Uncritical Play: When Games Shy Away From Difficult History

Bear with me here, this one takes some setup.

There is a board game company called GMT Games. They make incredibly high-quality games about historic (and some modern-day) subjects. Most of their games are the sort of thing that require some considerable prior investment, because they come in massive boxes with reams of paper about rules and Examples of Play and different setups and possible optional rules. But if you’ve ever thought “boy, I wish I could play a high-quality board game that models the collapse of Roman rule in Britain in the 4th and 5th centuries,” then boy do I have good news for you.

GMT has a program called the P500, where they will announce a new board game and then let people place pre-orders. When a game gets 500 orders, only then does it go into production. This allows GMT to perform a sort of crowd-testing to see whether a game has enough of an audience to justify the expense of production. A while ago they announced a game called Scramble for Africa.

If your first thought was “oof, that’s going to require to delicate touches,” then congratulations! You put more thought into it than GMT Games did. Scramble for Africa was basically Carcassone but with the fun, light-hearted theme of European colonial exploration and exploitation of Africa. What could go wrong?

Last Sunday (April 7) GMT announced they were pulling the game and refunding all existing pre-orders. This article provides a good summary of the whole debacle and this follow-up article walks through some of the broader analysis. The game in its presented form was doomed from the outset because it attempted to take a complex and brutal history of exploitation and conquest and boil it down to an economic game of worker placement and card play. Scramble for Africa took a serious subject and presented a means of experiencing it through gameplay that did not strike the proper tone.

In Critical Play: Radical Game Design, Mary Flanagan writes:

“Serious games are among the most challenging games to design. These play spaces must retain all the elements that make a game enjoyable while effectively communicating their message. Either component can be lost in the attempt the manifest the other, resulting in a game that is dull and didactic, or entertaining but hollow. In the worst case, the results are both dull and hollow.” (pg. 249)

Scramble for Africa did not fail as a serious game. Its failure was that it never attempted to be a serious game in the first place. It shied away from engaging in the difficult history that it was modeling.

So now let’s bring in Sid Meier’s Colonization.

Technically it’s Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization, since the game is essentially an official mod of the game Civilization IV created by the developers and released as a standalone game. For our purposes we will follow the lead established by Rebecca Mir and History and New Media’s own Trevor Owens in their piece “Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization” and call it Sid Meier’s Colonization. This is in many ways a longer, more academic version of the WarGameHQ articles I linked to above, discussing the problematic aspects of a video game instead of a board game.

Sid Meier’s Colonization models the European colonization of the Americas, but in the same whitewashed way that Scramble for Africa modeled its titular subject. Mir and Owens take exception to the absence of such pivotal institutions and factors as disease and slavery, and the limitations placed on the player:

“Colonization has a strict and problematic win condition: players must be a colonial power, must rebel against their motherland, and must fight in a war for independence. Instead of reaching terms of peace with the homeland, or paying the homeland for freedom, players are thus compelled to reenact the colonial history of the United States of America…In forcing the player to relive the American colonial experience, Colonization systematically denies the player a series of interesting choices and opportunities to create a radically different past. Removing the players’ ability to dramatically change the past locks them into the ideological model of the game and limits their interpretations.”

If Sid Meier’s Colonization was an attempt to make what Flanagan calls a “serious game” about the colonization of the Americas, it would have been a failure. A key element of serious games is that they provide something above and beyond enjoyment, such as “meditative play.” Sid Meier’s Colonization offers no way to meditate on the horrific actions that gameplay such as “put a Native worker in a school to upgrade them into a Colonist” represents. Players can make decisions about whether to expand at the expense of Native Americans but they cannot win the game without breaking from the mother country in a violent revolution. Players without historical knowledge are left with an offensive version of colonial history that whitewashes the horrors that it does not fully omit.

This is perhaps unsurprising, given the makeup of the people responsible for making triple-A (the biggest, most expensive, top-tier) games like the Civilization series. Flanagan reports that “computer games are still perceived as an area created by and for white men” and that “commercial, masculine computer artifacts have taken pride of place in contemporary culture.” (pg. 224-225) Non-diverse game design teams will make games that reflect their understanding of history, and their conceptions of what is necessary to include in a game (“masculine” exploits such as city-building, land development, and war-making) and what can be cut as too messy or too difficult to model in the game’s code (disease, slavery, two-way cultural exchange, women).

Both Scramble for Africa and Sid Meier’s Colonization are examples of what I call “uncritical play.” These games choose to cherry-pick historical moments and leave the complicated and messy parts on the cutting-room floor. A game that attempts to be serious under Flanagan’s definition and fails might be a more admirable effort than a game that shy away from the reality of the history they choose to model. Flanagan tells us that “games may provide the safest outlet available for exploring devastating problems and conflicts,” (pg. 249) but only if the time and effort is put into making them depict those problems and conflicts completely and honestly. Mir and Owens conclude on a similar note:

“In the end, if there is something regrettable about the game in its current state, it is that it is not offensive enough. While the game lets you do some rather evil things, those evil things are nevertheless sanitized versions of the events that actually took place in reality.”

5 Replies to “Uncritical Play: When Games Shy Away From Difficult History”

  1. Hi Isaac,
    Great post that gives us a lot to think about when examining games that simplify or de-textualize difficult histories. I think your term “uncritical play” is extremely relevant to this area of inquiry and applicable to similar interactive mediums that engage players and users. I was wondering if any of your outside research on the games indicates who these companies hire, i.e. do you think they have or would consider hiring historians as consultants for creating these types of games? Creating games out of difficult history is a complex and delicate task, but maybe having a historian on board could give some necessary context and waiving of ready flags when warranted.

    1. It’s hard to say, but I know that the usual design teams for big strategy games like Civilization are large. How many of those people are historians versus coders and game testers, I don’t know. For board games, the design teams for GMT Games are often only one or two people with prior experience or an interest in the subject. I think the issue with Scramble for Africa was not that the designer was unaware of the complexity of the subject, but that their calculus about what could be jettisoned in the name of preserving a “fun” gameplay experience was flawed. This feeds back into Flanagan’s point about the domination of the mainstream of gaming design by white men.

  2. One of the questions I kept coming back to when I was reading your post and this week’s readings, is how history games play into ideas of historical inevitability. I am not one to champion what ifs in history, but I also think it is dangerous to promote one, inevitable historical path (particularly given the subjectivity of historical interpretation). However, that seems to be a lot of what Sid Meier’s Colonization was doing—reinforcing that America was destined to break from England and colonize the United States.

    One thing that baffles me about this is that I feel a game format is the perfect format to combat that inevitability, or to at least emphasize what decisions and sacrifices (largely of human lives) were made to make that history happen. I think games can definitely be used to addressed difficult histories if enough care and work (both scholarly and human) is put into them. I hope to see games in the future that help audiences navigate morality, privilege, inequality, etc. in history.

    1. Owens and Mir make that point in their article – the Civilization series as a whole is a great vehicle for investigating “what if?” because the game is structured to allow players a large amount of agency in choosing their path to victory. Colonization is trying to be more of a American Colonialism Simulator than a sandbox. Board games have this issue as well – how do you design a board game accurately depicting say, the Napoleonic Wars, without creating an experience that limits players to simply recreating history?

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