It seems that I’ve been doing a lot of reading on postcolonialism lately, so not surprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about how issues of colonialism are portrayed in videogames. Of course, the first title to come to mind in any discussion of videogames and colonialism is Sid Meier’s controversial game Colonization, which places the player in charge of a European colony in the New World. Trevor Owens has already done an excellent analysis of that game, in which he argues not that the game is offensive, but that the game is not offensive enough to accurately represent the nature of colonialism.
What really made me start thinking about this topic was the portrayal of colonialism in the genre of so-called “4X” strategy games. These games, in which the objective is to “explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate,” are essentially games of empire. The player is tasked with mobilizing their natural and human resources in order to subjugate their opponents and expand their empire across the map. These games are known for their complexity, attention to detail, and for the number of different play styles that they afford beyond simple victory by conquest.
Given their level of complexity, I was kind of surprised to realize how simplistic their portrayal of colonialism is. Although some early predecessors of the genre, such as World Empire, have some basic mechanics for occupied nations to rebel against their conquerors, most games in the genre seem to ignore the issue of colonialism all together. Even Civilization, with its detailed mechanics for happiness and civil unrest takes a decidedly non-critical approach to the topic. The moment your troops go marching into an enemy city, its identity is erased. The occupied people don’t even need to be occupied. Your troops could simply walk out the way they came in and it wouldn’t make any difference to your new subjects. It’s as if they were part of your empire all along.
Of course, not every 4X game takes this approach. Some force the player think about issues of colonialism and make difficult decisions concerning military occupations. One good example is Master of Orion II. The Master of Orion series follows the standard Civilization formula, simply changing the setting from historical to science fiction, making the player the emperor of a vast space empire. Just like in Civilization, the games revolves around driving back your opponents’ armies and taking their colonies as your own. In the original Master of Orion, battles between colonies and invaders take on a somewhat apocalyptic flavor, as every man, woman and child on the planet takes part in the combat and every engagement is a fight to the death.
In Master of Orion II, this invasion mechanic is refined in a number of ways. Firstly, there becomes a distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Instead of combats being between entire populations, they are carried out by soldiers, occasionally with some support from colonial militias. When the invasion is complete, you don’t simply have a new city in your empire as in Civilization, you have a planet full of uncooperative people who only grudgingly will work to support your cause are likely to attempt to revolt and kill your occupying soldiers.
Like in the original game, you do have the option of wiping out your enemy completely, but the mechanic is implemented in a very different way. Instead of being an unavoidable part of the invasion or even taking place during the actual combat, genocide is an option that is given to you only after you’ve conquered a colony. The player must make the choice to have his soldiers start killing civilians. Doing so is both a slow process and one that incurs a number of penalties (and, of course, an option that is not available to the noble, democratic human faction).
The other, and generally more sensible option in terms of mechanics, is to try and help conquered peoples to assimilate into your empire. Doing so puts your troops at risk throughout the occupation, but doesn’t enrage the interstellar community. The rate at which populations are converted depends on what form of government you have and can be aided by building special facilities to help ease their transition. Once assimilated, the conquered citizens lose their manacles and yellow jumpsuits, begin producing normally, and can be moved about your empire just like any other citizen. Unlike in other games, however, these conquered peoples keep their identities even after being assimilated – Psilons can still research faster than other races, Klackons still produce more. Winning the game doesn’t require you to turn the galaxy into a bland, homogeneous order. A prudent emperor can turn his empire into a melting pot of giant ants, shape-shifters, telepaths and cyborgs (remember, it is a sci-fi game), each with their own unique skills and abilities.
Although Master of Orion does much more to deal with issues of colonialism than most games, there is still plenty that gets left out. There are no Mahatma Gandhis, no apartheid, no calls for independence, no apologies. The legacy of colonialism that lingers for centuries in the real world fades in a few turns. Could postcolonial discourse be incorporated into a strategy game effectively, and if so, what would it look like?