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Playing With, Not Against, Empires: Video Games and (Post)Colonialism

Video games can be understood as a medium characterized by remediation and convergence: they often take elements from other media, adapt them to their medial specifics, and add their own unique aspects, thus creating new, playable versions of cultural material. Such adaptations apply to certain plot elements, character archetypes, or specific genres, but they also hold true for long-standing myths and narratives. The Western, for instance, becomes a genre not only through formal characteristics like the existence of cowboys, saloons, or horses but also by peddling core myths of the American national imagination, such as the myth of the frontier or the idea of the rugged individualist—elements that, accordingly, can be found in Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902) or John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) just as much as in Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption series (2010, 2018).

These narratives transport particular ideologies—or, rather, they can be understood as concealing an ideology, naturalizing it as the ‘norm,’ a pattern that extends to constructions of empire, to imperial and colonial narratives, as well. In video games studies, such postcolonial issues have only very recently assumed more prominence.[1] While the diversity and heterogeneity of video games allow for a number of ways to critically interrogate US imperialism and its legacies of colonialism and racism, I contend that few mainstream games have used this potential and that the vast majority instead reinforces imperial logics.[2] In this sense, video games work similarly to other products of mainstream US popular culture, many of which also centrally involve US settings, figures, or narratives—yet relatively rarely confront the country’s imperial legacies.

Video games relate to constructions of empire narratively—as it is broadly understood—in a number of ways, and this is often how they most obviously engage with the topic: series like Age of Empires (1997-) or games like Empire: Total War (2009, part of the Total War series) signal this interest already in their titles, and the way in which such strategy games, and others like the Civilization series (1991-), represent the history of colonization and imperialism is highly significant for judging whether they assume a critical, postcolonial stance on their subject. This narrative dimension can extend to the stories that these games tell, to the characters they feature (including notable omissions among which events and figures are being represented), to who has or does not have agency in these stories, to how settings are evoked and spaces are constructed as part of environmental storytelling, and to how all of these elements are audiovisually represented.

In addition to (re)narrating empires, the ludic elements of these games can equally be read in postcolonial terms: do specific gameplay aspects promote or subvert, for example, imperial and colonial ideologies of white supremacy or patriarchal capitalism? Often, it is specifically the combination of gameplay mechanics and narrative world-building that renders video games significant for such questions. For instance, the act of taking over—or colonizing—space is both a central gameplay element and a key narrative motivation in many video games.[3] In such portrayals, the narrative of settler colonialism and the myth of ‘manifest destiny’ often suffuse both gameplay and narrative, a legacy that ranges from literal representations in classic games like The Oregon Trail (1985) to more metaphorical science-fiction settings such as in the exploration game No Man’s Sky (2016).[4] Space in video games thus functions as something through which an empire can be played (or ludified), offering various ways to colonize and ‘claim’ space.

 

 

[Fig. 1. Colonizing space: Settling a new city while playing as Teddy Roosevelt and fighting against “barbarians” in Sid Meier’s Civilization VI. Screenshot taken by the author. Copyright Take-Two Interactive.]

The combination of narrative and ludic elements in video games often creates contradictory, ambivalent politics, with a notable tendency toward an uncritical examination of the United States’ colonial legacy. For instance, Mir and Owens summarize the (narrative) representation and (ludic) gameplay function of indigenous people in Civilization IV: Colonization (2008) by pointing out that “Native peoples are simply a resource to be managed in the spreadsheet of cultural domination. At the level of code they are the ‘Other,’ limited in actions and cultural traits that specifically benefit their colonizers.”[5] Focusing on the visual elements of Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs (2006), Dillon notes that “[t]he implications of applying clearly Western, and more specifically colonialist, design aesthetics to a game with Indigenous characters without regard to incorporating Indigenous aesthetic is one of misrepresentation and simplification of a culture to game mechanics used universally throughout the Age of Empires series.”[6]

In turn, while discussing the question of history and education in Civilization V, Ford points out how “the game’s homogenization of narratives of societal progression reinforces a Western-centric notion of history. This co-opts non-colonial societies into imperialism, while in the process silencing their histories.”[7] This is evident in the latest iteration of the series, Civilization VI (pictured above), as well: players conquer space as the Americans, personified by Teddy Roosevelt, in basically the same manner as they would playing as the Cree, personified by Poundmaker, counterfactually representing Native American tribes as colonizers of space. Such a misrepresentation is as noteworthy as that which is not represented at all (such as the Native American genocide), adding to a warped perception of the history of US colonialism. Strikingly, it is especially the ludic mechanics of these games that work according to an imperial logic, typically building on the constant accumulation of wealth and the conquering of space while reducing questions of difference and indigeneity to economic calculations.

Such politics are at work not only in video games that put these interests front and center, like many of the aforementioned strategy games. Other games are generally implicated in the history of colonialism and imperialism through their unquestioned embrace of whiteness. Harrer, for instance, reads the third-person shooter Resident Evil 5 (2009) as part of the “Western-centric narratives of the great white explorer” since it fosters “the assumption that the progression of the white saviour Chris Redfield demands the killing of ‘native’ others,” which is “presented as necessary for the survival of white playable characters.”[8] However, some mainstream games also exhibit a more ambivalent take on these colonial histories. The action-adventure franchise of Assassin’s Creed (2007-) includes one title, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (2012), that prominently features a woman of color as its protagonist and that interrogates its setting in colonial America more critically, with “game mechanics that directly engage this heroine’s complex identifications and her fraught black subjectivity in public spaces.”[9]

A brief look at the first-person shooter BioShock Infinite (2013) can exemplify this ambivalent dynamic. The game is set in 1912 in the fictional floating city of Columbia, which seceded from the mainland United States ten years earlier. Players control the former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt as they fight their way through the city. It is especially the game’s surrounding world, not the main storyline, that becomes significant in questioning imperial legacies: through environmental storytelling, BioShock Infinite depicts a society characterized by stark class and racial divisions, with the upper stratum of Columbia exhibiting unbridled nationalism, nativism, and jingoism. While initially portrayed as a pristine, utopian idea of a model city, the player’s later explorations reveal Columbia to be starkly segregated, a characteristic that the game conveys forcefully through the very different manner in which the city’s districts for the upper and the lower classes are portrayed audiovisually. The bright colors and beautiful buildings of the ‘upper’ parts of Columbia are contrasted with dark, brown colors and depictions of run-down houses, dirty factories, and homeless people in the city’s poorest district, Shantytown, which is primarily populated by nonwhite citizens. In this sense, the game stresses how Columbia’s elite marks those it does not consider belonging to their society as spatial Others, relegating them to a part of the city that does not properly belong to the rest of its empire and thus, in a way, denying a right to space to those deemed Other.

 

[Fig. 2. Environmental storytelling: Racist propaganda lines the streets and buildings of BioShock Infinite’s Columbia. Screenshot taken by the author. Copyright Take-Two Interactive.]

 

In addition, the game includes a few direct references to US history, most notably in a level depicting the so-called “Hall of Heroes,” which comments critically on the role of the United States in international conflicts like the Boxer Rebellion and on domestic acts of violence such as the Wounded Knee Massacre—by hyperbolically portraying both events as sources of patriotic pride for the city’s nationalistic and xenophobic rulers. As a science-fiction and alternate-history game, BioShock Infinite thus only rarely engages the factual history of US imperialism but is actually all the more critical of it, satirizing both historical and contemporary manifestations of US imperial tendencies and their concomitant colonialism, racism, and sexism.[10]

Yet the game is far from an example of a postcolonial ‘writing back.’ It is presented, after all, from the perspective of the white male colonizing subject; it curtails the agency of its major nonwhite character (and later kills her off); and it portrays violence against oppression as equally condemnable as violence against the oppressed. In addition to these narrative complications, this kind of disconnect exists on the level of the gameplay too: While one of the protagonists complains about the excessive violence used by Columbia’s rulers (and by the revolutionaries who later overthrow them), the entire game builds on a heroic narrative of Booker beating, shooting, and killing all of the ‘hordes’ of enemies that come his way—a use of violence that does not seem to spark a similar outrage. Such moments constitute examples of ludonarrative dissonance, of frictions between the narrative and the gameplay of the game.

In this sense, these games all seem to play with, not against, empires: they use their narrative elements to represent aspects of imperialism and colonialism, sometimes critically, but often by upholding reactionary myths. The ambivalence in games like BioShock Infinite is typical of pop-cultural artifacts, but it also amounts to a kind of political lip service, criticizing and mocking legacies of imperialism in the game’s narrative while replicating them in the gameplay. As complex cultural artifacts, video games can only manage to subvert or even deconstruct such colonial logics if they acknowledge them in both narrative and ludic terms. Space, in turn, also works both narratively and ludically, and the way in which video games allow players to create, manipulate, destroy, conquer, defend, etc. space can conform to reactionary imaginations of US imperial ambitions or be positioned in a way that has the potential to critically engage with this legacy (and its contemporary manifestations). This, in fact, presents the medium with unique opportunities, since some of the central assumptions (and pleasures) of playing are inextricably connected with imperial legacies as well, such as the focus on competition, mastery, and accumulation—assumptions that are too rarely questioned or challenged.

 

[1] Recent scholarship includes: Mukherjee, Souvik. Videogames and Postcolonialism: Empire Plays Back. Springer, 2017; Penix-Tadsen, Phillip. Video Games and the Global South. ETC Press, 2019; Mayar, Mahshid. “A Game (Simulation) Is a Game (Interactive Technology) Is a Game (Lifestyle) Is a Game (Live Archive).” Introduction. fiar: forum for inter-american research, vol. 11, no. 2, Sep. 2018, p. 5-14. interamerica.de/volume-11-2/mayar/.

[2] Generally, it is of course difficult to make such claims for an entire medium, and part of the appeal of video games lies in their diversity and elusiveness. There are, after all, also video games that manage to effectively subvert imperial structures, especially when taking ‘art’ or indie games into consideration (cf., e.g., Mayar, Mahshid. “Video Games and American Studies: Weirding the Empire in West of Loathing and Other Digital Games.” U.S. Studies Online. www.baas.ac.uk/usso/vg-amstud-west-of-loathing/). Constricting one’s view to mainstream video games, however, the many possible adaptations and remediations do not yet seem to have led to a consciously postcolonial video game—a development that is arguably overdue not only for ‘political’ reasons but also because it would provide an opportunity for experimenting with and questioning core assumptions of how video games work.

[3] Cf. also Mukherjee 29-37; Magnet, Shoshana. “Playing at Colonization: Interpreting Imaginary Landscapes in the Video Game Tropico.” Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 2, Apr. 2006, pp. 142-62. Sage, doi:10.1177/0196859905285320.

[4] Mukherjee 10-12.

[5] Mir, Rebecca, and Trevor Owens. “Modeling Indigenous Peoples: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization.” Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, edited by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell and Andrew B. R. Elliott, Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 91-106. 103.

[6] Dillon, Beth A. “Signifying the West: Colonialist Design in Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs.” Eludamos, vol. 2, no. 1, 1, Feb. 2008, pp. 129-44. www.eludamos.org/index.php/eludamos/article/view/vol2no1-10/61. 141.

[7] Ford, Dom. “‘EXplore, EXpand, EXploit, EXterminate’:  Affective Writing of Postcolonial History and Education in Civilization V.” Game Studies, vol. 16, no. 2, Dec. 2016. gamestudies.org/1602/articles/ford.

[8] Harrer, Sabine. “Casual Empire: Video Games as Neocolonial Praxis.” Open Library of Humanities, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 2018. doi:10.16995/olh.210.

[9] Murray, Soraya. On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space. Bloomsbury, 2017. 48.

[10] Schubert, Stefan. “Columbian Nightmare: Narrative, History, and Nationalism in BioShock Infinite.” fiar: forum for inter-american research, vol. 11, no. 2, Sep. 2018, p. 44-60. interamerica.de/volume-11-2/schubert/.

About the Author

Stefan Schubert is an assistant professor at the Institute for American Studies at Leipzig University, Germany. His main research interests include US popular culture and literature, narrativity, game studies, and gender studies. He has published a number of articles on the intersection of these topics as well as a monograph titled Narrative Instability: Destabilizing Identities, Realities, and Textualities in Contemporary American Popular Culture (2019). His current research project focuses on the emergence of 'privilege' in late nineteenth-century US literature and culture. He is a member of the DFG research network "Narrative Liminality and/in the Formation of American Modernities" and an associate member of the collaborative research center on "Invectivity: Constellations and Dynamics of Disparagement" in the subproject on "Pop-Cultural Poetics and Politics of the Invective."