January 31, 2010

Natives criticize Sid Meier's Colonization

When Leah Bowe took her computer to a shop for repairs, she encountered the Colonization video game on the shelf. Here are some thoughts she posted on Facebook:

Holy Moley, Will This Crap Never End?The game is, according to the copy on the official Sid Meier site, "the third offering in the award-winning Civilization IV series. A re-imagining of the classic Civilization game Sid Meier created in 1994, Colonization is a total conversion of the Civilization IV engine into a game experience in which players will lead a European nation on their quest to colonize and thrive in the New World. Players will be challenged to guide their people from the oppressive Motherland, discover a new world, negotiate, trade and fight as they acquire great power and battle for their freedom and independence." You also get to "sustain peace and support your followers while you engage in negotiations with natives, other colonists, and a hostile homeland."

Hum. Interesting. May I sally forth with a couple guesses?:

1) I bet slavery isn't mentioned at all in the formation of these new "civilizations." Forget the fact that the "civilizations" of the "New World" could never have been built with the vigor, speed and structure they posses today with out the use of millions upon millions of African and African-American human beings employed as sub-human chattels.

2) I bet the "natives" are pretty stereotyped, as would be indicated by the image of the standard Plains Indian (who are the dominant imaginaire's stand-in for all 550+ Indian Nations in the US, let alone Canada, Mexico, or the rest of the Americas.)

3) I bet colonization is only ever a good thing in this game. You think they depict colonists setting up shop and then, a year after the establishment of their village, a pop-up window appears with something to the effect of: "Good news! European diseases transmitted by your colony to the local indigenous population have killed off approximately 90% of the surrounding hostiles. Time to start negotiating for land rights!"?

I'm kinda doubting it.

Leah adds:I saw this in the Apple Store + instantly felt like someone had slapped me across the face in public. I felt *humiliated*. I can't tell you what a bizarre experience that is.Others chimed in on the game:Larry McNeil:  It's part of the avalanche of moronic drivel from the mainstream; films, books, music, video games, movies, art, etc. In other words, what passes as culture. I really love it that indigenous people have our own intellectuals, authors, filmmakers, artists, scholars, and so on, who are able to help make sense of all the trash we're constantly barraged with.

Cristina M. Perez:  Rated "E" for Everyone...well, isn't that sweet.

We wouldn't want to leave anyone out of all the fun that colonization brings now would we?

Dameun Strange:  I am not surprised. All of these games are very useful for those who continue to perpetually recolonize the lands of brown-skinned peoples. Not surprised at all. We still haven't learned the bad lessons of colonization and I doubt this game will be the beginning of the lesson.

Terra Equality Hartwell:  Do you think some shmuck made a video game about the Nazis killing Jewish people during the holocaust?? It wouldn't surprise me since games about killing Indians are so damn fun and popular!! Where does the line get drawn...?

Zenith Cole:  I am still a little shocked that this exists...and I just bet that ignorant folks would buy it for their children to perpetuate that ignorance!

Brian Bull:  I can't speak for the version you're writing about, Leah. But actually I did play one of the earliest incarnations of it back in the late 90s, and enjoyed it. In a reverse twist, I assumed the role of Montezuma and conquered Europe. The rules actually allow that, and there was no reference to enslaving citizens. There are also options to negotiate peacefully and set up trade relations so it's not all war, battle, etc. That said, I can't speak for this version you're seeing in the store and if it matches your impressions, that's pretty bad.

Comment:  Brian Bull is referring to playing Civilization, not Colonization. Since Colonization is part of the Civilization series, we don't know how different it is from its predecessors.

Like Leah Bowe, I haven't played Colonization either, but we can deduce some things from its packaging.

For starters, the game obviously glorifies the idea of colonization. The glowing light of the image reeks of "civilization" being delivered to a savage land.

The reverse side of the package shows ships with American-flag sails and the slogan "Create a New Nation." If it were honest, it would say, "Invade and Conquer Inhabited Lands," or, "Create a New Nation by Destroying Old Nations."

British soldiers and frontiersmen are shown prominently, which suggests the game is about European powers jostling for power. Given the Anglo-American ships and colonizers, the implication is strong that Anglo Americans are destined to rule the continent. Apparently the Spanish, French, and Dutch don't have much of a chance, and the (invisible) Indians don't have any chance at all.

The game's Plains-style chief ("How!") and teepees are a joke. The colonizers didn't reach the Plains until 25 or 50 years after the USA was born. For the first 200 or so years, the Spanish dealt with California and Southwestern Indians, the Spanish and French dealt with Southeastern Indians, and the French and British dealt with Northeastern Indians. Of the hundreds of different tribes they encountered, none were Plains Indians.

I suspect the game does have options to trade and negotiate with Indian tribes, to court them as political and military allies, etc. Even so, the questions Bowe raises are good ones. Does the game show the colonizers lying and cheating the Indians of their land, and killing or enslaving the uncooperative ones? Does it show the Indians rising up against the colonists to defend their way of life? Does it let the Indians combine forces and vanquish the colonists, as they could've done at several points?

Similarly, as Bowe notes, does it show the Southern colonies and Caribbean islands building themselves via the slave trade? Does it allow for the indigenous revolts and revolutions that occurred throughout Latin America? I doubt it.

If it's missing these Native and African American components, it's a fairy-tale version of history. It's "teaching" the age-old myth that the Americas were available for the taking. It's rationalizing and justifying the dominant American belief that our ancestors did nothing wrong when they invaded and conquered the "New World."

For more debates on colonization, see Bitter Over Hudson Anniversary, Educating Tony About Genocide, and No History of Canadian Colonialism?! For more on video games, see Mayans in The Settlers and Video Games Featuring Indians.


dmarks said...

Sounds a lot like the much much older "Seven Cities of Gold", but more detailed.

dmarks said...

And that game, if anyone remembers it, treated the indigenous peoples of the New World sort of like bees: you could walk carefully around them, and if you bumped into them, they died. If you bumped into more than a couple, the hive er tribe took notice, and swarmed and killed you.

Anonymous said...

Your posts are so entertaining the way you make a big honking deal about stuff that doesn't even matter anymore. Sheesh, I wouldn't want to take you to a Halloween party, you'd think everything was racist, even the haircuts of the guests! XD

Rob said...

Your opinion about what matters to Indians and their supporters isn't entertaining, Anonymous. It's ignorant.

P.S. For more on people playing Indians at Halloween parties, see Tricking or Treating Indians.

Anonymous said...

"Brian Bull is referring to playing Civilization, not Colonization. Since Colonization is part of the Civilization series, we don't know how different it is from its predecessors."

I've played the Civilization series. It seems to take an approach devoid of value judgements towards individual cultures. The only difference between civilizations in the core game (and other add-ons like Beyond the Sword and Warlords) is a specialty building, a specialty unit and two different 'qualities' (eg: 'Philosophical and 'Protective' are Native America's traits, while 'Aggressive' and 'Religious' are Aztec). Everything else (from religion to civics) is alterable.

Ironically, playable indigenous civilizations (Aztec, Babylon, Inca, Native American, Mayan and Zulu) are considered very powerful, as all civilizations start off equally and since they receive specialty units and buildings very early on in the game quite easily crush nations like America and the USSR who are millenia from receiving their specialty tanks and/or navy SEALS.

Anyways, that's why Sitting Bull is the representative of Algonquian natives - he was the 'leader' of the hypothetical Native American Empire in Civilization 4 and Colonization merely took a shortcut by copying over pre-existing material.

Anonymous said...

This is a bit silly. You should play the game and then criticize - as such you are just quoting a bunch of similarilly ignorant people's speculation.

Some of your criticism doesn't apply at all - the game does not hide the atrocities committed against the native americans. Rather, in many ways it rewards doing these atrocities. Here's a link to an article that tries to make your argument, bit from an informed perspective: http://www.playthepast.org/?p=278 .

Informed, but ultimately the main criticism I agree with there (also present here, you got lucky on that point) is slavery should have been included. Though the reason they eliminated it, rather than being an attempt to create a beutiful lie out of history in the insidious way you propose, was instead just fear of PC backlash of the kind you and your readers represent. It really is damned if you do, damned if you don't with your group. And since african americans are a larger, more powerful political group, their role gets hidden. Thankfullyy native american PC fanatics aren't politically powerful, so we still get the game. And due to great modders over at 'religion and revolution' mod, we now can bring slave trade fully into the game.

Ultimately people don't play these games because they enjoy being evil, or because they want to create a fantasy version of history. They do it because they love experiencing history through novel strategic challanges. I once played hitler in a ww2 scenario. Interetsing challange, better understanding of the history of the time, NO deep damage to my psychological state or reflection of an anti-semitic attitude.

In fact, games like these can also cause moral reflection on the tradgedies of the times - playing colonization, I constantly try to adopt a peaceful attitude to the natives, but even so all around me I see my setttlements pushing villages out and destroying their culture, ultimately provoking military reaponses from the natives, which leads me to defend my settlements and fight their people, and wham, I find myself destroying whole peoples. Meanwhile, alll around me several of the other european powers, especially the spanish, are wiping out cuiltures even more actively, and the whole tradegedy of is period of history, and the impossibility of 'friendly colonization' becomes clear. It is precisely through the mechanism of a game, and the motivation to win, to acquire more, and to steamroll what is in your way, that appreciation for the reality of imperialism can be obtained. Certainly far better than sitting in some anthropology classroom, reading about atrocities, and smugly imagining oneself morally superior and incapable of such things. And we need people to realize the dangerous lure of such behavior, if future tragedies are to be avoided.

I would encourage you to take account of such considerations in future reviews of games, and first play, and see what the game actually is. Expeditions conquistador was recently released, and is ripe for such analysis (I think them hiding the patriarchy of the times is the biggest problem, but there is alot else to be considered)