Colonization: Fun n’ Games

by Guest Contributor Plasma Rit, originally published at Girl in the Machine

Sid Meier’s Civilization series comprises of turn-based strategy games with a focus on growing a budding nation. Begun in 1991, the games take place in a variety of eras–you can build an empire as far back as 4000 BCE and nurture it long enough to witness World War II. The series has proven to be very popular over the years, gaining a loyal fanbase and even winning a few awards along the way. In 1994, Sid Meier released a game called Colonization: Create a New Nation. Players choose from four European nations–England, France, Spain, and the Netherlands–and set sail for the Americas (or “The New World,” as the game calls it). The object of the game is to foster a colony and eventually gain independence from its mother country. Sid Meier is preparing to rerelease this game in the form of a Civilization IV standalone expansion sometime in 2008.

I was a bit taken aback at the sight of a game about colonization, although I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. The idea of a game about conquering other civilizations and stealing their land is pretty tasteless to me, but unfortunately many Americans don’t view colonization that way. I found that most people tend to see it through an Elementary School History Lens–you know, when you were taught how the plucky, pure future Americans who could do no wrong went on a journey for freedom and were buddy-buddies with the Native Americans?

The original Colonization game handles Native Americans in a very interesting way. Players can choose to either befriend the natives (who in turn teach them skills and help defend the colony) or wipe them out entirely. Unlike other Civilization games, Colonization focuses on trade and community interaction rather than more militant aspects. If the player defeats a native community, they gain treasure and land; however, it also severely affects their final score. Players can also send peacemakers such as Ben Franklin or Pocahontas to native communities to further improve relations or gain recruits. Unfortunately, this recruiting typically involves converting said recruits to Christianity.

Each European country has different skills when it comes to interacting with the natives. For instance, France generates tension with native communities at a lower rate, while the Spanish have a 50% military bonus against them. The Spanish military bonus in particular is rooted in history: Spain’s military was sent to colonize the Americas after the Reconquista, which left an eager military rearing for action. This ultimately lead to the destruction of many legendary Native American tribes.

Sid Meier helps to raise the issues with colonization by punishing the act of attacking native communities; however, there is an issue with being able to avoid doing this. By providing the option of being completely peaceful with the Native Americans, Colonization risks perpetuating the Elementary School History Syndrome associated with the colonising America–that we were all just good buddies with the natives. It conveniently sidesteps the cruelty and abuse Native Americans received at the hands of the colonists. The remake can and should address this issue, along with some sort of penalization to demonstrate the impact colonization had on Native Americans.

The Civilization series has been repeatedly criticized for its elitist nature. Historian and anthropologist Matthew Kappell published an essay entitled “Civilization and its Discontents: American Monomythic Structure as Historical Simulacrum” that spearheads this issue. In the essay, Kappel explains how the series uses American myths concerning colonization and domination of the Americas (such as the conquering of the frontier) as a foundation for its premise. Other critics have pointed out how Colonization in particular skirts the issues of slavery, particularly the Spanish hacienda system which forced many native tribes into slavery. Removing these aspects of the colonists further paints them with a monochrome coat of goodness and innocence.

It is reprehensible that colonists are so often portrayed as brave heroes earning what land is rightfully theirs–games such as Colonization only perpetuate this myth so common among Americans and Europeans. How about a game about colonization from the natives’ perspective? Battle against an army of white folk claiming the land you’ve lived on for centuries to be theirs–now that’s a game I’d play.

For another opinion on this game, check out The Cutscene–but avoid the comments if you want to stay in a good mood.