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.”

Web 2.0 and the Human Element

“We’ll need to rethink a few things.”

That’s the closing thesis of The Machine is Us/ing Us, a YouTube video about Web 2.0 produced by Michael Wesch, an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. Among the things that will need rethinking, according to Wesch, are copyright, authorship, identify, aesthetics, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, and ourselves. Quite the list.

We can add one more thing to that list: how historic memory institutions (museums, historic sites, archives, etc.) create, maintain, or re-capture relevance in the age of smartphone apps, YouTube videos, and Wikipedia pages created by, in Alison Miner’s words, “created [for free] by someone who’s just f*****g off at their corporate office job.” Miner’s piece, titled “if everything on the internet has to be free, why isn’t my healthcare, too?“, lays out one concern: “institutions will pay for a 2 year digitization project, and fancy equipment for that, but don’t want to employ another archivist so that there is actual CONTEXT to the things they digitize.”

When I was going through training to work at historic sites, one thing my trainers stressed was that the modern visitor has so many options to replace spending money to travel and visit a historic memory institution. Why waste a weekend and possibly hundreds of dollars traveling to watch someone demonstrate how a musket is loaded and fired when there are thousands of videos posted by re-enactors on YouTube? Why go to a museum when fifteen minutes on Google might answer all your questions? Michael Peter Edson says in Dark Matter that “It’s likely that the public doesn’t think of what memory institutions often do as being sufficiently accessible, smart, joyous, attentive, generous, welcoming, imaginative, bold, educational or meaningful to merit much of their attention.”

The web can be a huge source of publicity, visitors, and revenue. But these benefits only accrue to historic memory institutions that can engage and harness that potential in productive ways. Using the web to just increase the number of people who can view content fails to grasp the thing the web, especially Web 2.0, has best enabled: the ability to feel like you are being heard. In Why Wasn’t I Consulted, Paul Ford says “The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium… Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.”

Historic memory institutions can piggyback on that tapped need by making their online presence interactive and engaging, instead of just viewing it as an extension of their brick-and-mortar offerings. An excellent example of this kind of engagement is Fort Ticonderoga’s social media presence: Fort Ticonderoga presents ways for people to exercise their knowledge by posting weekly challenges asking people to look at a partial image of an artifact from the Fort’s collection and attempt to guess what the artifact is.

An important caution to remember is that this sort of engagement cannot rely solely on capturing the brief spotlight of social media fame. The Museum of English Rural Life might make headlines for being funny on Twitter but memes cannot be a replacement for the work of historians. To quote Alison Miner: “we can’t rely on the hot flash of meme-popularity to justify our existence, because our jobs require a long period of time to be done well. and fundamentally, the archives and other collections deserve better than a momentary blitz of attention.” Historic memory institutions must endeavor to use the web in ways that spark long-term interest, not just momentary acknowledgement.

It is also important to remember that there are some things that online engagement cannot do. Barring massive improvements in virtual reality, viewing the most engaging online content cannot replicate the physical sensations that come with in-person visits to historic sites. Watching a video of a musket firing cannot fully replicate the ways that watching that same demonstration in person affects the senses. Web content is also incapable of having a conversation, which is critical to effective historic education. One historic site where I worked had floated the idea of adding QR codes to various exhibit spaces. A visitor who scanned the code with their smartphone would be able to watch a video of an interpreter in historic clothing present information about the exhibit. One reason this project was scrapped, apparently, was that members of the interpretation team pointed out that replacing on-site interpreters with videos would remove the ability of visitors to ask questions and have extended conversations. That human element cannot become devalued by the flashiness and novelty of digital content, no matter how essential an online presence is.