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Ethics in Strategy Gaming, Part 2: Colonization

04 Dec

Just what do you do next after you’ve created an epic, career-defining masterpiece? That was the question facing Sid Meier after the release of Civilization in the waning days of 1991, after the gushing reviews and the impressive sales figures had begun pouring in to his employer MicroProse. How could he go back to making games that were merely about something when he had already made the game of everything? “Civilization was such a big game that it’s hard to find a topic that doesn’t feel as if you were going backwards,” he admitted in an interview in the summer of 1992. Anything he did next seemed destined to be an anticlimax.

Meier’s first decision about his future was an eminently sensible one: he would take a break. Asked what he was currently working on during that same interview, his reply was blunt: “Absolutely nothing! I’m going to take it easy for a while.” And truly, if anyone in the games industry deserved a timeout, it was him. Meier had maintained an insane pace for the last decade, acting as both lead designer and lead programmer on no less than 21 commercially released games, three of them — Pirates!Railroad Tycoon, and of course Civilization — universally lauded icons whose influence has remained pervasive to this day. Indeed, those three games alone, released within five years of one another, constitute as extraordinary a creative outpouring as the field of gaming has ever known. But now, Meier was finally feeling burnt out, even as his marriage was ending — at least partially the result, no doubt, of all those years spent burning the candle at both ends. He desperately needed to catch his breath.

The Sid Meier who returned to the job months later had a new attitude toward his work. He wouldn’t try to somehow top Civilization in terms of scale and scope, but would rather use the fame and money it had brought him to work on whatever most interested him personally at any given time, whilst maintaining a much more sustainable work-life balance. Sometimes these projects would strike others — not least among them MicroProse’s management team — as almost perversely esoteric.

Never was this more the case than with his very first post-Civilization endeavor, as dramatic a departure from the expected as any game designer has ever dared to make. In fact, C.P.U. Bach wasn’t actually a game at all.


The music of Johann Sebastian Bach had long been enormously important to Meier, as he wrote in his recent memoir:

The sense I get when I listen to his work is that he’s not telling me his story, but humanity’s story. He’s sharing the joys and sorrows of his life in a more universal sense, a language that doesn’t require me to understand the specifics of his situation. I can read a book from eighteenth-century Germany, and find some amount of empathy with the historical figures inside, but there will always be a forced translation of culture, society, and a thousand other details that I can never truly understand. Bach isn’t bogged down in those things — he’s cutting straight to the heart of what we already have in common. He can reach across those three hundred years and make me, a man who manipulates electromagnetic circuits with my fingertips on a keyboard, feel just as profoundly as he made an impoverished farmer feel during a traditional rural celebration. He includes me in his story, just as I wanted to include my players in my games; we make the story together. Bach’s music is a perfect illustration of the idea that it’s not the artist that matters, but the connection between us.

Often described as the greatest single musical genius in the history of the world, Bach is as close to a universally beloved composer as one can find, as respected by jazz and rock musicians as he is in the classical concert halls. And mathematicians tend to find him almost equally alluring: the intricate patterns of his fugues illustrate the mathematical concepts that underlie all music, even as they take on a fragile beauty in their own right, outside the sound that they produce. The interior of Bach’s music is a virtual reality as compelling as any videogame, coming complete with an odd interactive quality. Meier:

He routinely used something called invertible counterpoint, in which the notes are designed to be reversible for an entirely new, but still enjoyable, sound. He also had a fondness for puzzle canons, in which he would write alternating lines of music and leave the others blank for his students — often his own children — to figure out what most logically belonged in between.

Bach even went so far as to hide codes in many of his works. Substituting place values for letters creates a numeric total of 14 for his last name, and this number is repeatedly embedded in the patterns of his pieces, as is its reverse 41, which happens to be the value of his last name plus his first two initials. His magnum opus, The Art of the Fugue, plays the letters of his name in the notes themselves (in German notation, the letter B refers to the note we call B-flat, and H is used for B-natural). At the top of one famous piece, The Well-Tempered Clavier, he drew a strange, looping flourish that scholars now believe is a coded set of instructions for how to tune the piano to play in every possible key, opening up new possibilities for variation and modulation.

With C.P.U. Bach, Meier attempted to make a computer write and play “new” Bach compositions, working off of the known techniques of the master, taking advantage of the way that his musical patterns were, as Meier puts it, “both predictable and stunning.” Meier insists that he created the program with no intent to diminish his favorite composer, only to celebrate him. “Creating a computer [program] that creates art counts as a form of artistic expression itself,” he says.

To aid him in the endeavor, he enlisted one Jeff Briggs, a soundtrack composer at MicroProse. Together the two labored away for more than a year on the most defiantly artsy, uncommercial product of MicroProse or Sid Meier’s history. They decided to publish it exclusively on the new 3DO multimedia console, another first for the company and the designer, because they couldn’t bear to hear their creation through the often low-fidelity computer sound cards of the time; by targeting the 3DO, they guaranteed that their program’s compositions would be heard by everyone in CD-quality fidelity.

Still, the end result is a bit underwhelming, managing only to provide an ironic proof of the uniquely human genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. C.P.U. Bach generates music that is pleasantly Bach-like, but it cannot recreate the ineffable transcendence of the master’s great works.

Pick a Baroque musical form, and C.P.U. Bach will compose a brand new example of same for you.

An esoteric product for a console that would itself prove a failure, C.P.U. Bach sold horribly upon its release in 1994. But Meier doesn’t apologize for having made this least likely of all possible follow-ups to Civilization: “My only regret is that [it] is essentially unplayable today, now that the physical console has become a lost relic.” Sometimes you just have to follow your muse, in game design as in music — or, in this case, in a bit of both.



While Sid Meier was first taking a breather and then pursuing his passion project, the public image of MicroProse was being transformed by Civilization. Having made their name in the 1980s as a publisher of vehicular military simulations, they suddenly became the premiere publisher of strategy games in the eyes of many, taking over that crown from SSI, who had largely abandoned those roots to plunge deep into licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs. MicroProse was soon inundated with submissions from outsiders who had played Civilization and wanted their strategy game to go out with the same label on the box as that one, thank you very much. By no means were all of the strategy games MicroProse came to publish as a result equally worthy, but the cream of the crop — titles like Master of Orion, Master of Magic, X-COM, and Transport Tycoon — were as creatively and commercially successful as the genre got during the first half of the 1990s.

The great irony about the MicroProse of this period is that these kinds of games, the ones with which the company was now most identified in the minds of gamers, were almost all sourced from outsiders while the company’s internal developers marched in a multitude of other directions. Much effort was still poured into making yet more hardcore flight simulators like the ones of old, a case of diminishing returns as the tension of the Cold War and the euphoria of the First Gulf War faded into the past. Other internal teams plunged into standup-arcade machines, casual “office games,” complicated CRPGs, and a line of multimedia-heavy adventure games that were meant to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Sierra and LucasArts.

These ventures ranged from modest successes to utter disasters in the marketplace, trending more toward the latter as time went on. The income from the outside-developed strategy games wasn’t enough to offset the losses; by 1993, the company was facing serious financial problems. In June of that year, Spectrum Holobyte, a company with a smaller product catalog but a large amount of venture capital, acquired MicroProse.

Many projects were cancelled in the wake of the acquisition, leaving many employees in limbo, waiting to find out whether their future held a new work assignment or a pink slip. One of this group was Brian Reynolds, a programmer and dedicated tabletop wargamer who had come to MicroProse to escape from his Berkeley graduate program in philosophy and been assigned to the now-cancelled adventure line. With nothing else to do, he started to tinker with a strategy game dealing with what he found to be one of the most fascinating subjects in all of human history: the colonization of the New World. Having never designed a grand-strategy game before, he used Civilization, his favorite example of the genre, as something of a crutch: he adapted most of its core systems to function within his more focused, time-limited scenario. (Although said scenario brings to mind immediately Dani Bunten Berry’s Seven Cities of Gold — a game which was ironically a huge influence on Meier’s Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization — Reynolds claims not to have had it much in mind when he started working on his own game. “I didn’t personally like it as a game,” he says. “It all felt like empty forests.”) Reynolds had little expectation that his efforts would amount to much of anything in the end. “I was just doing this until they laid me off,” he says. Although he was working in the same building as Meier, it never even occurred to him to ask for the Civilization source code. Instead he reverse-engineered it in the same way that any other hacker would have been forced to do.

Nevertheless, word of the prototype slowly spread around the office, finally reaching Meier. “Can you come talk to Sid about this?” Reynold’s manager asked him one day. From that day forward, Colonization was an official MicroProse project.

The powers that were at the company would undoubtedly have preferred to give the reins of the project to Meier, placing Reynolds in some sort of junior design and/or programming role. But Meier was, as we’ve already seen, up to his eyebrows in Johann Sebastian Bach at the time, and was notoriously hard to corral under any circumstances. Further, his sense of fair play was finely developed. “This is your idea,” he said to Reynolds. “You deserve to have ownership of it.” He negotiated an arrangement with MicroProse’s management whereby he would serve as a design advisor, but the project as a whole would very much remain Brian Reynold’s.


Having secured our charter…

… we set off for the New World.

The early game of exploration and settlement is in some ways the most satisfying, being free from the micromanagement that crops up later.

The map can get crowded indeed as time goes on.

Like so much in the game, the city-management screen draws heavily from Civilization, but the row of trade goods along the bottom of the screen reflects the more complex economic model.

We declare independence! Hopefully our armies are up for the war that will follow.


The finished Colonization lets you play as the British, the Spanish, the Dutch, or the French. You begin the game in that pivotal year of 1492, ready to explore and found your first colony in the Americas. In keeping with the historical theme, trade is extremely important — much more so than in the highly abstracted economic model employed by Civilization. Sugar, cotton, and tobacco — grown, processed, and shipped back to the Old World — are the key to your colonies’ prosperity. (Brian Reynolds has said only semi-facetiously that his intention with Colonization was to “combine together all the best things from Civilization and Railroad Tycoon — because that would make the game even better!”) Naturally, you have to deal with the Native Americans who already inhabit the lands into which you want to expand, as you do the other European powers who are jockeying for dominance. Your ultimate goal is to build a federation of colonies self-sufficient enough to declare independence from its mother country, an event which is always followed by a war. If you win said war, you’ve won the game. If, on the other hand, you lose the war, or fail to force an outcome to it by 1850, or fail to trigger it at all by 1800, you lose the game.

Even if we set aside for the moment some of the uncomfortable questions raised by its historical theme and the aspects thereof which it chooses to include and exclude, Colonization reveals itself to be a competent game but far from a great one. Sid Meier himself has confessed to some serious misgivings about the rigid path — independence by an arbitrary date or bust — down which Brian Reynolds elected to force its player:

It was a grandiose, win-or-lose proposition with the potential to invalidate hours of successful gameplay. Generally speaking, I would never risk alienating the player to that degree. It was historically accurate, however, and Brian saw it as a satisfying boss battle rather than a last-minute bait and switch, so I deferred to him. Good games don’t get made by committee.

Not only is the choice problematic from a purely gameplay perspective, but it carries unfortunate overtones of all-too-typically-American historical chauvinism in forcing the Spanish, Dutch, and French colonies to clone the experience of the British colonies that turned into the United States in order to win the game — the implication being that those colonies’ very different real histories mark them as having somehow done things wrong in contrast to the can-do Yankees.

But Colonization has plenty of other, more practical flaws. Micromanagement, that ever-present bane of so many grand-strategy games, is a serious issue here, thanks not least to the nitty-gritty complexities of the economic model; by the time you’re getting close to the point of considering independence, you’ll be so bogged down with the busywork of handing out granular work assignments to your colonists and overseeing every freight shipment back home that you’ll be in danger of losing all sense of any bigger picture. In contrast to the seamless wholeness of Civilization, Colonization remains always a game of disparate parts that don’t quite mesh. For example, the military units you can raise always seem bizarrely expensive in proportion to their potency. It takes an eternity of micro-managing tedium to build even a halfway decent military, and even when you finally get to send it out into the field you still have to spend the vast majority of your time worrying about more, shall we say, down-to-earth matters than fighting battles — like, say, whether you’ve trained enough carpenters in your cities and whether their tools are in good repair. The funnest parts of Colonization are the parts you spend the least amount of time doing.

In the end, then, Colonization never manages to answer the question of just why you ought to be playing this game instead of the more generous, open-ended, historically expansive Civilization. Computer Gaming World magazine, the industry’s journal of record at the time of the game’s release in late 1994, published a sharply negative review, saying that there was “more tedium and less care” in Colonization than in Civilization.

One might expect such a review from such an influential publication to be a game’s death knell. Surprisingly, though, Colonization did quite well for itself in the marketplace. Brian Reynolds estimates today that it sold around 300,000 copies. Although that figure strikes me as perhaps a little on the high side, there’s no question that the game was a solid success. For proof, one need only look to what Reynolds got to do next: he was given the coveted role of lead designer on Civilization II after Sid Meier, ever the iconoclast, refused it.

But here’s the odd thing: Meier’s name would appear in bold letters on the box of Civilization II, as it had on the box of Colonization before it, while that of Brian Reynolds was nowhere to be found on either. MicroProse’s marketing department had first hit upon the idea of using Meier’s name prominently back in 1987, when they’d pondered how to sell Pirates!, a game that was not only radically different from anything MicroProse had released before but was impossible to comfortably classify into any existing gaming genre. It seemed to work; Sid Meier’s Pirates! became a big hit. Since then, the official titles of most of Meier’s games had come with the same prefix. Sid Meier’s Colonization, however, was something new, marking the first time that MicroProse’s marketers assigned Meier ownership of a game he hadn’t truly designed at all. “Yes, I made suggestions along the way,” he says today, “but it had been up to Brian whether to accept them. Colonization was not Sid Meier’s game.”

And yet the name emblazoned at the top of the box stated just the opposite. Meier rationalizes this fact by claiming that “‘Sid Meier’s’ now meant ‘Sid Meier mentored and approved’ instead of ‘Sid Meier personally coded.'” But even this statement is hard to reconcile with the text on the back of the box, which speaks of “Colonization, the newest strategy game from Sid Meier [that] continues the great tradition of Civilization.” Clearly MicroProse’s marketing department, if not Meier himself, was completely eager to make the public believe that Sid Meier had designed Colonization, full stop — and, indeed, the game was received on exactly these terms by the press and public. Brian Reynolds, for his part, was happy to give his mentor all of the public credit for his work, as long as it helped the game to sell better and gave him a chance to design more games in the future. The soft-spoken, thoughtful Sid Meier, already the most unlikely of celebrities, had now achieved the ultimate in celebrity status: he had become a brand unto himself. I trust that I don’t need to dwell on the irony of this in light of his statement that “it’s not the artist that matters.”



But MicroProse’s decision to publicly credit Colonization to someone other than the person who had actually designed it is hardly the most fraught of the ethical dilemmas raised by the game. As I’ve already noted, the narrative about the colonization of the New World which it forces its player to enact is in fact the semi-mythical origin story of the United States. It’s a story that’s deeply rooted in the minds of white Americans like myself, having been planted there by the grade-school history lessons we all remember: Pilgrims eating their Thanksgiving dinner with the Indians, Bostonians dumping British tea into the ocean to protest taxation without representation, Paul Revere making his midnight ride, George Washington leading the new country to victory in war and then showing it how it ought to conduct itself in peace.

In presenting all this grade-school history as, if not quite inevitable, at least the one satisfactory course of events — it is, after all, a matter of recreating the American founding myth or losing the game — Colonization happily jettisons any and all moral complexity. One obvious example is its handling of the Native American peoples who were already living in the New World when Europeans decided to claim those lands for themselves. In the game, the Native Americans you encounter early on are an amiable if primitive and slightly dim bunch who are happy enough to acknowledge your hegemony and work for you as long as you give them cigars to smoke and stylish winter coats to wear. Later on, when they start to get uppity, they’re easy enough to put back in line using the stick instead of the carrot.

And then there’s the game’s handling of slavery — or rather its lack of same. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of the modern-day countries of North and South America were built by the sweat of slaves’ brows. Certainly the extent to which the United States in particular was shaped by what John C. Calhoun dubbed The Peculiar Institution can hardly be overstated; the country’s original sin still remains with us today in the form of an Electoral College and Senate that embody the peculiarly undemocratic practice of valuing the votes of some citizens more than those of others, not to mention the fault lines of racial animus that still fracture American politics and society. Yet the game of Colonization neatly sidesteps all of this; in its world, slavery simply doesn’t exist. Is this okay, or is it dangerous to so blithely dismiss the sins and suffering of our ancestors in a game that otherwise purports to faithfully recreate history?



Johnny L. Wilson, the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World, stood virtually alone among his peers in expressing concern about the thin slice of life’s rich pageant that games of the 1990s were willing and able to encompass. He alone spoke of “the preponderance of violent solutions as opposed to creative exploration and experimentation, the increasingly narrow scope of subject matter perceived as marketable, the limited nature of non-player characters and our assumptions about game players.” Unsurprisingly, then, he was the first and as it turned out the only gaming journalist of his era to address Colonization not just as a good, bad, or indifferent game in the abstract, but as a rhetorical statement about the era which it attempted to recreate, whether it wished to be such a thing or not. (As the school of Deconstructionism constantly reminds us, it’s often the works that aren’t actually trying to say anything at all about a subject which end up having the most to tell us about their makers’ attitudes toward it…) Wilson raised his concerns before Colonization was even released, when it existed only in a beta version sent to magazines like his.

Two upcoming games on the colonial era will excise slavery from the reality they are simulating: Sid Meier’s Colonization from MicroProse and Impressions’ High Seas Trader. Both design teams find the idea of slavery, much less the institution of slavery, to be repugnant, and both teams resist the idea of “rewarding” the gamer for behavior which is and was abominable.

This reminds me of the film at Mount Vernon where the narration explains that Washington abhorred slavery, so he left wording in his will so that, upon his and Martha’s deaths, his slaves would be freed. To me, that’s tantamount to saying, “I’ll correct this immoral practice as soon as it doesn’t cost me anything anymore!”

It is obvious that George didn’t find it economically viable to be moral in that circumstance. So, if slavery was such an important facet of the colonial economy that even the “father of our country” couldn’t figure out how to build a successful business without it, how do we expect to understand the period in which he lived without having the same simulated tools at our disposal? Maybe we would have some belated appreciation for those early slaves if we didn’t try to ignore the fact of their existence.

Of course, we know what the answer is going to be. The game designers will say that they “only put in the cool parts” of history. We hear that. Yet, while there is nothing wrong with emphasizing the most entertaining parts of a historical situation, there is a danger in misrepresenting that historical situation. Maybe it doesn’t add credibility to the revisionist argument that Auschwitz never happened when we remove the Waffen SS from a computer game, but what happens when someone removes Auschwitz from the map? What happens when it is removed from the history books?

Removing the horrors of history from computer games may not be a grand conspiracy to whitewash history, but it may well be a dangerous first step.

Wilson’s editorial prompted an exchange in the reader-letters section of a subsequent issue. I’d like to reprint it in an only slightly edited form here because the points raised still pop up regularly today in similar discussions. We begin with a letter from one Ken Fishkin, who takes exception with Wilson’s position.

Johnny Wilson seems to have forgotten that the primary purpose of a game is to entertain. Computer games routinely engage in drastic alterations, simplifications, and omissions of history. Railroad Tycoon omitted Chinese labor and union strife. In SimCity, the mayor is an absolute dictator who can blithely bulldoze residential neighborhoods and churches with a mere click of the mouse, and build the Golden Gate Bridge in weeks instead of decades. In Sid Meier’s Civilization, Abraham Lincoln is immortal, phalanxes can sink battleships, and religious strife, arguably the single most important factor in the history of international relations, is totally omitted. And yet Computer Gaming World gave these games its highest praise, placing all of them in its Hall of Fame!

It is hypocritical of Computer Gaming World to criticize Sid Meier’s Colonization in the same issue in which it effusively praises Sid Meier’s Civilization. Computer Gaming World used to know that computer games shouldn’t be held to the same standards of historical accuracy as a textbook.

The magazine’s editorial staff — or really, one has to suspect, Wilson himself — replied thusly:

Is it hypocritical? The same Johnny Wilson that wrote the column had an entire chapter in The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook which talked about the realities that were not simulated (along with some elaborate workarounds that would enable gamers to see how much had been abstracted) and he also questioned certain historical abstractions in [his Civilization strategy guide] Rome on 640K a Day. Do these citations seem hypocritical? Different games have different levels of perspective and different levels of abstraction. Their success or failure will always depend on the merit of their gameplay, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider their historical/factual underpinning as well.

Even if certain historical/real aspects have to be abstracted for the sake of gameplay, the designers have a responsibility to acknowledge, tip their hat to, or clarify those conditions which they have abstracted. When it comes to orders of battle and dominant practices, they should be addressed in some way and not ignored because they are inconvenient. We agree that a game should be balanced enough to play well, but the lessons of history should not be totally glossed over. We fear that there is a tendency of late to do just that.

Finally, we have a letter from Gilbert L. Brahms, writing in support of Wilson’s position.

Your theses are very well-taken. Computer games become nothing [more] than schlock entertainment if they strip realism from historical recreations. There is no point in presenting any [game] referring to World War II Germany without presenting Nazism in all its symbology, nay, without including the imagery which ensorcelled those desperate and gullible Germans of the time into surrendering themselves “mit ganzen Willen” to Hitler’s blandishments.

The sins of the past are not eradicated by repression; in fact, they become all the more fascinating for having become forbidden fruit. Only critical confrontation can clarify such atrocities as occurred in the 1940s and can tutor us to resist such temptations again, in ourselves as well as in others.

If, therefore, a computer game should truly aspire to become a work of art, it must fulfill both the recreative and the didactive functions inherent in all serious aesthetic productions: it must present horrible conflicts with all of their nasty details.

I’ll return to the arguments presented above in due course. Before I do that, though, I’d like to take a brief leap forward in time.

In 2008, Firaxis Games — a company founded by Sid Meier, Brian Reynolds, and Jeff Briggs — announced a new version of Colonization, which once again chose to present Native Americans as dim-witted primitives and to completely ignore the historical reality of slavery. Even before its release, Ben Fritz, a gaming blogger for Variety, loudly attacked it for having committed the vaguely defined, all-purpose crime of being “offensive.” Fritz’s blog post is neither well-argued nor well-written — “I literally exclaimed ‘holy sh*t’ out loud when I was reading an email this morning,” goes its unpromising beginning — so I won’t bother to quote more from it here. But it was a harbinger of the controversy to come, which came to dominate the critical discussion around the new Colonization to the point that its qualities as a mere game were all but ignored. Firaxis published the following terse missive in a fruitless attempt to defuse the situation:

For seventeen years the Civilization series has given people the opportunity to create their own history of the world. Colonization deals with a specific time in global history, and treats the events of that time with respect and care. As with all previous versions of Civilization, the game does not endorse any particular position or strategy – players can and should make their own moral judgments. Firaxis keeps the player at the center of the game by providing them with interesting choices and decisions to make, which has proven to be a fun experience for millions of people around the world.

Whatever its merits or lack thereof, this argument was largely ignored. The cat was now well and truly out of the bag, and many academics in particular rushed to criticize the “gamefication of imperialism” that was supposedly at the core of even the original game of Civilization. In his recent memoir, Sid Meier describes their critiques with bemusement and more than a touch of condescension.

This philosophical analysis quickly spread to my older titles — or as one paper described them, my “Althusserian unconscious manifestations of cultural claims” with “hidden pedagogical aspirations.” Pirates! wasn’t about swashbuckling, it turned out, but rather “asymmetrical and illegal activities [that] seem to undermine the hierarchical status quo while ultimately underlining it.” Even C.P.U. Bach was accused of revealing “a darker side to the ideological sources at work behind ludic techniques.”

All I can say is that our motives were sincere, and maybe these guys have a little too much time on their hands.

For all that I’m usually happy to make fun of the impenetrable writing which too many academics use to disguise banal ideas, I won’t waste space shooting those fish in a barrel here. It’s more interesting to consider the differing cultural moments exemplified by the wildly divergent receptions of the two versions of Colonization — from a nearly complete silence on the subject of the potentially problematic aspects of its theme and implementation thereof to red-faced shouting matches all over the Internet on the same subjects. Through this lens, we can see how much more seriously people came to take games over a span of fourteen years, as well as how much more diverse the people playing and writing about them became. And we can also see, of course, how the broader dialog around history changed.

Those changes have only continued and, if anything, accelerated in the time since 2008; I write these words at the close of a year in which the debates surrounding our various historical legacies have become more charged than ever. One side accuses the other of ignoring all of the positive aspects of the past and trying to “cancel” any historical figure who doesn’t live up to its fashionable modern ideals of “wokeness.” Meanwhile the opposing side accuses its antagonists of being far too eager to all too literally whitewash the past and make excuses for the reprehensible conduct of its would-be heroes. Mostly, though, the two sides prefer just to call one another nasty names.



So, rather than wading further into that morass, let’s return to the arguments I reprinted without much commentary above, applying them now not only to Colonization but also to Panzer General, the subject of my first article in this two-part series. It strikes me that the best way to unpack a subtle and difficult subject might be to consider in turn each line of argument supporting the claim that Colonization — and by implication Panzer General — are fine just as they are. We’ll begin with the last of them: Firaxis’s corporate response to the controversy surrounding the second Colonization.

Said response can be summed up as the “it’s not the game, it’s the player!” argument. It’s long been trotted out in defense of a huge swath of games with objectionable or potentially objectionable content; Peter Molyneux was using it to defend the ultra-violence in Syndicate already in 1993, and there are doubtless examples that predate even that one. The core assertion here is that the game doesn’t force the player’s hand at all — that in a game like, say, Grand Theft Auto it’s the player who chooses to indulge in vehicular mayhem instead of driving politely from place to place like a law-abiding citizen.

Of course, this argument can’t be used as an equally efficacious escape hatch for all games. While Panzer General will allow you to command the Allied forces if you play a single scenario, the grand campaign which is the heart of that game’s appeal only allows you to play a Nazi general, and certainly gives you no option to turn against the Nazi cause at some point, as Erwin Rommel may or may not have done, beyond the obvious remedy of shutting off the computer. But Colonization does appear to do a little better on this front, at least at first glance. As many defenders of the game are at pains to point out, you can choose to treat the Native Americans you encounter relatively gently in comparison to the European colonizers of recorded history (admittedly, not really a high bar to clear). Still, the fact does remain that you will be forced to subjugate them to one degree or another in order to win the game, simply because you need the land and resources which they control if you hope to win the final war for independence.

Here, then, we come to the fatal flaw that undermines almost all applications of this argument. Its proponents would seemingly have you believe that the games of which they speak are rhetorically neutral sandboxes, exact mirror images of some tangible objective reality. But this they are not. Even if they purport to “simulate” real events to one degree or another, they can hope to capture only a tiny sliver of their lived experience, shot through with the conscious and subconscious interests and biases of the people who make them. These last are often most clearly revealed through a game’s victory conditions, as they are in the case of Colonization. To play Colonization the “right” way — to play it as the designers intended it to be played — requires you to exploit and subjugate the people who were already in the New World millennia before your country arrived to claim it. Again, then, we’re forced to confront the fact that every example of a creative expression is a statement about its creators’ worldview, whether those creators consciously wish it to be such a thing or not. Labeling it a simulation does nothing to change this.

The handling — or rather non-handling — of slavery by Colonization is an even more telling case in point. By excising slavery entirely, Colonization loses all claim to being a simulation of real history to any recognizable degree whatsoever, given how deeply intertwined the Peculiar Institution was with everything the game does deign to depict. Just as importantly, the absence of slavery invalidates at a stroke the claim that the game is merely a neutral sandbox of a bygone historical reality for the player’s id, ego, and superego to prance through. For this yawning absence is something over which the player has no control. She isn’t given the chance to take the moral high road by refusing to participate in the slave trade; the designers have made that choice for her, as they have so many others.

I require less space to dispense with Ken Fishkin’s equating of Railroad Tycoon‘s decision not to include exploited Chinese laborers and SimCity‘s casting you in the role of an autocratic mayor with the ethical perils represented by Colonization‘s decision not to include slavery and Panzer General‘s casting you in the role of a Nazi invader. Although Fishkin expresses the position about as well as can reasonably be expected, these sorts of pedantic, context-less gotcha arguments are seldom very convincing to anyone other than the overly rigid thinkers who trot them out. I freely acknowledge that all games which purport to depict the real world do indeed simplify it enormously and choose a very specific domain to focus upon. So, yes, Railroad Tycoon as well does whitewash the history it presents to some extent. Yet the exploitation of Chinese labor in the Old West, appalling though it was, cannot compare to the pervasive legacy of American slavery and the European Holocaust in today’s world. Debaters who claim otherwise quickly start to sound disingenuous. In any discussion of this nature, space has to be allowed for degree as well as kind.

And so we arrive at Fishkin’s other argument from principle, the very place where these sorts of discussions always tend to wind up sooner or later. “The primary purpose of a game is to entertain,” he tells us. Compare that statement with these assertions of Gilbert L. Brahms: “Computer games become nothing [more] than schlock entertainment if they strip realism from historical recreations. If a computer game should truly aspire to become a work of art, it must fulfill both the recreative and the didactive functions inherent in all serious aesthetic productions: it must present horrible conflicts with all of their nasty details.” Oh, my. It seems that we’ve landed smack dab in the middle of the “are games art?” debate. What on earth do we do with this?

Many of us have been conditioned since childhood to believe that games are supposed to be fun — no more, no less. Therefore when a game crosses our path that aspires to be more than just fun — or, even more strangely, doesn’t aspire to be “fun” in the typical sense of the word at all — we can find it deeply confusing. And, people being people, our first reaction is often outrage. Three years before the second version of Colonization was released, one Danny Ledonne made Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, an earnest if rather gawkily adolescent attempt to explore the backgrounds and motivations of the perpetrators of the high-school massacre in question. A book on the same theme would have been accepted and reviewed on its merits, but the game received widespread condemnation simply for existing. Since games by definition can aspire only to being fun, Ledonne must consider it fun to reenact the Columbine massacre, right? The “games as art” and “serious games” crews tried to explain that this edifice of reasoning was built upon a faulty set of assumptions, but the two sides mostly just talked past one another.

Although the “just a game” defense may seem a tempting get-out-of-jail-free card in the context of a Panzer General or a Colonization, one should think long and hard before one plays it. For to do so is to infantilize the entire medium — to place it into some other, fundamentally different category from books and movies and other forms of media that are allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place.

The second version of Colonization found itself impaled on the horns of these two very different sets of assumptions about games. Its excision of slavery drew howls of protest calling it out for its shameful whitewashing of history. But just imagine the alternative! As Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens pointed out in a journal article after the hubbub had died down, the controversy we got was nothing compared to the one we would have had if Colonization had given the naysayers what many of them claimed to want: had better captured historical reality by actually letting you own and trade slaves. The arguments against the one approach are predicated on the supposition that at least some types of games are more than idle entertainments, that a game which bills itself as a reasonably accurate reenactment of colonial history and yet excises slavery from its narrative deserves to be condemned in the same terms as a book or movie which does the same; the arguments against the other are rooted in the supposition that games are just fun, and how dare you propose that it’s fun to join the slave trade. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Perhaps the only practical solution to the dilemma is that of simply not making any more versions of Colonization. No, it’s not a terribly satisfying solution, placing limits as it does on what games are allowed to do and be. Nevertheless, it’s the one that Firaxis will almost certainly choose to employ in the future.

I do want to emphasize one more time here at the end of this pair of articles that neither Panzer General nor Colonization was created with any conscious bad intent. They stem from a time when computer gaming was much more culturally homogeneous than it has become, when computer gamers were to an almost overwhelming degree affluent, stereotypically “nerdy” white males between the ages of 10 and 35. People of privilege that they were, usually immersed in the hard sciences rather than the irritatingly amorphous but more empathetic humanities, they struggled to identify with those crosscurrents of society and history outside their own. Although the wargaming subculture that spawned Panzer General and Colonization still exists, and would still receive those exact games today in the same unquestioning way, it’s vastly smaller than it used to be in proportion to the overall mass of gamers. And, again, its blind spots then and now remain venal sins at worst in the grand scale of things.

That said, I for one am happy that the trajectory of gaming since 1994 has been ever outward, both in terms of the types of people who play games and the kinds of themes and experiences those games present. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that their very scope of possibility is half the reason we can so easily confuse one another when we try to talk about games. Certainly one person’s idea of a satisfying game can be markedly different from another’s, such that even as brilliant a mind as that of Sid Meier can have trouble containing it all. His famous categorical claim that a good game is a “series of interesting decisions” is true enough in the case of the games he prefers to play and make, but fails to reckon with the more experiential aspects of interactivity which many players find at least equally appealing. It’s thus no surprise that he offhandedly dismisses adventures games and other interactive experiences that are more tightly plotted and less zero-sum.

I’ve often wondered whether this label of “game” is really all that useful at all, whether there’s really any more taxonomical kinship between a Colonization and a Super Columbine RPG! than there is between, say, books and movies. Digital games are the ultimate form of bastard media, appropriating elements from all of the others and then slathering on top of it all the special sauce of interactivity. Perhaps someday we’ll figure out how to talk about this amorphous stew of possibility that just keeps bubbling up out of the pot we want to use to contain it; perhaps someday we’ll divide it up into a collection of separate categories of media, using those things we call “gaming genres” now as their basis. In the meantime, we’ll just have to hang on for the ride, and try not to rush to judgment too quickly when our expectations of the medium don’t align with those of others.

(Sources: the books Sid Meier’s Memoir!: A Life in Computer Games by Sid Meier with Jennifer Lee Noonan and the article “Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization” by Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens, from the book Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History; PC Review of August 1992; Computer Gaming World of April 1994, September 1994, November 1994, and December 1994; online sources include “How Historical Games Integrate or Ignore Slavery” by Amanda Kerry on Rock Paper Shotgun; “Colonialism is Fun? Sid Meier’s Civilization and the Gamefication of Imperialism” by CIGH Exeter on the Imperial and Global Forum; Soren Johnson’s interview with Brian Reynolds; IGN‘s interview with Brian Reynolds; Ben Fritz’s blog on Variety.

Colonization is available for digital purchase on GOG.com. C.P.U. Bach, having been made only for a long-since-orphaned console, is sadly not.)

 
 

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78 Responses to Ethics in Strategy Gaming, Part 2: Colonization

  1. Jacen aka Jaina

    December 4, 2020 at 5:19 pm

    These ventures ranged from modest successes to utter disastors

    Thou I prefer your new spelling.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 4, 2020 at 6:06 pm

      :) Thanks!

       
  2. Georg

    December 4, 2020 at 5:37 pm

    Thank you for a great article. I’ll especially think long and hard about the contradiction between ‘only fun’ and ‘culture/art’ – though of course there are definitely games out there who are ONLY fun!

    One less mentioned aspect: you talk mostly about depicting history here, but it’s also interesting which paths of thinking games lead us down that don’t involve history. From ‘gotta shoot those terrorists’ of counterstrike to ‘great empires are awesome’ of civilization…and let’s not even start on lemmings!

    By the way, civilization 4 by firaxis DOES have slavery as a civic, and it’s very powerful with little drawbacks – almost required for winning at the highest level!

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 4, 2020 at 6:05 pm

      Yes — and they got a lot of criticism for it. I believe that Firaxis said somewhere that one of the reasons they excised it from the second Colonization was because of that criticism — which just goes to show even more that you can’t win in some situations.

      That said, I do think there’s an identifiable difference between Civilization IV’s use of slavery in a somewhat abstracted sense and the slavery that might have been in Colonization, with its more specific historical context that’s still such a festering wound in modern Western culture. I’m not sure Firaxis would have dared to go there even had they not been smarting over the earlier criticism.

       
      • Anonymous

        December 4, 2020 at 8:16 pm

        Another early-game strategy in Civ IV which always bothered me was chopping down forests to gain quick resources. The penalty for that was more evident over time than slavery, because it was either difficult or impossible to replace forests (can’t remember which) but replacing your population lost to slavery usually only required a dozen turns or so. IIRC, slavery was not a good middle or late game strategy, so in that sense it is a form of government you grow out of in line with the overarching theme of progress that defines the Civilization series.

        I’m not aware of contemporary criticism of much of the early Civ series, but I wonder if including Communism and Fundamentalism as playable governments was also criticized with as much vigor as including slavery?

        IMHO I think that it is important to include the bad along with the good in grand strategy simulation games such as Civilization. If nothing else, it allows for computer opponents that are appropriately antagonistic. It can also give you a better feel for how civilizations develop; after all, very few (or perhaps none at all?) civilizations did not engage slavery at one time or another.

         
        • Georg

          December 4, 2020 at 9:09 pm

          You are right about the trees – though chopping them down early was still the “right play”, since it is all about early-game advantage rather than late-game health. Trees regrow very slowly (unless there are none left, then they don’t regrow), but it’s not a “big thing” in Civilization.

          The same goes for Slavery – you might switch to Caste System or even Democracy later, but by that time you will already have won the game on the back of a Slavery-powered rush.

          Not quite unlike the role Slavery in the real world, dare we say…

           
          • David Ainsworth

            December 5, 2020 at 4:26 pm

            I play Civ 4 (and its mods) much more than I ever did 5 or 6, and will still boot the game up from time to time. I refused (and continue to refuse) to use Slavery and “whip” construction (killing the population to hurry it). I don’t play “competitive” Civ 4, and the AI on the settings I prefer isn’t a genuine threat with or without the advantages of Slavery, so I choose not to use it.

            And I am always a bit upset when encountering a Civ 4 strategy guide or LP, and witnessing the careful and elaborate way in which min-maxers have determined precisely how to get the maximum benefit of killing your own people to complete construction projects more quickly. Especially as the underlying assumptions-that slavery offered a competitive advantage in the actual world-seem to unreflectingly be taken as a given by some of those same people. Historians (and economists, if you believe them) continue to debate and contest that idea. No doubt slavery does grant advantages if you insist on ignoring its costs when computing your equations.

            Does min-maxing the slavery civic in Civ 4 provide a subtle confirmation bias when assessing the advantages and costs of actual slavery? Maybe not. But it’s not hard for me to see how it could.

             
        • Jimmy Maher

          December 4, 2020 at 10:43 pm

          Fundamentalism actually wasn’t in the first Civilization, which is the only one whose reception I’ve looked at in any depth so far. As far as communism… eh, it’s a system of government/economics that pretty clearly doesn’t work that well unless it’s reduced to little more than lip service, as in modern China. But I’m not sure it’s as obviously ethically compromised as the practice of slavery.

           
          • Chris Rasmus

            December 28, 2020 at 12:29 am

            Jimmy Maher wrote:
            But I’m not sure it’s as obviously ethically compromised as the practice of slavery.

            Right…because the killing of MILLIONS of people is in no way ethically compromising….

             
            • Alianora La Canta

              August 9, 2021 at 4:57 pm

              Chris, on a theoretical level, there’s nothing in communism that requires killing anyone. The large numbers of people who have died under systems of communism seen in practise have been due to a large number of wrongful implementations (for example, an assumption that being envious of someone is an excuse to harm them – not exclusive to communist regimes but nonetheless seen in many communist countries). I for one had always assumed that a player who managed to maintain communism for more than a handful of turns had decided upon a more ethical implementation of communism than any real-world government has so far managed.

              It is not really possible to do that with slavery, because too many players are too familiar with the throughgoing problems of slavery on a theoretical level to think any specific implementation would be able to avoid them – or the misery that inevitably results.

               
  3. Jacen aka Jaina

    December 4, 2020 at 7:43 pm

    Yet the exploitation of Chinese labor in the Old West, profoundly regrettable though it doubtless was..”

    I would probably, personally, add something like ‘tragic’ here as well. To me, regrettable is more akin to forgetting milk at the store, whereas many people unnecessarily lost their lives in that situation.

    Great articles!

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 4, 2020 at 8:04 pm

      Good point. Thanks!

       
  4. Martin

    December 4, 2020 at 8:27 pm

    Wouldn’t be simpler to define cherry picked software as games and all the ‘bad’ stuff included software a simulation. Put an 18+ designation on simulations if you must. Games can still be fun while simulations don’t claim to be.

     
    • Alianora La Canta

      August 9, 2021 at 5:00 pm

      No – among other reasons, simulations have often been sold as games, and some games considered simulators. It would confuse the people most likely to be in a position to implement such a rule.

      (That, and governments tend to look askance at anything that is considered “fun” for reasons they consider sufficiently objectionable).

       
  5. Jeff Scott

    December 4, 2020 at 8:36 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    I played Colonization many years ago when it was released, and from my memory it was possible to bring slaves and ‘indentured servants’ from the docks in Europe to work in your colonies. They were less productive than specialised workers, but over time could become free and gain their own trades.

    This doesn’t detract from the main point you’re making, but I don’t think it’s correct to say that slavery was not present as a concept in the game.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 5, 2020 at 12:22 am

      Indentured servants are present in the game, but aren’t quite slaves, at least as the game prefers to see them. The manual describes them thusly:

      Indentured servants are people who desire to come to the New World but who cannot afford to pay their own way. They have, accordingly, put themselves in bondage and agreed to work off their passage in the New World. Because of their bonded state, their productivity is less than desired. They, like petty criminals, are useful workers in the fields and mines, but are less productive in manufacturing and processing jobs than free colonists.

      Note the explicit statement that they’ve *put themselves* into bondage. (The historical reality was of course more complicated. The vast majority of real indentured servants were forced into bondage by their creditors, and thus were in fact little more than slaves…)

      The words “slave” and “slavery” never appear in the game or the manual, except for some notes on the real historical background in the latter that do mention slavery in passing.

       
      • Avian Overlord

        December 7, 2020 at 7:04 pm

        “The vast majority of real indentured servants were forced into bondage by their creditors, and thus were in fact little more than slaves…”

        This points to an important historical nuance, actually. Slavery was the lowest rung on the social hierarchy in pre-revolution America, but the next rung up wasn’t much of a jump. Slavery only becomes “peculiar” after the revolution when the rungs above it have either been eliminated (like indentured servitude) or seen significant improvements in civil rights. That’s when the racial caste system as a justification for the continuation of slavery in a society that contradicts it really gets going.

         
    • Ookina Chongusu

      December 5, 2020 at 7:11 pm

      > I played Colonization many years ago when it was released, and from my memory it was possible to bring slaves and ‘indentured servants’ from the docks in Europe to work in your colonies.

      You’re right about the indentured servants, but you’re thinking of “petty criminals” for the other part.

       
    • Alianora La Canta

      August 9, 2021 at 5:05 pm

      The other category you may have been thinking of is the “petty criminal”, which would be people sentenced to transportation for an offence (usually not one regarded as petty by the community at the time, but things like stealing eleven pence worth of wool would probably be regarded as petty from the perspective of the average 1994 gamer).

      In the real world, supplies of transported criminals dried up as the sending nations obtained other imperial outposts to send transportable criminals to – and as America was increasingly able to get more reliable labour from other sources (be that the increasing number of natives or the further rise of slavery).

       
  6. cobbpg

    December 4, 2020 at 9:11 pm

    As far as I remember, the Elite series had slave trading since the beginning. It was of course a completely abstract thing, being just a type of cargo, but I wonder if you are aware of any critique discussing its presence in the games.

     
    • Dan

      December 4, 2020 at 9:43 pm

      Slaves, weapons and drugs were the illegal cargo that would get the Vipers on your tail. Perhaps I am likewise unsure of this memory, but slaves died (i.e. disappeared from manifest) if you flew close to a sun, which was something you needed to do to operate the fuel scoop.
      From the player’s guide:
      “Slaves” are measured by the tonne in galactic trading. This may seem a little strange, but it includes the cryogenic suspension system necessary to keep them alive during the space travel. The slave trade, once almost eliminated by the Galactic Government, is now returning, despite the efforts of the Galactic Police Force to suppress it.

       
      • Kroc Camen

        December 5, 2020 at 9:43 am

        You might be thinking of the Trumbles from the C64 port, which could only be dispatched by burning them up in your hold! When your shields are completely depleted then cargo is randomly destroyed (see https://www.bbcelite.com/cassette/flight/subroutine_oops.html), but there’s nothing specific about slaves in that context.

         
        • Dan

          December 6, 2020 at 9:49 pm

          I’ve just tried it in VICE emulation and you’re right, it was the Trumbles (which I do remember killing by this mechanism) not slave cargo that are destroyed close to the sun.
          Apologies for the misinformation!

           
    • Peter Olausson

      December 4, 2020 at 9:49 pm

      Ah yes, the Elite slaves! If you carried them, the police would hunt you down. They were illegal cargo, like narcotics or firearms, but cargo nevertheless. I read a lot about that game at the time, and would be surprised if there was any criticism.

      (Minor typo: Meir)

       
      • Jimmy Maher

        December 4, 2020 at 10:24 pm

        Thanks!

         
    • Alfons

      December 5, 2020 at 11:25 am

      In keeping with the US-centrism of the western world, people mostly get upset about slaves when it pertains the U.S. Slavery was more or less commonplace in the world until the Age of Enlightenment, and it was legal in the Ottoman Empire even longer than the U.S. It never really went away either as long as it existed, though pressure from the British led to an official ban. As Marx also pointed out, the state of being of a factory worker was not neccessarily any better than that of a slave, but worse.

      I think people don’t get as finicky about those cases (and fictional ones) is probably due to the fact that they have not been as heavily mythologized as American slavery, and also the fact that the U.S. has since been succesful, whereas say the Aztec Empire has not.

       
      • Petter Sjölund

        December 5, 2020 at 12:14 pm

        The history of American slavery is central to a current debate and political struggle. Of course, there may well be similar political struggles of descendants of Ottoman slaves that I know nothing about due to the US centrism of the Western world.

         
  7. Dan

    December 4, 2020 at 9:32 pm

    Again with this article, I’m left asking what your alternative is? Once we’re on this road is there any game about any period of history (until perhaps parts of the 20th century and then even not the more abstracted you get) that don’t have some at least tangential association with colonisation or slavery? If a game was made about pre-Columbian North American tribes slaughtering each other and indeed being in turn slaughtered by successive waves of invasions across the Bering straits, would it be OK to play as any of tribes? What if you were resisting European invasion? Would that be an ethical game? What tactics would be OK? Why would these games not be OK but killing a known or unknown individual would be OK in another non-strategy game? And are you saying that if slavery was included as a mechanic, instead of being excised, these games would actually be better?
    Since there is the distinct possibility of ejecting a crewmate who isn’t an imposter, should you never play Among Us?
    These are, of course, I think you’ll agree, unanswerable questions because they all lay bare the logical fallacy of assuming games in and of themselves have a morality. No, we have morality. Objects we interact with, such as games on a computer, do not.

     
    • Petter Sjölund

      December 5, 2020 at 11:11 am

      The difference from your other examples is that if you make a game about the colonization of the Americas, then you are making a game about a controversial political subject, whether you mean to or not. And if you exclude slavery, it may look as if you take the position that slavery is something that we should forget about or at least not worry too much about today.

       
      • Dan

        December 6, 2020 at 12:38 am

        I’ve no idea what your points are here.
        Is murdering people, which happens in a huge percentage of games, “controversial”? If slavery was included as a game feature for accuracy, would you prefer that?
        Some people now claim the USA (among other countries) is a country founded on racism and slavery. So how can you play as a “good” American fighting against the Germans?

         
        • Petter Sjölund

          December 6, 2020 at 8:45 am

          Murdering is not controversial exactly because there is a general agreement that it is bad. Among players of video games there also appears to be agreement that killing in games is pretty much acceptable, at least at this moment in time. There is also a general agreement that no matter what you think about the US, Nazi Germany was worse.

          But there is a very much alive debate whether, as you write, the USA was founded on racism and slavery, or whether it was founded on freedom and democracy. A common opinion is that the history of slavery is a central reason for many of the problems America is currently facing. An equally common opinion is that blaming slavery is a bad excuse and a dishonest attempt to gain sympathy for unrelated political goals, and that slavery was not really that important historically.

          It is impossible to make a game about the colonization of the Americas without picking a side in this debate. If you simply remove slavery from the game because you don’t want to pick a side, you seem to be implying that historical slavery was at least not too important to exclude entirely, and then you have planted yourself firmly towards one particular end of the political spectrum.

          Personally, I would very much have preferred if slavery was included as a game feature for accuracy. If you want to make a historical game about colonization without including slavery, then you don’t really want to make a historical game at all.

           
          • Jimmy Maher

            December 6, 2020 at 11:52 am

            I would add only that the positions that “the USA was founded on racism and slavery” and “founded on freedom and democracy” are not mutually exclusive. The writings of some of those who attended the Constitutional Conventions reveal them to have been well-aware that it was some of both. History is always more nuanced than the activists and politicians would like it to be.

             
          • Dan

            December 6, 2020 at 12:42 pm

            “Murdering is not controversial exactly because there is a general agreement that it is bad. Among players of video games there also appears to be agreement that killing in games is pretty much acceptable, at least at this moment in time.”
            The only way this would make sense would be for you to simultaneously claim there is no general agreement that slavery is unacceptable. Apart from perhaps Africa and the Middle East, this simply isn’t true. It is not more controversial then to say murdering in a game is OK than slavery in a game is OK. The vast vast majority believe both are morally wrong.

            “There is also a general agreement that no matter what you think about the US, Nazi Germany was worse.”
            There is no real relevance of this general agreement though. If we are to consider ourselves the moral equivalent of the protagonists in the games we play (which we should not), then we cannot really pick any side that we consider evil. Who would like to claim Stalin was morally superior to Hitler so it’d be OK to play as the Russians and not OK to play as the Germans? Mao killed more than either but I doubt anybody would claim to feel ashamed to play as the Chinese resisting Japanese invasion. As I have already said, North American tribes had been slaughtering each other for millennia prior to European arrival, they didn’t even consider themselves to be one people at all until they had a supposedly common enemy who also didn’t consider themselves to be of one nation. I just don’t really get why pre-Columbian Americans automatically get categorised to the good side when they lost at a game they themselves had been playing with gusto since colonising the Americas themselves.

            “It is impossible to make a game about the colonization of the Americas without picking a side in this debate”
            In any grand-scale game set in colonial era America, slavery should be included to some degree, IMO, for accuracy, as it certainly was a large part of the US economy then. I would argue it wasn’t particularly foundational though, not compared to the US constitution for example, but I wouldn’t say there’s no remnants of slavery observable today either. But as we already see from many comments, some people will refuse to play games with slavery or other (awful word) problematic themes.
            So what happens then? What games are left? I can make a case for just about every game you can think being taboo using similar arguments

             
  8. mezentius

    December 4, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    You argue that the game “carries unfortunate overtones of all-too-typically-American historical chauvinism in forcing the Spanish, Dutch, and French colonies to clone the experience of the British colonies that turned into the United States in order to win the game.”

    But didn’t the Spanish colonies attempt to clone the experience of the British colonies, historically speaking, in breaking away from the Bourbons? If anything, the “semi-mythical origin story of the United States” was even more influential to the cause of Latin American independence at the time than it is to today’s grade school students.

    I don’t disagree that it would have been better to allow for more diverse success scenarios, but it’s not strictly true that (broadly speaking) independence-followed-by-war was exclusive to the North American experience.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 5, 2020 at 12:13 am

      While it’s true that figures like Toussaint Louverture claimed to take inspiration from the American Revolution, especially when they were soliciting American aid for their cause, I struggle a bit with the notion that their countries’ experiences in any way duplicated the American experience. The American Revolution was a peculiarly cerebral affair, a war of white men against white men over fairly abstract issues, a war in which the majority of the American population at the time didn’t even take sides. There’s a whole body of historiography that claims that the American Revolution wasn’t really a revolution at all, as it involved none of the social upheaval inherent in that word. The experience of Latin and South America was very, very different. Tellingly, Colonization does at least try to model the (largely economic) causes of the American Revolution. But it’s completely out of its depth elsewhere, shirking the issues of race and slavery as it does.

       
      • Avian Overlord

        December 7, 2020 at 6:16 pm

        “The American Revolution was a peculiarly cerebral affair, a war of white men against white men over fairly abstract issues, a war in which the majority of the American population at the time didn’t even take sides. There’s a whole body of historiography that claims that the American Revolution wasn’t really a revolution at all, as it involved none of the social upheaval inherent in that word.”

        The ironic thing is that this idea is exactly as much a sanitized propaganda narrative as the things you’ve been decrying. The American Revolution had plenty of mob violence, brutal brother on brother wars, and runaway social radicalism. If do the math, the American Revolution actually produced more emigres per capita than the French Revolution! But then, a lot of the narrative of the American Revolution being a conservative revolution was largely an exercise in trying to distinguish ourselves from those crazy people in France. (Adams’s famous quote about how “One third supported the revolution, one third opposed it, and one third were neutral” is actually discussing American reactions to the French Revolution, not the American revolution, which enjoyed clear popular support.)

        Other non-American Revolutions, including both the French and the other New World revolutions also included more elites and intellectuals than is often imagined. Mexico started it’s independence as a monarchy, are you going to tell me that’s more radical than the American model? Even Haiti’s elites and middle class freedmen got the ball rolling before the revolution marched in a radical direction.

         
    • Martin

      December 5, 2020 at 12:25 am

      When you say lack of success scenarios, it seems arbitrary to define end points to something which doesn’t necessarily have an ending.

      It could be argued that the current ‘real’ version that is being played out as we speak hasn’t reached an ending.

       
  9. M Tyson

    December 5, 2020 at 12:20 am

    To me, this game is leading up to Alpha Centauri, to this day the most fully-realized grand-strategy game of ideas. Each faction a whole philosophical viewpoint. The planet as a full character. Terraformable terrain. Psionics. Sweet.

    Another great article, btw, interesting issues you raise. Hard to believe none of this occurred to me/us when these games came out.

     
  10. Josh Martin

    December 5, 2020 at 2:43 am

    I don’t have the physical issues at hand and I’m not willing at the moment to download a bunch of PDFs to try to find it, but I believe the debate on slavery’s depiction (or lack thereof) in such games eventually returned to Computer Gaming World‘s letter column following the release of Interplay’s Conquest of the New World, which similarly excised the institution (amongst other atrocities) from its representation of colonial history.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 5, 2020 at 8:36 am

      I didn’t know that. I’ll have to have a look…

       
      • Josh Martin

        December 7, 2020 at 8:24 pm

        Well, I looked through the issues from ’96 (when the original version was released) and ’97 (the year of the “deluxe” edition) and couldn’t find any discussion of the game whatsoever. I also looked through some of the late ’95 and early ’98 issues just in case. I’m positive I’m not confusing this with the earlier discussion of Colonization, since I wasn’t into PC gaming at that point. The other gaming magazines I read regularly were Next Generation and PC Gamer, but a search of the Next Generation library at archive.org only brings up a capsule review of the game with no mention of the slavery issue, and I can only find a tiny handful of PC Gamer issues from the period.

        My memory clearly isn’t too reliable, so take this for what little it’s worth, but: as I recall, the debate/discussion was sparked by a comment from one of the developers addressing the exclusion of slavery and their reasoning behind it. A response (either from one of the magazine’s writers or a reader in the letters column) pointed to some marketing copy for the game that apparently promised something like “step into the world of the 15th century,” arguing that even if there were valid reasons to leave out slavery, Interplay shouldn’t in that case be promising any kind of authentic simulation of the era.

         
        • Jimmy Maher

          December 7, 2020 at 8:35 pm

          Fair enough. Thanks for looking!

           
  11. Rowan Lipkovits

    December 5, 2020 at 4:01 am

    “To play Colonization the “right” way — to play it as the designers intended it to be played — requires you to exploit and subjugate the people who were already in the New World”

    Colonization bears the dubious distinction of my all-time historically second-most-played game (after Civ II), and after being horrified at the gamification of genocide (the facilitation and bonus rewarding of which is explicitly the advantage of team Spain), I always played with voluntary conduct of non-interference in aboriginal affairs because the alternative was too upsetting to contemplate. Leave their villages, territory, cultural sites and roaming units alone, and always give when they come looking for a handout. Establish no missions, and only man the stockades in defense when necessary. It does lock away a lot of the gameplay options — improving your terrain, building up a dense nation (needed for the “fortified inland revolution” endgame), boosting your population, and shipping treasure back to Europe — but the game is still very playable. I see it as a play adaptation to salvage an unconscionable scenario.

    All that said, the absence of slavery definitely does remain the conspicuous elephant in the room. We all knew that Master Cotton Planters and Master Tobacco Planters was code for something else.

     
    • Mike Duncan

      December 5, 2020 at 10:53 pm

      This reminds me of Europa Universalis. The early start date (the last version of the game it was 1399, I think) allows the “cheat” of an aggressive early colonization of the Americas. For me, Scotland. This involved a initial push to grab all of the gold mines in Mexico and the Andes and then locking down the entire North American coast, leaving the rest of South America for Spain and Portugal to be picked off in the inevitable wars to follow.

      The financial payoff after fifty years when all these conquered territories turned into cores was considerable. Naturally, this was done by the sword. Even “diplo-annexing” – conquering territory then making Native American vassals that would be persuaded to join the Scottish empire decades later – required a bloody military campaign. And it is not that the initial rushed butchering of the Aztecs was met with soul-searching in Edinburgh that led to a more “civilized” subjection of NA – rather, vassalization allowed me to grab other territories without hefty diplomatic penalties.

      EUI did model slavery a little, but just as another abstract trade good and only at the source territories. Thus the cotton in South Carolina, say, had no direct link to slaves in West Africa.

       
  12. Gaunt_Man

    December 5, 2020 at 6:03 am

    I agree with your “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” conclusion, but I feel that if they had at least ACKNOWLEDGED slavery (especially in 2008) it wouldn’t have been received the way it was.

    Pointing out that buying and selling goods like you do in Colonization, but with people, is what the slave trade was would have been a powerful point. Even more powerfulif they reminded the player that that’s what really happened.

     
  13. David Ainsworth

    December 5, 2020 at 4:17 pm

    I gave a lot of thought to your Panzer General post and this one creates some additional clarity. Because I happily played Panzer General without being much troubled by the implicit decoupling of its missions from the concentration camps, but Colonization (which I also played) bothered me a great deal. The omission of slavery, but even worse, the treatment of the natives. And that was before I had a more historical sense of just how much civilization existed in the “Americas” until smallpox wiped out most of the population.

    No doubt part of the distinction was my ignorance of the attempts to cover over the massive complicity of the German army (and people) in the Holocaust. But I think there’s more going on here. Playing Panzer General, I was never confused about whether I was playing the “bad guys” or not: it was like playing the Empire in a Star Wars game. It’s fun to pretend to be evil so long as nobody really gets hurt, and at least in theory, doing so helps understand and combat actual evils in the world (doubtful in practice, I admit). The same was true playing Imperial Japan in Pacific General. Although playing the Soviets, or even the Allies, involved an implicit claim of heroism not matched by the historical facts, so there’s some strong propaganda here, I’m just not convinced it’s Nazi in nature.

    I therefore had less trouble playing Spain and oppressing and looting the indigenous peoples, because that was clearly wrong. I didn’t enjoy it much, though; I often played as France because I was troubled with how Colonization handled the natives.

    I think the other framework for my own reaction had to do with the immediacy and the past practice associated with the wrongs reflected in the two games. Panzer General opted to ignore the role of the German army in the Holocaust, but that was also the practice in Germany and the international community: Treblinka guards might be found and prosecuted, but the rank and file (and the German population generally) was not held legally culpable. Perhaps the matter wasn’t actually settled fairly, but it did not (at least in the 90s) seem current: neo-Nazis were a fringe group and the Nazis were so generally recognized as evil that gunning them down in games didn’t bother anyone. Like the Star Wars stormtroopers, killing them was morally good.

    Conversely, in the 90s it was by no way clear that all the wrongs early America had been built upon had been addressed or worked through in any way. Slavery and its after-effects remained current; the surviving native peoples were still being wronged. The narratives reinforced by Colonization directly supported and aided in the perpetration of those wrongs, while (I’d argue) no Jew’s life was threatened by Panzer General. At the time, at least, I saw Colonization’s decisions as doing active ethical harm in a way that PG’s decisions didn’t.

    And I think there’s still some grounds to support that position, at least for the United States. Neo-Nazis remain a fringe group. There are some Holocaust deniers in positions of political power. Panzer General might subtly help their causes, a little. But the majority of the leaders of at least one political party would be strongly supportive of the false narratives propped up by Colonization’s gameplay decisions. The revolution was one of the greatest acts of heroic bravery in history, founding a nation on freedom. The “Indians” were savages whose weakness “wasted” the many natural resources they’d been gifted, and the Europeans were right to take and keep their lands. And slavery? Well, not really a need to address it.

     
  14. Josh T

    December 5, 2020 at 5:53 pm

    guaranted -> guaranteed
    “How Historical Games Integrate of Ignore Slavery” > “How Historical Games Integrate or Ignore Slavery”

    Since you mentioned Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, have you watched the author’s movie, Playing Columbine (http://playingcolumbine.com/), about the public reaction to the game? It’s a really great time capsule of that era of gaming controversy and discussion, and included some tidbits I didn’t know about (like the game’s exclusion from Slamdance’s 2007 Guerrilla Games Competition.

     
    • Jimmy Maher

      December 5, 2020 at 7:23 pm

      Thanks!

      I did see the film, although it’s been quite some years. I’m sure it would indeed play as a great time capsule today.

       
  15. John Elliott

    December 5, 2020 at 9:18 pm

    Civilization: Call To Power has a slavery mechanic too – I didn’t use it as a player, so my only experience of it was AI slavers stealing population from my cities.

     
  16. Jason Dyer

    December 5, 2020 at 10:45 pm

    I could never get into Colonization; I remember finding Conquest of the New World (1996) to be more fun. I always played as the Native Americans, though.

     
  17. John

    December 5, 2020 at 11:13 pm

    I didn’t discover Colonization until it arrived on GOG, but in the years since I’ve played quite a lot of it. Until you mentioned it, Jimmy, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that the game does not contain or address slavery at all. I’m not sure why, except that various forms of privilege probably have something to do with it. I feel like an idiot now. The game’s issues regarding Native Americans are of course obvious, as is the problem of treating the Dutch, French, and Spanish colonial projects as mostly identical to that of the English. Even the game’s depiction of the English colonial project deviates from actual history in what I think are several important respects.

    And yet, for all that I’m a person who is sometimes quite fussy about the depiction of history, I think that Colonization is a very good game. It may look a lot like Civilization but it doesn’t quite play like Civilization, and I consider that a strength as well as a welcome novelty. Worker management is semi-incidental in Civilization but it’s at the heart of Colonization. Civilization, at least in the first few games in the series, is a game that rewards horizontal play. You want to spread your civilization as widely as possible as quickly as possible. Colonization rewards vertical play. Founding a lot of cities will only anger the Native Americans to no purpose. Moreover, smaller cities can’t produce the agricultural surpluses needed to support the statesmen, lumberjacks, carpenters, ore miners, and blacksmiths you will need to produce public support for independence and the cannons with which to fight for it. Finally, combat is very, very chancy in Colonization, even on the easier difficulty levels. Going out to fight the Native Americans is a risky, expensive business in the early game when men and muskets are scarce and a waste of time in the late game when there are more important things to worry about. In short, playing Colonization as if it were Civilization is usually a bad idea. Of course playing Civilization produces a superior Civilization-playing experience. Colonization may look like a 4X game–like THE 4X game, even–but I think it’s really a city-builder at heart.

    To really enjoy Colonization, I have to sort of divorce it from history in my head. The game can still teach me things–just last month it inspired me to go read up on Jean de Brebeuf–but I am acutely conscious of (what I now recognize are only some of) its omissions, simplifications, and gameplay compromises as I play. Knowing that revolution is the endgame, I establish cities in ahistorical patterns. I perversely build my colonial empire with as few ports as I can reasonably manage, reducing the need to build robust fortifications. I leave profitable coastal tiles undeveloped, so as to benefit from ambush bonuses against royalist troops. I seldom bother to deal with Native Americans one way or the other unless forced or unless I’m exploiting certain semi-random bonuses that make otherwise non-useful petty convicts into effective missionaries.

    So, can Colonization be saved? What would need to change to make it both a good game and good history? I don’t know. I’m not sure that it’s possible. I think that you could make a good, historically accurate game about the colonial period, but think that the game should probably not be either a 4X game or 4X-adjacent. It would probably be better to design a game where the player plays a character or series of characters in a colonial setting and explore the issues of the period in that way rather than have him play as an abstracted, godlike manager, who, after all, did not actually exist anyway.

     
  18. Veronica Maclean

    December 6, 2020 at 5:46 pm

    The problem with the “it’s just a game” argument is that it contains an unstated major premise: that the setting doesn’t matter. If that were true, could you take the exact same game mechanics and put them in a game about rape? Traumatize and abuse the most women and you win? What about torture? Your UI is a human body and you win by causing the most pain without killing the person. The person’s family is watching. Would these games with identical game mechanics be fun? There could be inventory management, tricky resource allocation trade offs, tech trees, and all the other “interesting decisions” that we like. No, those games would not be fun, of course, because the setting matters. The resource management decisions are fun in part because of the feeling that you are getting food to an army and building a new town hall.

    Given that setting matters, why then does the torture game bother Player X but the slavery game doesn’t? Because Player X doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the horror that slavery was (and is, as the echos of it still reverberate). That is the essence of it. Anyone, in my opinion, who doesn’t abhor a game that glosses over slavery doesn’t understand slavery, really. It’s an abstract concept they can put out of their mind. That’s the real problem here, in my view.

    Next is the argument that games are ethically neutral tools and thus only the player’s morality matters. Jimmy already dismantled this silly argument throughly, but I’ll add one more thing. Games have editorial decisions in them, just like any creative endeavor. Those editorial decisions carry moral implications and are the responsibility of the designer. You can’t simulate reality perfectly, so you choose which pieces to simulate. That is far, far from a morally neutral endeavor. This is another excuse for young white men to feel good about playing games that gloss over the worst crimes against humanity in history.

    I think the balance struck by Civilization is reasonable- it’s such a high level simulation of so many things and they clearly acknowledge the horrors being left out and glossed over so that the game does not contribute to whitewashing history. As for Colonization? As Jimmy said, just don’t make that game. The world doesn’t need it. Apply those same fun mechanics to a different setting and you have the same amount of fun without making the world a slightly worse place,. Because setting matters.

     
    • Dan

      December 6, 2020 at 7:34 pm

      “Because Player X doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the horror that slavery was (and is”
      Well, no. Do you not appreciate the horror that murder was and is so you avoid any game where you might have to kill someone? Of course not. I don’t even think in any of the games discussed that slavery is even the objective in itself. In Elite, for example, making money and increasing your rating is the stated objective.
      In fact, for accuracy, pre-Columbian Americans should also have slaves available as a game mechanic, as they most certainly did take and keep slaves, usually after slaughtering everybody else in a tribe they raided. Why then should we treat them as the “good” guys if slavery is the point of contention? There’s barely any setting anywhere on earth at any time until recently where slavery of some sort was not a factor. Nothing would be left after such an ill-defined and illogical cultural purge.

       
      • GeoX

        December 9, 2020 at 12:48 am

        I’ve gotta say, when you apparently feel the need to pretend that your opponents are arguing in favor of a “cultural purge,” it’s a little hard to believe that you’re arguing in good faith.

         
        • Dan

          December 9, 2020 at 9:26 am

          Theorising about my motives in the absence of anything approaching an attempt at rebuttal, or indeed any useful content at all, says much more about your arguing in good faith than mine. Advocating suppression of games or media based on fuzzy wording such as “problematic” or non-consensus personal feelings is indeed an attempt at a cultural purge. Like I said (and you haven’t even bothered to argue against) I can make a case to ban anything anywhere on these nebulous criteria.

           
          • GeoX

            December 9, 2020 at 4:04 pm

            Yeah. You can claim until you’re blue in the face that cultural criticism is a “cultural purge,” but that doesn’t make it so. It’s a real mystery why nobody wants to engage with you. You could think about why that might be. Or, you could just get mad and defensive and become even more entrenched in your views and learn nothing whatsoever. I wonder which option you’ll choose!

             
        • Dan

          December 9, 2020 at 6:52 pm

          “Yeah. You can claim until you’re blue in the face that cultural criticism is a “cultural purge,” but that doesn’t make it so.”
          I have explained why it is so. You have asserted it is not, again with not even a whiff of a stab at refuting it in any meaningful way. I will assume you cannot.

          “It’s a real mystery why nobody wants to engage with you.”
          Several of my posts have been responded to. Again, it’s hard to be conclusive regarding whether you are not trying to or not capable of following this debate?

          “You could think about why that might be.”
          Likewise, you could stop and consider your rage,,presumably some deep frustration at being unable to form a cogent argument, that forces you to ignore the posts replying to me in order to fabricate some yarn about me being ignored.

          “Or, you could just get mad and defensive and become even more entrenched in your views and learn nothing whatsoever. I wonder which option you’ll choose!”
          Says the guy so mad and defensive he failed to notice how I have been responded to multiple times. You could admit you were wrong, likewise admit you have yet to produce anything even in orbit of an argument, or you could, you know, double down with the “you are a” and “your current emotion is” stuff.

          Hope that helps. The next lesson isn’t free though.

           
          • GeoX

            December 9, 2020 at 7:12 pm

            I mean, knew you’d choose the latter option. It was a rhetorical question. But, uh, thanks for the object lesson.

             
        • Dan

          December 9, 2020 at 7:26 pm

          You have nothing of value to say.
          Move on, both specifically and generally.

           
          • Jimmy Maher

            December 9, 2020 at 9:02 pm

            This is the first time I’ve ever had to do this, but here goes…

            I’m always happy to host opposing points of view, and I appreciate that you’re obviously very passionate on this subject. However, you aren’t saying anything new now that you’re eleven comments in, your tone is getting worse and worse, and I’m afraid you may be making it unpleasant for other people to share their points of view. So, your comments will go into a moderation queue from now on. If you have something substantively new to say, and can do so civilly, I’ll approve them. Otherwise, I think we’ve all had ample opportunity to consider your arguments.

            (Now we just have to hope this moderation-queue thing works like I think it does…)

             
  19. Emily Bowman

    December 6, 2020 at 10:29 pm

    Good pair of essays. There’s a definite sliding scale of realism vs surrealism in games, and if they cross the uncanny valley and land on the realism side, they will be more harshly judged and taken to task for their real-world implications and omissions. That’s why nearly all games retain a bit of cartoony otherness to them, unless telling an ugly story warts and all is their main motivation.

    I’m as guilty as anyone of sometimes just wanting to turn my brain off and solve some puzzles or command some mechanics to succeed at some arbitrary objective, but it’s important to remember when things hit too close to home, and try to be serious yet bowdlerized at the same time, to step back and take a broader look.

     
  20. CdrWilmot

    December 6, 2020 at 11:05 pm

    King of Dragon Pass features slavery, in it’s pseudo-iron age context.
    It seems to handle it reasonably well, making it a (non-judgemental) choice but one you have to deal with if you go that route. I think Rome: Total War has enslavement too.
    But those games and Elite (where not only could you trade slaves, you could actively capture them) manage enough setting-distance to seemingly make it acceptable to include.

    Pharoah consciously omits slavery, even though ancient Egyptian slavery does not have the modern resonance or consequences of slavery in the North America.
    I find it odd that Colonization was actually made in the US. You might expect it to have come from a developer outside the US context, who failed to understand the significance of slavery in North America, an issue with consequences that are still very much alive.

     
    • Ross

      December 8, 2020 at 2:17 am

      Really, no one’s better at overlooking the significance of slavery in North America like white Americans.

      No one’s got more to gain by ignoring it, really.

       
      • Dan

        December 8, 2020 at 4:59 pm

        Really, no one’s better at overstating the significance of slavery in North America like black Americans.

        No one’s got more to lose by ignoring it, really.

        Just as true as what you said.

         
  21. Bogdanow

    December 6, 2020 at 11:24 pm

    I’ve never liked Colonization too much. But for my father, that was the game to play. He loved it. I think he enjoyed the actual limitations, which made it into a smaller game than Civilization.

     
  22. namaste

    December 9, 2020 at 7:39 am

    Well, I played this a lot when I was teenager and the three things that jumped to me since the first play were:
    1. absence of slavery
    2. all wrongs were charged against the spanish which was made the official “killing natives” faction
    3. absence of portuguese

    The simple model of natives – which made no difference between tribes and empires – I attributed back then to limitations of the engine.

    The other things I attributed them to USA chauvinism and in fact the focus of this article is also very USA-centric and just reflects the current USA obsesions.

    By the way, I expect another article like this one tackling KOEI’s “Gengis Khan”
    By the way I am expecting

     
  23. Jake Wildstrom

    December 20, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Two notable things jumping out at me, bothering to comment late:

    The omission of slavery vs. the omission of other aspects from other games: I’m not sure I 100% agree that a game can’t be about the settlement of America without slavery as a major aspect, but definitely this game couldn’t have been honestly made without engaging with slavery: the overwhelming focus of the game is on the management of manpower and trade goods, on the granularity level of individual workers (or representative “parcels” of specific-trade workers) and of specific trade goods. There is no honest way to engage with industry on that level of specificity without, y’know, noting that some industries were incredibly dependent on slave labor. A game with a higher level of abstraction, or a different focus, could maybe dodge it and still be fundamentally honest, but it would be a very different game. For better or for worse, this is what differentiates it from, say, the Railroad Tycoon or Panzer General examples. Railroad Tycoon‘s construction model is a purely abstract notion of paying for things with money, and doesn’t engage with labor at any level: not limitations, not strikes, and not the humanitarian crises which were connected tot hem in real life. Likewise Panzer General doesn’t actually have an obvious place in the gameplay where the nightmarish crimes of the Nazis are relevant, so it’s hard to see how (if one chooses to make those particular games) the underlying ethical problems can be incorporated into play, whereas in Colonization they’re rather conspicuous in their absence (and in their presence, inasmuch as Colonization recognized, if poorly, the fact that there are major ethical issues in how European colonizers interacted with the natives).

    The other thing is that Colonization‘s baked-in narrative is one which not only normalized a British-colonial story, but a specific, exceptional British colonial story. Most European colonies (especially in Africa, Asia, and Oceania) established a thin European administrative class exploiting a primarily native labor force (and native markets), and the revolutions, when they came, were fairly specifically clashes between extremely distinct cultures and ethnicities. In Central and South America the racial identities were more complex but not so very far from this. The few exceptional cases which were actively settled by Europeans (especially the British) usually didn’t break away violently; the independence of, e.g. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were pretty gradual affairs, and were more typical of how people who thought of themselves as transplanted Europeans negotiated an independent identity.

     
  24. Chris Rasmus

    December 28, 2020 at 1:02 am

    I’ve been reading your site for years and years, Jimmy, and bought your book on Pyramids. I grew up on an Apple II and so your articles have always interested me. I appreciate you very much, and I know I’m not speaking for myself.

    But this review caught me by surprise, I must say. I had always assumed you were simply reporting on history using your particular brand of journalism and wit which I’ve always enjoyed in the past. But this review injected a lot of personal opinions, some that I find myself vehemently in opposition to, that I don’t feel were necessary for your reader.

    Perhaps you’ve done the very same thing in the past, and I just failed to notice it. After all I’ll admit I haven’t read ALL of your articles.

    Part of me just doesn’t understand why simply reporting the omission of slavery (for example) in Colonization wasn’t enough, and even perhaps going so far as to report that there were various groups who opposed the omission (with appropriate quotes from selected individuals within said organizations). To actually then add personal bias and make judgmental conclusions?

    That puts you into a new category of author. An author that now I have to worry about reading things that are ideologically in opposition to my current world view. And don’t misunderstand, I’ve got authors that I read (on purpose) that are in that category. But Jimmy Maher?

    You used to be an author I could just read for pleasure and enjoy the historical accuracy of the content.

    And a final few (random) thoughts…did anybody ever grow up playing cowboys and indians? I’m sorry, I meant cowboys and native-american-indigenous. Dan has made some very salient points above, irregardless of his possible too-severe tone, using simple cold hard logic. Whatever happened to critical thinking? We used to be able to actually debate things in this country back when I was growing up, and people wouldn’t burst into tears and need to go recover in a “safe space” afterward.

    TLDR: At the risk of alienating half the people who read this (or more!): It’s JUST A GAME! My goodness. Having a problem with the LACK OF SLAVERY in a computer game makes as little sense as wanting to ban Risk because it encourages world domination through war. I could completely get behind Jimmy Maher and this article if it was reviewing a “historical treatise” on the American Revolution, or some such.

    But again…we’re talking a computer game.

     
    • Mike Taylor

      December 28, 2020 at 10:57 pm

      I’m not understanding your objection at all, Chris. Jimmy does on the whole constrain his writing to historical accounts, with some limited personal opinion carefully ringfenced off so it can’t be confused with the historical facts. In a few clearly signposted articles, such as this one, he takes flight from objective reporting to go deeper into a side-issue that catches his interest. How that can be a problem? If you don’t enjoy such posts, just skip them.

      “An author that now I have to worry about reading things that are ideologically in opposition to my current world view.” <– I don't see why that would be something to worry about.

       
    • Lisa H.

      December 29, 2020 at 11:07 pm

      Being able to say about something that “it’s just a game!” demonstrates a position of privilege with regards to whatever the game depicts. This isn’t necessarily a value judgement about a given player; it may not even be possible to avoid. But it’s important to recognize that there are others for whom something may very much not be “just a game”.

      “Cowboys and Indians” is a strange example to try to stand on.

       
  25. Leo Vellés

    January 1, 2021 at 9:13 pm

    “The funnest parts of Colonization are the parts you spend the least amount of time doing”.
    Funnest was intended or should be funniest?
    Also, although Sid Meir said that the game should be credited to be a Reynolds creation, the marketing department of Microprose thought otherwise, judging by the game’s cover

     
    • Leo Vellés

      January 2, 2021 at 2:04 am

      Whoops, that’s what happens when you comment before finishing to read the article. Sorry about that!

       
    • Lisa H.

      January 2, 2021 at 2:27 am

      “Funnest” was probably intended, but is not standard English, or at least not formal usage. More correct would be to say “the most fun parts”.

       
  26. Andreas

    January 25, 2021 at 2:37 am

    Colonization is a work of art.

    However, ethical issues go far deeper than was discussed in this otherwise highly informative article – deeper still than even airbrushing out of (African) slaves. We should not forget that the very reason Europeans begun the transatlantic slave trade was because they kept running out of native slaves as they were working them to death.

    The first impression of the Americas in the game is one of “pristine” forests, with bands of natives roaming around especially in North America, with all road-building and forest cutting done by European “pioneers” (and that Natives will complain about). This is unfortunately a whitewashed account that is several decades out of step with what we know of the history of ecology, economy, and demographics:

    Current reconstructions place the population of the Americas at the end of the 15th century on the order of 200 million people. They had dense irrigated farmlands and road networks. Early European explorers reported that along the North American coastline farmland extended to the horizon.

    It was the very genocide (through diseases but also through war, ecological destruction, and slavery) of the native populations that transformed the ecology to something closer to what is shown in the game. Plummeting populations led to re-forestation of the farmlands – a process on a scale so immense that is reflected in a reduction of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

    A second example: In the game, a single figure expert silver miner (representing anywhere from hundreds to a few thousand people according to the game manual) working a silver mine is enough to flood even the Dutch market and over time bring the price down.

    Actually Potosi (in today’s Peru) the source of 60% of world silver production in the 16th century, had a larger population than any European city (including London) and worked enslaved indigenous people to death by the hundreds of thousands. The price did not collapse as the silver was mainly traded on to China, largely funding the rise of Europe.

    None of this is particularly controversial, you can look it up in any recent mainline history book by now. Though I recommend “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz as it directly deals with the implications. There you will also find interesting tidbits like the fact that the Spanish actually sent an expeditionary force to attack the British at Jamestown to deny the upstart colonial power a foothold; however, the Spanish force included black slaves who revolted and teamed up with the indigenous to rout the Spanish incursion.

     
  27. Anonymous

    March 27, 2021 at 11:52 am


    The core assertion here is that the game doesn’t force the player’s hand at all — that in a game like, say, Grand Theft Auto it’s the player who chooses to indulge in vehicular mayhem instead of driving politely from place to place like a law-abiding citizen.

    This example is inaccurate. There is a series on Youtube called “Can You Complete GTA 5 Without Wasting Anyone?” which shows that completing the game requires you to kill tens of people, even if the player goes through extraordinary measures to avoid doing so. In addition, you have to torture someone and tattoo a penis on another person’s chest. There is no way to play any GTA game the “right” way without murdering virtual people.


    Although the “just a game” defense may seem a tempting get-out-of-jail-free card in the context of a Panzer General or a Colonization, one should think long and hard before one plays it. For to do so is to infantilize the entire medium — to place it into some other, fundamentally different category from books and movies and other forms of media that are allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place.

    Perhaps the only practical solution to the dilemma is that of simply not making any more versions of Colonization. No, it’s not a terribly satisfying solution, placing limits as it does on what games are allowed to do and be.

    This article seems to flirt very closely with the premise that one should not produce or consume artistic representations of evil things. Schindler’s List is right out, horror movies are too, as is every video game where someone shoots someone else and the entire genre of Gangsta Rap music. We must “think long and hard” before even playing Super Mario Brothers… as it depicts unnecessary cruelty to turtles and squid.

    Perhaps I’m misreading your intention, but this piece seems pretty sympathetic to the perspective that “the only practical solution to the dilemma is that of simply not making [art with these themes].” Other people in these comments seem to also believe that you agree that the *correct* solution is “just don’t make that game. The world doesn’t need it.”

    Another practical solution is to recognize that artistic depiction of evil is not itself evil, even if said depiction is interactive. The choice is not between “damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” but rather includes a third choice : not being damned in either case. Indeed, this seems to be the only practical solution which leaves us with a world that contains art able to reflect and comment on such behavior.

     
  28. Wolfeye Mox

    August 10, 2021 at 6:13 am

    Reminded me of Amazon’s New World. Just the title, and seeing characters running around in conquistador style helmets, makes me cringe. I’m not particularly a fan of some of the natives of the new world (Aztecs did in fact do human sacrifices, after all, for example), but I’m also not a fan of how the conquistadors treated them. New World might be a good game, mechanics wise, but I’d feel icky playing it, even if it’s supposed to be on a magic island and not the Americas.

    Conversely, there’s RimWorld. One of my favorite games, it’s all about creating a story in the game. Lots of customization options, especially with mods. I’ve got nearly 400 hours clocked in it. BUT, the vanilla scenario to set up the player to experience those stories is that the characters crash land on a planet, and have to interact with the natives of the planet. It’s saving grace is it gives the players choices, you can make friends with the natives as easily as kill them. There’s even the Ideology expansion, where you can create a belief system. Mine was almost a transhumanist Green Peace, my group wants to become cyborgs as much as they want to live in nature and have trees around. The highest technologies in their buildings with rampant nature around them. But, the player could just as easily have their group be slavers who force their victims into gladiator fights and have cannibalistic feasts. Icky, to say the least. However, it’s not required to turn your colony (there’s that word) into a horror show, it’s just an option for the player … And it’s just a video game, after all. It’s supposed to be fun. Even though my idea of fun isn’t running a colony of cannibalistic conquerors, I don’t particularly mind that it’s an option, because I can play the game my way.

     
  29. Christopher Cramer

    August 11, 2021 at 8:35 pm

    Excellent article, but I must disagree that the natives need to be “subjugated”. It works better when you’re playing as the French, but I have found that a strategy of being friendly with the natives works much better, even if you play as the Spanish. If you establish missions in every native settlement (of course even this is objectionable to many) and, when they periodically visit you making requests or demands, give them whatever they ask for, and also always pay for their land, they will seldom attack you. Obviously whenever they do attack you, you need to let it slide, and never retaliate.

    But you get the real advantage when building wagon trains, connecting their settlements to yours with roads, and trading frequently with the natives. Typically you will be sending them manufactured goods (cloth, rum, cigars, guns), and they will be sending you raw materials (cotton, sugar, tobacco, ore). Especially once you get Adam Smith and you can build factories, you will be able to make tons of money this way. The frequent trading will itself calm them down and make them happier, and willing to tolerate your very large settlements (which must be large before you can build factories).

    At the very start of the game, you can make quite a bit of money if you can find some Inca settlements to trade with. They will buy tools (which are very cheap in Europe, at the beginning) and sell you silver (which is very expensive in Europe, at the beginning). The Incas and the Aztecs will also give your settlements food, if you keep your food stockpile low. This can be manipulated to quickly grow your population, by moving food from one settlement to another, or simply storing the food in wagon trains. Speaking of growing population, if you have missions in every native settlement, you will usually get a steady stream of converts. They are better at resource extraction (farming, fishing, lumber, mining) than unskilled Europeans.

    Because the other Europeans (especially the Spanish) tend to start trying to annihilate the natives that I’m trading with, I find it imperative to actually arm them, by trading guns and horses to them. This gives you the another key advantage, as once they have horses, they start breeding their own, and you are able to buy a seemingly unlimited supply of horses from them. In the midgame, when you’re wiping out the other Europeans, and endgame, when fighting for independence, this becomes very useful as you can upgrade all your units to dragoons, and then whenever your units get hit, they merely lose their horses. So you send back the soldiers to the settlements where the horses are stored, and convert the soldiers back to dragoons. You need a lot of horses to do this, and it is difficult to do it at scale without trading with the natives.

    Sad to say, I never realized before reading this article that slavery is totally missing from the game! But it’s obvious that putting it in (and having a more realistic game) would be more controversial than leaving it out. It would be interesting to have a strategy game based on the native or even the African slave point of view. If the game was realistic, of course, you’d never have a happy ending, but it could be a fun game nonetheless.

     

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