The following post by Arturo Iannace is a reply to the HGN blogpost by Dr Adam Chapman for our (Post)Colonialism theme. In turn Adam has considered the points and his response is included here.
Arturo Mariano Iannace is a PhD candidate at the IMT School of Advanced Studies, in the curriculum of Cognitive and Cultural Systems, track of Analysis and Management of Cultural Heritage. After having obtained his Bachelor’s in Political Science, he moved on to earn a Master’s Degree in History, specializing in Medieval and Byzantine History. His main focus of research lies at the intersection of political, military, and cultural history. As an Ordinary Member of the Game Science Research Center (and a gamer himself) he is particularly interested in the use of games (both digital and analogic) for the purposes of education, research, and analysis of historical topics.
In November 2021 Adam Chapman wrote a two-part article with the title “Click to Colonise: Space, Power and History in Strategy Games” (Part I and Part 2). The title itself summarizes its content quite well. For simplicity’s sake, it could be represented as follows: strategy games (in particular, grand strategy games) inherently replicate in their own mechanisms a Western colonial mindset of equating space with power, in a (simple) equation that more space equals more power. The article itself (both parts) is very well written, and probably its most intriguing (and constructive) element is the proposal of using (and here I directly quote) “virtual space to represent something other than physical space.” (e.g. philosophical ideas, concepts, etc.).
However, despite these elements of undoubtable interest, Chapman’s argument could also be subject to some concerns and objections. The objections that may be put forward against it are, fundamentally, of two natures: ethical; and historical. While the former (concerning what is sometimes called post-colonial guilt) will not be dealt with here, due to the extreme delicacy of the argument and the space needed to engage with it, the second, more historically-grounded, objection is the subject of this post.
‘Colonialism’, ‘Imperialism’, and the risks of terminological confusion
This objection may be broken into different components. The first is about terminology. In both parts of his contribution, Chapman consistently uses the phrasing “colonialism and imperialism” in a way that clearly indicates he is pointing to a single historical phenomenon, indeed the result of the combination of these two elements, ‘colonial imperialism’ (and more specifically, European colonial imperialism). However, the consistent use of these terms together to indicate a single phenomenon results, as a side effect, in Chapman using ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ as synonyms. This is already evident when he has to deal with historical strategy games reproducing and representing, according to his argument, “European mentalités as inevitable, natural and intrinsically ‘human’”. It becomes even more evident when he drops the term ‘imperialism’ (and related adjective) altogether, using only ‘colonialism’, but without shifting the semantic reference.
Some examples: when he establishes the link between the use of space in historical strategy games and those “European mentalités” (i.e. colonial imperialist ideology), Chapman writes of a “European colonialist worldview”, a term he reprises more than once; and he repeatedly mentions the “crimes and human costs of colonialism”. Thus, in his writing, Chapman moves from “European colonialism and imperialism” to “European colonialism”, and finally to “European colonialism, imperialism, and racism” while talking about essentially the same thing.
Later, I will propose an interpretation of what I believe Chapman really means when he uses these terms. For now, it should be noted that, from a historical point of view, this interchangeability of terms is problematic. Without the space to offer exhaustive definitions, suffice here to say that ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ refer to two distinct historical phenomena, that may go hand-in-hand in specific circumstances (during the peak of European imperialism in the late 19th century, what Chapman calls “colonial imperialism”), but may also exist without each other. In a sense, both phenomena have existed since the dawn of civilization, even if they took on different shapes.
Concerning imperialism, an interesting quote from Peter Crooks and Timothy Parsons (2016) can serve us as ‘guideline’:
“Discernable across the flux of history is a persistent trend: the proclivity of human groups to establish large-scale and durable political formations that rule over subject populations of different ethnicities, religions and cultures – in short, to build empires. On this narrow point, scholars appear to have achieved consensus.”
Imperialism, then, is an extremely widespread phenomenon, both chronologically and geographically, reminding us that imperialism, and colonialism as well, are far from being a Western, or European, ‘specialty’. Just to limit ourselves to the Mediterranean, the Egyptian New Kingdom could surely be classified as an imperialist power (Fowles Morris, 2005), although less as a colonizer; while the Greek or Phoenician city-states could be classified more as colonizers but far less as imperialists (with the notable exception, perhaps, of Athens and, later, Carthage). ‘Colonization’ (as the noun from which ‘colonialism’ derives) is a concept inevitably linked with ‘migration’: whenever a human group moves from region A to region B to settle, there takes place a process that we may define as ‘colonization’. This is the link connecting phenomena as different (on a geographical and chronological scale) as the first human colonization of the Polynesian islands, the birth of the first Sumerian outposts in northern Mesopotamia, the spread of Greek civilization in the Mediterranean (again), or the arrival of English settlers in Northern America.
An equation for imperialism
This is not a case of pedantic difference. ‘Colonization’ as an historical phenomenon has at its core the movement and settlement of human groups. Power, while not disassociated from it (as from any other historical phenomenon) is contingent upon it. ‘Imperialism’, on the other hand, appears almost as its opposite: here power is the key, its increase and exercise being at the very core of the concept itself. To clarify: colonies do not (necessarily) exist in order to increase the power of a specific organized group; empires do. As correctly highlighted by Howe (2005), the semantic shift which made ‘colonies’ and ‘colonialism’ strict partners of ‘imperialism’ (i.e. the birth of the concept of ‘colonial imperialism’ used by Chapman) is a product of the 19th and, perhaps more, of the 20th century. But this shift doesn’t mean that the words indicate the same phenomenon; quite the contrary.
We have arrived at the second reason for making an objection. Implicitly, it is imperialism that Chapman, following his own bibliography, in particular Dillon (2008), is really talking about when he re-poses the argument that the emphasis on the equation space = power is the replica of a typically Western (‘colonial imperialist’) mindset. This equation is also the point where Chapman’s argument encounters its most serious obstacle. He himself seems to be aware of this as he explicitly acknowledges that this is the same mechanism we find in chess, for example. Things change, according to Chapman, once we consider how videogames “are not solely rule systems but also function as representations through the use of graphics, stories, drama and action.” This statement is true, but not unproblematically so within Chapman’s own argument. Because, while it is impossible to deny that the degree of representation (here, the inverse of abstraction) of chess and, say, Europa Universalis, is clearly different, it is to the underlying mechanisms, the “rule system”, and to the role ‘space’ plays inside that system, that Chapman devotes most of his attention for the rest of his contribution.
Once we acknowledge that there is a necessary link between ‘space’ and ‘power’ (or more precisely ‘space’ = ‘resources’ = ‘power’, as implicitly recognized by Dillon in the article Chapman cites), it becomes impossible to understand this link as an exclusive characteristic of a Western or European mindset (an imperialist mindset, as specified above). The best and clearest evidence can be found in a game much more ancient than chess: Go. While chess seemingly represents an abstract battle between two opposing armies, Go abstracts the grand strategy taking place between two opposing states (or factions, or other organized groups). The key to the game is spatial control, and the winner is the player who controls more space, directly or indirectly. Again, space = power. It is not necessary here to explore the origins of such a classic tenet of imperialism. Its philosophical foundations can be seen in many different strands of political thought that evolved (often in parallel to each other) in many different places, in Europe as in China as in the Islamic world.
However, as I have said, we should note that a more correct equation would be space = resources = power. Space is an enabler. It is relevant insofar as it gives access to an array of resources (abstract or material ones). To mention again Europa Universalis: the game system bases the value of a given province on the resources it provides. These resources may be tangible (wood, wheat, and so on) or intangible (prestige, the weakening of an enemy, a better strategic position, etc.), but still give the province its value (variations in playstyles notwithstanding). This is true also for the (historical) phenomenon of imperialism. The fundamental equation becomes resources = power, and strategy games mirror exactly that (an argument also presented by Dillon ). To say that resource exploitation (and imperialism based on it) is a specifically European characteristic would be, of course, incorrect: to mention one example, the Comanche in the plains of North America from the 18th century until the second half of the 19th (Hämäläinen 2008; Sinha 2012). Imperialism and empire are fundamental historical phenomena that presented themselves all around the globe, as shown also by John Darwin (2007) in explicit contrast to any idea of an exclusive European claim to their practice.
Strategy games and imperialism: dividing the undividable?
Thus, it is surprising to find Chapman accusing strategy games to be “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”. While this statement, in Chapman’s article, ends with a question mark, the core of my argument remains intact, as it seems clear that for him strategy games can be described in this way. However, this would be to reject the idea that imperialism, as described here standing on the equation resources = power, is an almost universal characteristic of organized human groups (as argued by Darwin 2007 and Howe 2002). Games such as Europa Universalis, or Civilization, which want to give players control over an organized human group (a state in the former case; a civilization in the latter), have no choice but to deal with space because human groups are inherently, fundamentally, necessarily grounded on space and the resources that space allows them to exploit to their advantage. To suggest that this mechanism re-enacts ‘Western imperialism’, or to quote Chapman directly, that “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” is, to put it bluntly, unhelpful. It could easily be said that that mechanic, that gameplay, re-enacts the mechanisms that allowed the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate, or the Chinese or the Mongol empires (Fibiger Bang and Kołodziejczyk, 2012). There would be no change of substance.
Chapman’s argument thus falls on its own premises, and it becomes difficult (though admittedly intriguing) to understand how his wished-for “historical strategy game” that “engage[s] with space as a competitive power resource without simply reenacting colonialism over and over again” might work. Setting aside, as it has been shown above, that ‘colonialism’ here should be taken as meaning, for Chapman, ‘imperialism’, such a wish is the desire to see rain without clouds. Once space is acknowledged as a “power resource” (or as an ‘enabler’), the mechanism highlighted by the equation – and the mechanism of imperialism – comes automatically into play. At the risk of oversimplification, a strategy game is a game that asks players to use strategies, to think strategically (sometimes faster, sometimes slower); and strategy is, first and foremost, a concept strictly linked with power, as literature in the field of strategic studies convincingly shows (see the interesting definitions provided by Freedman 2008).
Redressing Chapman’s argument
To my mind, there are two ways Chapman’s argument might be recuperated. The first is to reframe it to include ‘imperialism’ in its broadest and most general sense (which Chapman himself is doing de facto, if one deletes the adjectives ‘European’ and ‘Western’ from his intervention). This way, however, the tautology of the argument would become more evident: in order to eliminate imperialism from the strategy game genre, one must eliminate power, the very focus of strategy itself. The second way is to do the opposite, and insist on a narrower definition of “colonial imperialism” that is only European and Western (which is what Chapman claims to be doing).
Alternatively, one could choose to set aside the whole argument, and focus on the issue of representation instead, to which Chapman definitely devotes some of his attention. However, this choice could be problematic as well. Firstly, one cannot pretend that a strategy game should represent human suffering, as Chapman seems to suggest, since we should be reminded that a game is, fundamentally, about abstraction. It is not a total simulation and does not have to be so. Of course, suffering can be present in a game, in many different guises. But we should also ask whether introducing human suffering into a strategy game would really make sense for the game itself. Also, it would be necessary to ask how it might be possible to model suffering in such a way as to add something to the game (beyond just ‘decoration’) and to the player experience, and to avoid simplistic representations whose only result would be to strengthen and replicate existing prejudices and discourses. I am certain it is precisely this that Chapman seeks to avoid with his proposal, so this point deserves much attention.
Secondly, and this is strictly connected with what has been said up until now, to insist upon “European” or “Western” imperialism and the suffering it created would be not only historically, but also ethically, wrong. Because this way, not only would imperialism in its widest sense disappear from view, but so too would the suffering it created, in all times and places, replicating an annoyingly Eurocentric view of history.
Re-evaluating Chapman’s argument and the strategy games-imperialism relationship
At the end, what remains? Actually there is still an interesting core to explore. As was hinted at at the beginning, Chapman has some interesting proposals for a renewal of the strategy game genre that he could have explored further if he had acknowledged a broader conception of imperialism. There is one kind of historical experience that the grand strategy genre is, at the moment, unable to provide: that of small states/groups which didn’t (or couldn’t) adopt an imperialist/expansionist approach during their history (or only did so on a very small scale). In other words, those states/groups that didn’t follow a linear trajectory of expansion (if such a thing could be said to have existed) but managed to survive nonetheless, and in some cases even thrive. Sticking with the timeframe of a game such as Europa Universalis, examples might include Italian city-states such as Lucca. This might be achieved through the development of the aspect of a grand strategy game that is usually labelled ‘diplomacy’. While diplomacy is present in many games of the genre (the first Victoria provided an interesting set of diplomatic options, probably unparalleled in the field), to increase and improve the players’ range of interaction with the other actors on the field, to make them more nuanced and sophisticated, would have the additional beneficial impact of emphasizing how no state/group existed in isolation, and how the interactions between the parts of a geopolitical system went far beyond the dichotomy of oppressor/oppressed that deprives those groups reductively labelled as ‘oppressed’ of agency.
Unfortunately, this proposal, vague as it may be, contrasts sharply with both technological and commercial constraints. Another option would be to focus on intra-state (or intra-group) relationships of power (perhaps similar to what has been achieved by the MEIOU mod for Europa Universalis IV), though this may also fall victim to the constraints mentioned above. Finally, there are Chapman’s own proposals. These are arguably the most intriguing element of his contribution and, as such, deserve a more in-depth exploration. This would only be possible, and meaningful, though, once the way has been cleared of preconceptions and ideological assumptions, and once we accept the inherent limitations of abstraction that a game must necessarily adopt.
Crook, P. & Parsons T. H. (eds.). (2016) Empires and Bureaucracy in World History. From Late Antiquity to the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Darwin, J. (2007) After Tamerlane: the global history of empire since 1405, London, Allen Lane.
Dillon, B. A. (2008) “Signifying the West: Colonialist Design in Age of Empires III: The Warchiefs”. Eludamos, 2 (1): 129-44
Fibiger Bang, P. & Kołodziejczyk, D. (2012) ‘Elephant of India’: universal empire through time and across cultures. In Universal Empire: A Comparative Approach to Imperial Culture and Representation Eurasian History, 1-42. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,
Fowles Morris, E. (2005) The Architecture of Imperialism. Military Bases and the Evolution of Foreign Policy in Egypt’s New Kingdom, Leiden-Boston, Brill.
Freedman, L. (2014) Strategic Studies and the Problem of Power, In Strategic Studies. A Reader, 9-21, London-New York, Routledge.
Hämäläinen, P., Comanche Empire, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2008
Howe, S. (2002) Empire. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Sinha, M. (2012) Projecting power: empires, colonies, and world history, In A Companion to World History, 258-271. Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell.
Reply from Adam Chapman
Thank you for your response, Arturo, and for the impetus to be clear about my thinking here. I understand your point about my alleged conflation of imperialism and colonialism but I think you are perhaps guilty of conflating colonialism with a (rather ahistorical) ‘neutral’ idea of colonisation. Firstly, colonialism does not, as you suggest, derive from colonisation but rather refers to an architecture of exploitative governance in which the colony is a locus of power. Secondly, no-one is arguing that historical empires didn’t exist or that settlers didn’t create colonies. However, transformations in travel, the sharing of information and new political ideologies made colonialism possible, and it is these modes of power which are afforded and represented in the games we discuss. In the West – where these games are produced – these forms have played a significant role in the production of our contemporary political order and are heavily influential on the forms of representation that we enact.
Your comments (for example on space and its relationship to access to resources) often focus on historical phenomena while overlooking how the video games in question function. Space is not abstract power in Civilization in the same way it is in Go; it is power in direct connection to the colonialist imaginary of perfect information and absolute, unquestioned exploitation of resources which include people. This is something not replicated in the imperialism of pre-modern empires, not even in heavily administered empires like those in China.
Lastly, I was surprised to see you suggest that games should not represent human suffering because they are about abstraction. You seem to want to look past the human consequences of particular actions to focus on their systemic in-game benefits – somewhat ironically underlining my point about our embeddedness in the logics of colonialism, which of course specialise in this kind of ‘rational’ decision making. Avoiding these issues, and casting video games as instrumental, abstract systems suggests they have no part to play in arguments about humanity and culture, a position which I, and most scholars in Game Studies, would strongly reject. This would also deny the very existence of games as a meaningful historical form by positioning such texts as unable to engage with the very issues the discipline of history seeks to explore.