Playing Native: Indigenous Peoples’ Representation in Civilization VI

Since my last post about my project, it’s gone through some pretty big changes. I’ve dramatically narrowed the scope: I found that it would be more insightful to only cover one game, Civilization VI, in depth than several games in passing. In addition, rather than examining the vague concept of imperialism, I chose to specifically focus on depictions of indigenous groups. Since these groups have often been the subject of misrepresentation, I thought it would be interesting to see exactly how they have been treated in Civilization.

My project goes through a few wide categories. First, I looked at indigenous representation in the civilizations you could pick from. My findings were surprising. At launch, the only playable Native American group was the Aztecs. What’s more, they were only playable if you had pre-ordered the game. For everyone else, they were available 90 days after launch. This means that, if you did not order the game ahead of time, you had zero playable Native American civilization, as well as only one sub-Saharan African civilization, while Europe had eight inclusions! Since launch, downloadable content has been released that adds more Native American groups, but this brings its own issues of having to pay in order to access more representation.

A map of representation in Civilization 6, from 2019. Just look at how crowded Europe is in contrast to the rest of the world. Image from Reddit, by an unknown user: https://www.reddit.com/r/civ/comments/arlbu9/location_map_of_all_the_leaders_in_civilization_6/

But what about the indigenous people that you can’t play as? Civilization VI has two options for them. The first, tribal villages, appear as mere features on the map. You send a unit onto them, and they give you a gift, before disappearing. This representation plays into stereotypes of the “helpful native”, like the Wampanoag helping colonists at Plymouth. The fact that these tribes just disappear after helping you almost seems like a parody of the erasure of natives in history.

Then come the barbarians, who represent another big stereotype about indigenous groups: the hostile savage. These barbarians are uniformly hostile to everybody. They will attack anyone who they see and pillage towns. There are only two ways to deal with them. First is to wipe out their units with your own military and raze their outpost to the group, to prevent more from spawning. The second is to send an Apostle unit with the Heathen Conversion ability, who can convert all barbarians next to them to your civilization. Thus, Civilization presents the two choices that many colonial powers gave to indigenous groups: convert and assimilate, or die.

Finally, the very gameplay itself is hostile to many indigenous groups’ history. The technology and civic trees that represent development are extremely Eurocentric. Everybody must research technologies like Feudalism and The Enlightenment. Possibly most egregiously, you must develop Colonialism to advance into the Modern Era. Even civilizations that famously resisted colonization, like Ethiopia and India under Gandhi, must develop the very ideology that they opposed.

An example of the civic tree in the Medieval Era. Feudalism, Medieval Faires, and a Reformed Church were all mostly European inventions, but here, all civilizations must develop them.

Lastly is the general style of gameplay that the game encourages. Players are encouraged to always expand. Expansion brings more resources, more science, more culture, more of everything. The penalties on expansion are minor and easily overcome. By doing this, the game basically encourages the player to think with an imperialistic mindset. The world exists to be exploited. This runs counter to how many indigenous groups acted. In fact, the headman of the Poundmaker Cree First Nation even opposed the inclusion of the Cree in Civilization VI because it would force this ideology on a group that has been its victim in real life.

This research was very interesting to conduct. The Civilization series has had millions of players. Its representation of indigenous people is often celebrated, but reveals some deep-seated issues with the game. From how indigenous people are represented to how the player plays the game, there are many improvements that the series could make. By doing so, the game can live up to its promise of accurately depicting civilizations from around the world.

One Reply to “Playing Native: Indigenous Peoples’ Representation in Civilization VI”

  1. I think the way you have gone about approaching narrowing in on your topic is really smart. Along with that, the points you are drawing out about both playable and non-playable indigenous peoples of the Americas is great. Also, great find on the responses to the game from individuals from the Cree community. That is really rich context to draw in. Overall, this is a really well written and insightful paper.

    This is all to say that you have assembled together a good bit of research on something that I have not yet seen widely explored and that this is a great result for your project.

    If you did want to keep developing this, I could see it becoming a good piece that you could submit to journals like Simulation & Gaming, or Games and Culture. Alternatively, if you were interested, the blog Play the Past (playthepast.org) publishes guest posts and I think you could likely think about turning this into a short series of posts for that blog.

    Below are a few suggestions for things to consider as you think about future directions for this work.

    – It would be good to add in an explicit research question or set of research questions up front in the paper that you can then come back to in the conclusion. That, or if you want to assert a specific thesis up front that you then return to and argue for I think that could help a reader navigate the great information you have identified in the paper.
    – Think about adding in sub heads. I think that would help add more clarity of structure to the paper and help your reader process your findings and analysis.
    – I thought your notes on the Maori in the paper were really interesting. Given that you are including them here, it may make sense to reframe this less as being about native americans and more as being about indigenous peoples from around the world.

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