Sid Meier’s Colonization and Creating Counterfactuals?

Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens dissect the historical interpretation presented in the computer game, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV:  Colonization, in Modeling Indigenous Peoples:  Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization.  This strategy game allows players to act as an European colonial power attempting to colonize the New World and the players work to build up their colonial power and spark a rebellion for independence from their mother country.  The game was criticized for being offensive in its treatment over an appalling moment in history, whereas others, like Steve Martin, Firaxis Games’ president, argued that, “the game does not endorse any particular position or strategy – players can and should make their own moral judgement.”  Mir and Owens disagree with both of these perspectives and instead present evidence on Colonization‘s model and historical interpretation that they argue show the game to be not offensive enough.

Screenshot of "Colonization"

Screenshot of “Colonization”

Native Americans in Colonization are portrayed in terms of what resources/benefits they can provide to the colonial powers.  Some cultures, like the Aztecs and Incas provide gold bonuses when their settlements are taken-over.  Native Americans and European powers in the game encounter one another frequently and can trade goods, but the cross-cultural exchange only works in one direction: Europeans influencing Native Americans.  Mir and Owens explain how Native American’s are illustrated as ‘becoming white’ in the game as they are assimilated by European powers.  Because of this, Colonization is offensive, but not offensive enough, according to the authors, because it leaves out two major factors of colonization that would make the game more realistic, and uglier, as well.  The game leaves out slavery and the spread of European disease all-together from the colonization history of the Americas.

Theoretically, Colonization gives the player agency to make their own decisions and therefore the possibility to create alternative history scenarios.  If true, counterfactual colonization models could make for a better understanding of how and why the New World colonized in the manner that it did.  Colonization does not allow for much variation from the colonization history in the Americas as we know it.  Mir and Owens explain how the game can be changed so the user plays as the Native Americans, but the Native Americans lack all power in this flipped version of Colonization.  From the position as a colonizer in the game, the player can do pretty horrific things, like wipe-out whole cultures.  However, because all moves are made in terms of strategy and gaining resources, the game forces the player to see the ‘game-board’ from the perspective of a state, as if sitting in a bureaucratic office, far removed from horrors of the ‘war front.’

As someone who plays Civilizations, I also argue that the Civilizations game format strips away all sense of moral judgement; you move your players in the most strategic manner and evaluate all opposition in terms of potential resources.  There is no sense of guilt after removing a whole culture from the ‘board,’ in fact, it is an achievement because it moves you closer to winning the game.  Moral judgement is not a factor.  Therefore, I strongly disagree with Steve Martin’s assessment of the game.  I am not familiar with Colonization and it would be interesting to read how the different European powers interact, although I understand that was not the focus of Mir and Owens’ article.

Like Mir and Owens argue, this game has much potential as a way to discuss and understand colonial history, but is seriously lacking in historic accuracy.  The game lacks two major components in colonization – disease and slavery.  The game cannot produce alternative histories because the fundamental historical interpretation of colonization it presents is inaccurate.  The authors, and I as well, would like to see a revised version of this game that incorporates slavery and the spread of European disease, and properly represents the power and influence of the Native Americans.

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Categories: Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Sid Meier’s Colonization and Creating Counterfactuals?

  1. Alexandra,
    Thank you for your thoughtful and honest post. I’m glad I am not the only one that didn’t feel guilty exploiting people in order to win the game. However, I think your point about how “the game forces the player to see the ‘game-board’ from the perspective of a state, as if sitting in a bureaucratic office, far removed from horrors of the ‘war front,” is on point. Why should you feel bad about excelling and making your way to the top? Especially when you do not see the emotional effects of disease and slavery. If video games are going to be used for nuance and getting at the heart of historic complexities, they need to incorporate slavery, disease, and perhaps more alternative narratives to the story as well. What would it be like if the state lost against the Native Americans? These additions would certainly facilitate more critical thinking.

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    • I really like your idea of having a narrative! If characters in Colonization came with a profile or a story, then maybe I would feel a stronger connection to the people. From my experiences with Civilization, people and cultures are only represented in terms of numbers, and visually, there is little depiction of emotion or suffering as army wipe out whole settlements. I agree that the narrative needs to be historical accurate and polyvocal and I think the addition of proper visual representation of actions and the addition of a narrative would help.

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