/bad (which we frequently represent with up/down) or the passage of time (through which we say we move forwards/backwards).

Perhaps then it is not impossible for a historical strategy game to use space in these abstract ways, instead of that most obvious interpretation of using screen space to represent physical historical space. Such games might not be huge commercial successes. But in an age where many players are increasingly open to experimentation in their play and the possibilities for dissemination outside of traditional publishing structures have opened up dramatically, it seems at least a possibility that one day we could see a historical strategy game engage with space as a competitive power resource without simply reenacting colonialism over and over again.

Click to Conclude

We should not forget that, despite its embedded colonialist logics, the historical strategy genre also represents a lot of the exciting possibilities for engaging with the past through play that games offer (as myself and others have written about extensively). And these games certainly do generally tell us something about history as it occurred, even if they often take a winding counterfactual road to do so. But in a genre built on the notion that history could have been otherwise if only for different choices or structural variables, it is troubling that the one thing that cannot be changed, the one constant inevitability of human interactions throughout time, is European-style colonial imperialism. Thus, the historical thought-experiments such games enable through their narrative flexibility and the counterfactuals this allows, remain incomplete. Instead they soothe Western guilt by presenting colonialism as an inevitable part of history, with the European mentalité becoming positioned as ‘natural’ and ‘human’, displacing different perspectives from other cultures.

Whilst we cannot change the past, we can recognise our complicity in the present and potentially imagine a better future, if we can have the kind of conversations that historical strategy games too often ignore. The critique of such games offered herein is not based in a crude fear that players will suddenly become colonial monsters just by reenacting these histories (more than enough simplistic media-effects ‘research’ of this type has been visited on games as part of the videogames and violence debates). Instead, this is a critique of a further-reaching discourse that permeates our collective memory, of which these games are but a symptom. It is an argument against seeing Western colonialism as inevitable, human, and unavoidable. Because this not only elides our responsibility for the crimes of the past, and gives us a false impression of why they occurred (ignoring the ideological impetus and rhetorical rationalisations behind colonialism), it also restricts how we dream of new futures. Ultimately, the reason we turn to history is in search of lessons to help us understand the present and prepare for what lies ahead. Let us hope we can learn to see past the notion that subjugation and exploitation are inevitable elements of human interactions.

One of the most exciting possibilities of historical games is that they are often a domain in which we can all dream of different pasts, experiment with events and causality, and explore ways in which events could have turned out for the better (or the worse!). Put simply, they are a place where history can be played with. It is my hope that the historical strategy game, that most narratively open of historical game structures, can escape the colonialist logics that seem so naturally resonant with its use of space as power. I leave that to far more creative and talented people than me. But what is certain is that if the emancipatory potential of these games is to be fully realised, they cannot remain locked forever within only one historical mentalité, one worldview. Because, of course, neither should our history.

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