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.”
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.
- Can video games be properly used as a medium for historical learning? Should they be?
- 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)
- 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)?
- 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?