“Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization™” (2K Games). In “Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization,” players lead one of four European nations on a quest to conquer and rule the New World. Players will be challenged to guide their people from the oppressive motherland, discover the New World, and negotiate, trade and fight with both the natives and other nations as they acquire power and fight for freedom and independence. As a complete reimagining of the 1994 classic, “Colonization” is a total conversion of “Civilization IV®” that combines the latter’s addictive “just one more turn” gameplay with all-new graphics and features that add more depth to the franchise. (“Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization” does not require the original “Civilization IV” product in order to be played.)
Now yes, a simple google search tells me that the game was actually announced two weeks ago and I missed that, so forgive me my tardiness...
But goddamit, am I the only one who think it's morally disturbing to make a game that celebrates COLONIZATION? It's ironic, actually, because just a few months ago a friend sent me a link to some information about the original "Colonization" game from 1994 (pictured left) that this one updates. At first, I thought it had to be a joke, but sure enough, it was real. However, I dismissed it as a relic from a time when neither developers nor players took videogames seriously as media with moral implications.
But the idea that 2K and Firaxis and Sid Meier himself would make and release a game in the year 2008 that is not only about colonization, but celebrates it by having the player control the people doing the colonizing is truly mind boggling.
(A huge caveat up front: Of course, the game hasn't come out yet. So this post is based entirely on that marketing blurb and the description on the website. If the game turns out to be something entirely different than it appears to be, that's fantastic and I'll withdraw everything in here.)
Remember all the debate when Newsweek's N'Gai Croal said of the "Resident Evil 5" trailer with the African zombies that "Even if you are familiar with the franchise, if you are familiar with those images and their historical weight, you look at it and say, 'Man, that’s kind of messed up.'" Well, I agreed with N'Gai on that issue, but in my opinion, a game about colonization is about 100 times more messed up.
And yes, while the description says that you "fight with... the natives," it also claims there is "improved diplomacy." It's entirely possible, even likely, that you can finish the game without killing any Native Americans. And I'm sure there are no options to give the Native Americans smallpox or send them on a death march. But that's irrelevant. A game about colonization that's entirely about controlling the settlers can either force the player to do horrific things or let him avoid doing it and whitewash some of the worst events of human history. Either option is offensive.
Forgive me if this sounds like an obnoxious history lesson, but the lack of outrage over the game does make me feel like I have to explain myself... Throughout history, colonization regularly involved stealing, killing, abuse, deceit, and the exploitation or decimation of native people. Anybody with a shred of a moral concience who studies the history will be appalled. Whether it was British rule of India or slavery in Africa or Aboriginal children kidnapped and taken to Christian schools in Australia or the dislocation of Native Americans in the U.S., there were no positive colonization experiences.
Even more disturbing, though, is that colonization was and is a racist process. The colonizing people ALWAYS thought they were superior by dint of their ethnicity or nationality (often connected to their religious beliefs) and that this somehow justified taking land from native people, exploiting their resources, or simply "educating" them. In modern history, of course, this was always European racism playing itself out as they colonized other parts of the world. But this isn't a "white=bad" argument. It's a "colonization=racism=bad" argument.
So now, in the year 2008, we have a videogame being released by a major public company (2K is part of Take-Two Interactive) in which "players lead one of four European nations on a quest to conquer and rule the New World." The obvious comparison that spring to my mind would be if somebody released a game called "Civilization IV: Confederacy," in which players have to "lead a proud people to defend their values and traditions against their oppressive neighbors to the North." Sure the game might not require you to own and abuse your slaves. But defending the Confederacy is inherently about defending the racist practice of slavery. And "conquer[ing] and rul[ing] the New World" is inherently about engaging in the racist practice of exploiting and abusing native people. (And I'm not even getting into the offensiveness of using uncritically using the phrase "New World" in the marketing material.)
I'm sure you can make a non-offensive videogame about colonization. But it would have to in some way show things from the perspective of the people being colonized and it would have to deal with all the horrible practices that colonization has involved in the world's history. "Civilization IV: Colonization," does not appear to be that game.
And yes, before anyone brings it up, I believe in the First Amendment. Of course 2K has the right to release it. Nobody should stop them from doing so. But I think personally think they shouldn't release it, if it's at all what it appears to be based on the early marketing. And I'm hoping a lot of people agree with me and will say so publicly.
As Leigh Alexander aptly put it in Kotaku on Monday, "It must also be our responsibility to uphold a willingness to examine games, to discuss them civilly, to be willing to see what we're saying about ourselves through play." If there was a major movie coming out that uncritically told the story of Europeans colonizing America, there would be a major furor, and rightfully so. Why should it be any different with a videogame?
(map of European colonization from the 18th century taken from here.)