Mir & Owens Modeling Indigenous Peoples

Modeling Indigenous People: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization by Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens looks to find a somewhat middle ground between the critiques and defense of the game Civilization IV: Colonization. On the one hand, Variety writer Ben Fritze stated that the game allowed players to do “horrific things…or whitewash some of the worst events in human history,” while Firaxis Games president Steve Martin argued that “[a]s 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.” Owens and Mir stated that their goal was to “unpack how ideology is created and works in a historical simulation” because “games should challenge our preconceived notion of the world by evoking guilt or highlighting causal relationships.” They also stated that the interactivity and agency that a player can experience in Civ games allow for playing from disturbing points of view and lets players feel the guilt of their actions.

Colonization is a turn-based product management game where to win, the player must play out the American independence story by colonizing land, rebelling against the motherland, and waging war against European powers and, if a player wishes, Natives. Mir and Owens state that Civ presents a certain ideology and said model restricts players to a limited playstyle, even if there are mods and changes a person can make to amend the gameplay. Media scholar Alexander Galloway stated that these games are “ideological interpretations of history” or the “transcoding of history into specific mathematical models.”

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization (Video Game 2008) - IMDb

Owens played Colonization in sixth grade, and, like every Civ enthusiast, he replayed it a myriad of times to try and pull every possible outcome out of the game. His issues with the game started with the cover that depicts a white, militaristic point of view where strong-looking European men wielding guns seem to promote the idea that colonization is inevitable and that the game is endorsing this as the “best” route to victory.

Conversely, there is an option to play as the Native population, but it requires the player to either go into the folder to manually alter the source code (change “bPlayable” field in Civ4CivilizationInfos.xml to 1) or to download player-created mods. In the CivPlayer.app’s perspective of units, there are “Normal People” (player-controlled colonial units), “Native Peoples” (computer-controlled units), and “Europeans” (computer-controlled units). “Normal people” come with a range of abilities and characteristics (like “Tolerant” which causes immigrants to help colonies at a faster rate), but “Native People” are categorized as “Other.”

Owens argued that, despite this ability to modify the source code, this attempt to mod simply exposes the game designers’ intentions and innate colonialist ideology present. Even if a player takes a pacifist route, they are forced to colonize Natives (the model turns from a Native model to a White colonist model after Western education but, if a player sends a colonist into Native territory they don’t come out with Native traits) and, if they don’t they fall vastly behind the necessary threshold to actually achieve victory.

Yet despite all these “issues” with the game and the fact it represents a problematic point in history with little room for a player’s adaptation of the story, Mir and Owens weren’t arguing for its removal. In fact, they described the game as “too sanitized” and “not offensive enough” because even players who modded the game to make it more realistic or give it more options refused to add in the potential for disease and the slave trade.

-Bailey M

Discussion Questions

  1. Can video games be properly used as a medium for historical learning? Should they be?
  2. Should a video game prioritize historical accuracy despite how difficult that might be to portray? (e.g. when this game was released it would have been incredibly difficult to add a disease element because it would have to be passive AND weaponized) 
  3. Is it up to developers or players to do “the right thing.” (e.g. should Colonization have implemented better options for players beyond colonization, or is the onus on players to take a more pacifist route)?
  4. For people who have played other Civilization games, do the issues and problems presented here extend into those games as well? Why or why not?

7 Replies to “Mir & Owens Modeling Indigenous Peoples”

  1. I have never played the civilization games but this was an interesting take on history education through video games and the various pitfalls present. I think that video game developers are never going to have any kind of obligation to force players to make moral decisions in the game. As games get more advanced I think more and more will have the format where the player can make any decision they want to to advance in the game.

  2. As someone who is interested in Indigenous Peoples History, I never read anything like this where we are to consider video games with native people. I agree with Mir and Owens that the game clearly has colonizer ideology at the forefront of playing the game. In some ways, this makes sense since everyone wants to be the winner and the colonist was the “winner” in history sadly. However, I also agree that this shouldn’t shun the game either. But, there are issues in the game that clearly desensitized the player to what they are doing.

    Additionally, I wondered if the people who created this game actually spoke with tribal communities when they created it. Probably not, but I wondered what would happen if they actually did some community outreach and partnership. On that note, the game is more for fun I feel then actually a learning experience.

    1. When I was speaking to some friends about my original project topic (how important historical accuracy is in games) they all said accuracy doesn’t matter to them as long as it’s fun which I can assume is something that extends to the vast majority of people who play games. They’ve always been an entertainment source rather than an educational one so people tend not focus on the “how” things are portrayed, which means developers usually don’t care about proper representation as long as the game comes out “fun.”
      -Bailey M

  3. I’ve never played Colonization, but I’m a big fan of the classic Civilization games (I’ve sunk hundred of hours into Civ V). That said, there’s definitely some problematic themes in these games. Their idea of civilization is inherently colonial/imperial – even though you can play Native nations like the Aztec, Iroquois, and Shoshone, or small, insular nations like Venice, the play style is still imperial and expansionary. Not to mention, “barbarians” are still famously an essential part of the early game.

    I understand Mir and Owen’s critique that the game is “too sanitized.” There are a lot of unsavory things that are glossed over in a game that centers imperialism, notably the slave trade. Unfortunately, I don’t know that game designers have been able to come up with great ways to address those “unsavory” aspects. Mary Flanagan addresses this problem. It’s not enough to include controversial topics – game designers have to include appropriate consequences for immoral decisions.

  4. This is a really thought-provoking topic, so thank you, Bailey, for taking on this reading with such care. I have never played this game nor anything like it, so I don’t have much of a reference point to go from. From the outset, the game seems super problematic. There’s the violent perspective and the colonizing perspective, but even classifying the Native Peoples as “others” seems like something that should have been changed a long time ago. This idea sort of ties in with the difference between empathy and sympathy that we have talked about in regards to museums. In museums, we want visitors to have empathy for the stories and the individuals they are learning about. This maintains a distance between the subject and the visitor, but creates an emotional and powerful connection. I wonder if the creators of this game, by trying to get players to feel guilt for their actions, were thinking at all about how to increase empathy for the Native People being colonized in this time period. Maybe it’s a stretch, but who knows, it could be a noteworthy connection! Anyway, thank you again for this thoughtful reading response!

  5. This is so interesting. I am not a big video game person in general and I am also not well read in regards to historical video games. I’ve never even really played video games all that much and I’ve never heard of this one before. I agree with Molly and think from the start this video game sounded really problematic. I wonder about how people feel when playing the game. I understand playing games for fun and all but would a lot of people play for the strategic aspects of the game (idk how to phrase this) and not really care about the situational aspects of the game (colonization)? I’m not sure if that makes sense but I feel like if people are playing for fun/strategies and aren’t really playing for the world building aspect then I am not sure if they would be gaining (?) empathy or a better understanding of colonial history because they are only seeing colonist/western war/colonizing strategies. Anyways I am sorry if literally none of that makes sense. Like Jane, I would be interested to know what the game would look like if the designers worked with Native communities. Thanks again for the post Bailey!

  6. Hello Bailey, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this interesting article! I am not sure that playing a historical video game that lets you interact with slaves is a good way to teach history. I think slavery and its legacy still impact our world too much to make a video game about it. I do not know if it is possible to pack enough nuance into a video game to explain heavy topics like colonization and slavery.
    In addition, if you make a game that is very offensive, will people play it? I personally don’t like gore so I wouldn’t play something that is particularly gruesome. Also, how much can you learn about morals from a video game? I am thinking about your other article that talks about GTA V. In that game, even though the police will come after you if hurt someone, you can easily ditch them.

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