(Post) Colonialism

Click to Colonise: Space, Power and History in Strategy Games (Part 1)

There is a rumour. A rumour that is whispered only around the academic campfires at select conferences. A legend of a time back in the misty days of yore, when there was only a handful of us poking around, searching for scraps at the base of the mountain of ideas that would one day become the field of historical game studies. In these long-forgotten days of the early 21st Century, it is said there was only one historical game that we were allowed to talk about. And talk about it we did.

Sid Meier’s Civilization (Microprose/Activision/Firaxis 1991-present) has been the subject of perhaps more scholarly interest than virtually any other historical game series. In part, this is probably due to its success. At the time, Civilization was one of the few titles of its type to have successfully crossed over into the relative mainstream of games culture. This was rather unusual for a historical strategy game, a rather esoteric genre birthed partly in the complex mathematical musings and meanderings of the long tradition of wargaming. Due to this, many of us probably grew up playing the game or wondering about its impact on the minds of those who did, making it a first stop on the road to considering history in game form. This perhaps explains why so much was written about this particular series in the early days of the field, when seeing any publications on historical games was still a relatively rare occurrence. It also explains why Civilization was the subject of some of the earliest debates upon which the field was founded. 

Reflecting its centrality, the game was a site for discussions about whether videogames could actually even be history at all. Galloway’s (2006) scathing informatics critique positioned Civilization as the ‘absence of history’. My own later piece (in which I began to formulate an early version of the concept of the ‘developer-historian’ that would go on to inform much of my work) responded by arguing that the necessarily reductive process of turning history into algorithms was actually rather similar to the necessarily reductive process of turning the past into the narratives we find in history books (Chapman 2013). Diane Carr (2007) meanwhile, in a chapter that provided an early hint of the need for player studies in the field, argued that the inherent multiplicity of the game’s structure, combined with the flexibility of play and the long-established ephemerality of the process of reception of any representation, meant that the game’s true meaning would always be somewhat subjective. 

Alongside this, another critique of the game was also brewing. A number of academics had noticed that the game seemed to have a potentially troubling relationship to colonial rhetoric and history, despite the seemingly good intentions of its creators. These critiques are complex and nuanced and each is worth reading (see, for example, Poblocki 2002; Douglas 2002; Lammes 2003; Mir and Owens 2013). However, essentially the argument goes something like this: in order to do well at Civilization, the player must generally reenact the history of European expansion and engage in the subjugation of other cultures. The game therefore pushes the player into dominant postcolonial structures (Lammes 2003). As Douglas puts it, the game’s “ultimate effect is to reinforce the pattern of interaction between the colonizing power and the aboriginal” (2002, 15). 

As I have argued in my own work (Chapman 2016 173-197, 231-264), historical strategy games have promising possibilities: they are generally full of recognisable historical theory, offering insights into the roles that various causal factors played in the past; they encourage players to engage in the construction of historical narratives; and to experiment with counterfactual history. These games therefore have emancipatory potential because they open up these historical practices, previously only accessible to historians and other professional communities, to a popular audience. Yet it is also difficult to deny that this new-found freedom in reception still has limits and there remain in-built rule structures that push players towards the production of particular kinds of ludonarratives (narratives that are built by players through the playing of a game). As such, “Implied players of these games who wish to do well are therefore often encouraged to align with the games’ structuralist logics to produce ludonarratives that reconstruct their own [presumed] Western identities and cultural memory (and sometimes the imagined future that springs forth from this)” (Chapman 2016, 249). Certainly, this is not a problem restricted to the Civilization series and seems in fact to be something that is endemic within the historical strategy genre. However, the series is in some sense the poster-child for this issue, perhaps in part due to its success (or perhaps due to the, in retrospect, somewhat masochistic act of actually naming one entry in the series Civilization IV: Colonization). 

Is Reversing Historical Patterns of Domination Enough? 

It is important to point out that the narrative freedom and variety of factions in the series does also allow for players to produce counterfactual histories, in which indigenous cultures that were colonised in reality can instead take the role of the oppressor. For example, a player might play as the Iroquis civilisation and conquer the lands of various European powers. This could have a cathartic quality for players from oppressed cultures, with one study even finding this to be an important motivational factor for indigenous students in their engagement with the game (Squire 2004). Lammes (2003) adds that Civilization thereforeat least offers us opportunities to twist and parody, potentially subverting the ideology of colonialism. Certainly, these kinds of possibilities contribute to the historical strategy genre’s important destabilisation of the notion that history is entirely predetermined or outside of any human agency. This means such games hold what we can term an ‘anti-teleological’ quality (Apperley 2007; 2013; Chapman 2016, 231-264). That is to say that they emphasise that historical outcomes are not necessarily pre-determined, instead highlighting the role of contingency in what happened in the past.  This in itself is important because it simultaneously destabilises a commonly deployed defence of colonialism and imperialism, which seeks to mitigate European or Western guilt by arguing that these things were in some way inevitable: that history could not have been otherwise, and is therefore ‘nobody’s fault’. 

This potential for complex multiplicity, a sense of contingency and the opportunity to subvert dominant narratives, means that it is possible that such games createopportunities for criticalplay and engagements with history. Yet, despite these opportunities for to playfully reverse historical patterns of domination, a problem remains. As Dillon (2008) argues, even those historical strategy games that are nominally about the indigenous experience, such as Age of Empires III: The War Chiefs (Ensemble Studios 2006), still use the same gameplay mechanics, with a rhetorical basis in modern European political and economic thought. To put it simply, no matter who we play as in these games, we reenact the Western, namely, European, history of colonialism and imperialism because the games are coded for this to be the most effective strategy. As such, the rules of historical strategy games generally encourage the production of the kind of narratives used to justify historical patterns of abuse by reiterating the idea that following Western historical metanarratives is the true path to progress or ‘civilization’. Victory is therefore achieved by heading towards the endpoint of the contemporary West. Thus, for all their narrative freedom, these games still have an embedded teleological aspect – history can only progress and reach the ‘end’ of the present through colonialism and imperialism.

These games’ algorithms therefore reduce all cultures to operating through Western cultural logics, erasing any sense that the historical cultures of indigenous peoples were not necessarily based on the same principles of endless expansion and violent subjugation. This has the effect of positioning the European mentalité or worldview as synonymous with ‘human nature’ or something similar, quietly implying that all peoples would have acted similarly and engaged in the practices of colonialism given the chance. This naturalised sense of inevitability implies, once again, that no-one is really culpable for the crimes of European expansion.

These ideas are hardly unique to games and are a common presence in contemporary discussions, driven by a form of hindsight bias and the concurrent legacy of colonial thinking that still dominates geopolitics, historical discourse and many of the structures of oppression that are still in operation today. But these games similarly have a reluctance to even entertain the notion of a history that could have been otherwise in this regard.Furthermore, “because such ideologies can be hidden under an agency which appears to emancipate both history and player, they are perhaps more insidious.” (Chapman 2016, 249). In such games we are invited to imagine, through play, a different history; a world free to playfully and experimentally differ in so many aspects from our own. Just as long as it is a world still governed by the logics of colonialism and imperialism. 

Game Space as Power 

But why is this the case? Why do historical strategy games overwhelmingly reproduce these particular cultural logics of domination in their play? Well, in part, this is a simple resonance between form and theme. Using space as a resource is a long-standing facet of games. We need look no further than chess or draughts for obvious examples. In such games, physical space displays the game-state to players and marks the area in which game rules apply (separate from everyday life). But this space is also a tool to be used and a challenge to be negotiated during gameplay. In many games, occupying space gives an advantage to the player doing so by opening up greater affordances (opportunities for action) to them. Many sports, of course, also work precisely in this way. Put simply, space in games often means power.  

This use of game-space as power is generally uncontroversial because most traditional games do not simultaneously also function as representations of things that exist outside of the game. Chess, for example, is generally considered to be a relatively abstract system for play rather than a representation of a particular historical battle. However, this becomes more complicated when we consider that most videogames (as well as many types of contemporary tabletop game) differ because they are not solely rule systems but also function as representations through the use of graphics, stories, drama and action. This is always the case with historical games, which are, by their very definition, both systems for play and representations of events, objects and people from the past. 

When a game has a representational aspect like this, a theme must be chosen by the developers that has some kind of resonance with the formal properties of the game genre and/or individual mechanics. Given that, as aforementioned, space in a given game is likely to be already functioning in relation to (player) power, most games therefore lend themselves naturally to a metonymic relationship with themes in which space similarly functions as power (metonym is when a concept is referred to or represented by using a different concept that, whilst distinct, is closely related in some way. In this case, using the power dynamics of virtual spaces to represent the power dynamics of real spaces). We can see this resonance on a smaller level with first-person or third-person historical games wherein interpersonal combat – in which space is very much a resource for achieving dominance in reality – provides an obvious historical theme for competitive mechanics in virtual spaces. This, in part, explains the prevalence of combat as a theme in such games. By comparison, in historical strategy games, with their emphasis on more macro perspectives on the past, a natural resonance between form and content is found in that most obvious of large-scale historical themes whereby space functions as power: colonialism and imperialism.  

In part, this emphasis on space as power allows these games to offer useful historical interpretations through play, exploring topics such as the materialist aspects of history, the relationship between resources and settlement patterns, and the tactical and strategic uses of topographical features in warfare. Similarly, as Squire and Jenkins (2003) note, the Civilization series(and other similar games) engage ideas of environmental determinism, the idea that historical power relations have been shaped by location and access to natural resources (see, for example, Diamond 1997). This theoretical lens is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its emphasis on what is essentially luck firmly dispels the archaic and vile arguments of the far-right that European dominance was due to some kind of cultural or racial superiority. On the other hand, it once again suppresses how colonial and imperial expansion was ideologically enabled and not just an automatic feature of geographical dispersion. This plays directly into the problems of these historical strategy games and their positioning of the European mentalitéas inevitable, natural and intrinsically ‘human’, sidelining the history of ideas essential to any nuanced history of colonialism. 

Abstracting Suffering 

The problems with this focus on colonialism and imperialism in historical strategy games are also compounded by another issue. Such games typically operate at a macro scale, with the player ‘looking down’ upon large geographical areas. Furthermore, strategy games tend to utilise visual simplicity and abstraction, a ‘conceptual simulation style’ (Chapman 2016 59-89) in which meaning about the past is created through stats, symbols, tables, charts and maps etc., rather than through the literal visual representation of realistic ‘pictures’ (i.e. the use of iconic signs). Both of these characteristics mean that such games generally omit any depiction, or even consideration, of the human cost of colonialism and imperialism.

In such games we do not typically see dramatised action at the level of individuals, making it easy for humanistic concerns surrounding historical violence such as colonialism to be missed. The game is likely to simply quantify these disturbing modes of domination into statistical pluses and minuses for the player. Add to this the fact that these games generally also elide sensitive historical phenomena such as slavery and genocide. At best, this is probably a well-meant attempt to avoid offence by representing traumatic events through play. At worst, it is intended to ensure that players do not feel guilty for the actions they will probably take in order to act out the most efficient strategies in these games, what is known as a ‘moral disengagement factor’ (Hartmann et al. 2014). However, if these games are to serve as meaningful accounts of colonialism and imperialism, then players should be encouraged to feel guilty for deploying these methods, ensuring these choices have a deserved moral aspect. 

Put simply, colonialism becomes a process of simple judgements of advantage versus disadvantage. Thus, the game enforces a form of consequentialist ethics, wherein the ends are likely to become all that matters to players because the means are never actually seen. In this way, these games encourage the player to engage in an idealist reenactment of exactly the kinds of cultural, intellectual and ideological processes that allowed such forms of domination to occur historically in the first place, in the name of a ‘universal’ progress that was anything but. 

The absence of the crimes and human cost of colonialism in games based so firmly in its logics means that we often end up with a sanitised history grounded in an algorithmic form of instrumental rationality. Colonialism becomes a process of simple judgements of advantage versus disadvantage. Thus, the game enforces a form of consequentialist ethics, wherein the ends are likely to become all that matters to players because the means are never actually seen. In this way, these games encourage the player to engage in an idealist reenactment of exactly the kinds of cultural, intellectual and ideological processes that allowed such domination to occur historically, in the name of a ‘universal’ progress that was anything but. 

Come back later this week for part 2, in which Adam Chapman will consider whether there is any possibility for historical strategy games to escape these colonial dynamics, and if so, how?


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Mir, R. and T. Owens. 2013. Modelling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization. In Playing with the past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, edited by M.W. Kappell and A.B.R. Elliott, 91–106. London: Bloomsbury. 

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Squire, K. and H. Jenkins. 2003. Harnessing the Power of Games in Education. InSight Vision 3 (1): 5–33.

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