My essay addresses Sid Meier’s Colonization, the oft-forgotten first sequel to Civilization. Released in 1993, Colonization places its player in the role of a colonial leader in the New World, starting in 1492, with a choice between four historically dominant nations. This game is inherently troubling. Its object is to grow crops, earn money, build a colonial foothold in the New World and – most importantly – carry out genocide, wiping out the player’s choice of Indian tribes that already inhabit these Americas. They inevitably get in the way of deforestation, road-building, and seizure of land. All of these activities reflect historical colonization, and all of them contributed to the eradication of Native American livelihood.
These native peoples serve as obstacles to what progress the game Colonization requires, and they must be either manipulated or destroyed during the course of it. My essay examines the implications of this, and investigates the effects of making the average player of strategy games into a regular Hernan Cortes. Is it, for instance, troubling that when one plays this game the Tupi tribe quickly become irritants expressly to be exterminated? Does it attest to the brilliance of such a colony simulation, that these impulses become second nature to the player? Colonization’s relevance surpasses this factor. Slaves are conspicuously absent from Sid Meier’s colonial depiction, for instance, and events like colonial revolution and missionary expeditions are treated as inevitable. My essay addresses the limitations that a game like this places on its player, with its not-astoundingly-more-complex-than-a-chessboard playing field and its consistent formula in the face of an infinitely variable New World. Ultimately, it seems that Sid Meier’s creation is an ideal simulation of colonization, a game that by placing its player in the seat of a colonist leads him to think explicitly like a conqueror, with all of the greed and bloodthirstiness this entails.
Sid Meier’s Colonization was released in 1994 and designed mostly not by Sid Meier, but by Brian Reynolds and Jeff Briggs (Coleman). Its subject is Europe’s conquest of the New World. It represents and simulates what is perhaps one of the coldest and most brutal phases in world history and, as Josaphat Kubayanda states, “representation cannot be a neutral undertaking” (9).
Colonization is much like its prequel, the original Civilization. The player looks out on an overhead, two-dimensional view of his territory and controls his people, who procreate incessantly. The map is divided into spaces, each one featuring plains or forests, a river or some hills. In some spaces we will place colonies, in others we will gather armies, in others colonists will go fishing and harvest tobacco. All the while, Indians of various tribes shuffle about, and three other European nations are working nearby, roasting the natives where they live, founding missions, fighting wars with us and amongst each other. Colonization recreates itself anew each time we begin the game. It would be hard to generate two maps that look the same. The randomness and unpredictability make for a game that can be played over and over, quite differently every time.
Despite these many variables, every time we play the game we have to simulate the same events over and over. We have to sail our ships into shallow water, to the shores of the American continent. We must land and found a colony. We have to build churches, forts and newspaper buildings. Growing crops is essential for making money, as boats haul sugar or the rum that it yields to Europe, and return with more guns. The king of whatever nation we choose to hail from (choices are France, England, Spain and the Netherlands) grows gradually too demanding, so we have to boycott certain goods from Europe and, ultimately, fight a revolution and finish the game. Most importantly, we must hunt and murder vast numbers of those who are ethnically different from the colonists we command. Although not in an especially graphic way, this game is soaked with blood.
Postcolonial literary theory traces the implications of literature into the reinforcement of imperialist ideas and frames of mind. As a cultural production concomitant with imperialism, the novel for one is implicated with that practice. Edward Said writes that novels “were immensely important in the formation of imperial attitudes, references, and experiences” (xii). It is not unreasonable to imagine that a computer game like Colonization, which portrays colonial exploitation and subjugation even more intimately for us by placing the player in the role of the colonizer, can be looked at in a similar light. J. A. Mangan studies the way games at England’s public schools fed the fledgling imperial ambitions of young Britons. Certainly a game like Colonization can take on a similar role, making the present-day colonial ambitions and actions of the United States appear to be unremarkable and acceptable, by handing over simulated colonial responsibilities to its players.
In his book Culture and Imperialism, Said gives some deserving attention to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Much of what he writes about the novel can be applied to Colonization. He writes,
This takes on at least a kind of novel relevance, in the fact that at the game’s outset the entire map of the New World consists of utter blackness; nothing there has yet been explored, and nothing, to us as players, exists there. The computer may not have even invented the coastline yet, just as Conrad’s protagonist sees Africa’s coast as a shady anomaly.
Said remarks as well on elements of Conrad’s work that reflect directly onto the player of Colonization. He writes, “Conrad’s narrators are not average unreflecting witnesses of European imperialism. They do not simply accept what goes on in the name of the imperial idea: they think about it a lot, they worry about it, they are actually quite anxious about whether they can make it seem like a routine thing” (29). The player of Colonization is potentially not unlike Conrad’s protagonist, as Said describes him. Certainly a player can behave within the game as this unreflective conqueror, can play the game without really thinking about it much, but at any moment she may also begin to ponder the dreadful implications of this simulated conquest and annihilation.
The game’s structure does more than place a player in the position of Conrad’s narrator. Said writes, “Being on the inside shuts out the full experience of imperialism, edits it and subordinates it to the dominance of one Eurocentric and totalizing view” (Said 28). The player of Colonization sits not at any heart of darkness, or at the mouth of a river leading to it, but can instead view it in full, with total control over a large proportion of the activity there. When we play Colonization, we are in a position of responsibility over its title endeavor, and thus one of culpability – albeit simulated.
With this in mind, a player might try to play Colonization with a conscience. When someone takes control of these simulated New World colonies, starting in the late fifteenth century, and takes on the great responsibilities that this role entails, including genocide and manipulation of the natives, it can be tempting to resist that.
Sid Meier left slavery completely out of this interpretation of the settlement of the New World. This is objectionable, without a doubt. In the present-day world that would result from the New World as Colonization portrays it, African-Americans would hardly exist. I would not go so far as to assert this as the appeal of the game, or of games like it, but it is worth noting. D. K. Fieldhouse points out that “Metropolitan nationalists twist facts to highlight the achievements of their own country; counter myths are fostered in one-time colonies to provide an ideological basis for nationhood” (84). This conspicuous absence of slaves – the victims of American colonialism who in reality made their success so vast and who perhaps suffered their worst prolonged atrocity – could easily be said to take part in this, if only a small one.
It would cross an important line, however, to ask the player of Colonization to shuffle African slaves by point-and-click across the overhead map and put them to work in fields and silver mines. It would be hard to miss the villainy there. Conquest of the Indians, on the other hand, slips more easily under a player’s ethical radar, because war is a regular computer game element, and a player of one expects it. It is not unreasonable to want to excuse the game’s creators for wanting to keep within the bounds of acceptable computer game atrocity.
Failing to admit the institution of slavery as an element in colonization is certainly a disturbing move, and skews the accuracy of Colonization a portrayal of its subject. However, the fact that there is a place in this game for the purchase and abuse of slaves, from which the slaves themselves can be conspicuously absent, should draw our attention to the disturbing nature of the game as a whole.
Ken Fishkin indicates that a “brou-ha-ha” has gone on – or has done whatever it is a brou-ha-ha does – over this absence of slavery, but he points out that neither is there an acknowledgment of Native American slavery. Instead, Indians convert in the game to Christianity, and join a colony by supposed choice.
To leave slavery out of Colonization is troubling, but this game does admit the extermination of native peoples, and that is the game’s primary concern. The true stars of Colonization are not the European pioneers and soldiers, their little cookie-cutter figures shuffling across the glorified chess board. Nor is it the king, who breezes in once in a while to raise the tax rate. This game primarily concerns the Indians, a player’s prime obstacle to prosperity in the New World.
Various Native American tribes dot the computer-screen landscape. The Tupi and the Sioux are some of the less advanced peoples. The Iroquois and Arawak are of greater significance, and yield more money when we burn down their villages. The Aztec and Inca nations are supreme – they represent the pinnacle of New World fauna, the land’s most rewarding enemies. The greatest challenge for a player of Colonization is to deal with the Indians, and this always involves some extent of murdering them, or watching them be wiped out by another nation.
We can try to be nice to Colonization’s Indians. We ply them with gifts; we share our food with them when they ask for it; we pay them for their land, rather than take it from them forcibly. The cordial approach cannot last, however. At some point, we have built one road too many, we have treasure-hunted on a burial ground. The Indians start attacking. They kill a blacksmith. They burn down the church we spent twenty years putting up. What choice have we but to retaliate, to burn every village to the ground, to exterminate all the brutes? Their blood soaks the fields where we grow tobacco, and with their gold we purchase artillery. As Albert Memmi points out, “humanitarian romanticism is looked upon in the colonies as a serious illness, the worst of all dangers” (21). This is also the case in our simulated colonies. The necessities of imperialism edge out our better intentions.
Sid Meier’s game demands that we abandon this “humanitarian romanticism.” Jean-Paul Sartre states that the colonizer “must assume the opaque rigidity of stone. In short, he must dehumanize himself” (xxviii). Sartre is, of course, referring to the real-life colonizer, not someone playing out a simulation of colonization on a computer. It might be hard to accept that some office temp who wants to kill time during his lunch hour by absently playing a game like Colonization is turning himself to stone, exactly. Since a computer game only takes up a small, diversionary fraction of someone’s daily life, it is hard to accept that it can change an entire person to a cold dominator of subjugated peoples. Still, if someone devotes only one fragment of his attention to Colonization, that fragment of himself has taken on a ruthless purpose, and is subject to whatever his role might do to him.
Sid Meier’s game treats a thing like the eradication of Indians as inevitable. Unless one goes to great lengths, there is no way to play the game without murdering a lot of natives. Even if a player refrained as best he could, the computer who controls the other Europeans would take its opportunity to commit this genocide. Memmi writes, “while refusing the sinister, the benevolent colonizer can never attain the good, for his only choice is not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness” (43). The Indians get slaughtered every time we play this game, whether our people participate or not.
If Gandhi and Machiavelli were given total sway over the real-life seventeenth-century New World, each would offer a dramatically different outcome. So we would hope. If each of them played Colonization the computer game, their separate outcomes would hardly differ at all. The game offers a slim range of choices, and can vary only a little each time one plays. There is no room here for Socialist, agrarian experiments or nonviolent cooperation with the Indians. Rather, we must constantly make more money, and the Indians must die. Paul Bove, in remarking on “modernity’s dominant narratives,” points out the “impossibility” within them of “imagining a world without empire” (3). Colonization slumps into this tendency with ease. Certain events in the game, like the revolution that always ends it, are inevitable. This is true in any computer game, of course, especially in an old one.
It is ultimately rather poignant, though, that Colonization offers no complex possibilities, no alternatives to exploitation. The game begins with an assumption, that on the cusp of the 16th century some Europeans might look west and see a lot of people worth crushing underfoot, and resources worth stealing from them. The game puts us in the place of these warmongers, and we must act as they did.
If weplay this game obsessively enough, we begin to think like colonists. Life would be easier for us – within the game – if there were no Indians. We get vengeful and bloodthirsty, and greedy. This is not to suggest that a warmongering player makes for a bloodthirsty person in everyday life. As Kurt Squire points out, “Despite (and perhaps because of) the hundreds of hours I've spent playing war games, I'm pretty much a pacifist. I love Return to Castle Wolfenstein, yet I'd never own a gun” (“Framing”). The player’s vile tendencies are confined to the game, though there are some wider-scale implications.
I would not claim that if enough United States citizens were to play Colonization long and absorbedly enough then our country would turn into one where everyone thinks like a colonist, and our nation would become very suddenly an imperialist one. There is no need to suggest that; a colonizing nation is exactly what we already are. As Said states it:
Certainly Colonization the game can be implicated in colonization the practice, as it is currently acted out. Just as Said efforts to clarify the implications of the novel in British imperialism, this computer game can easily be seen to reinforce American imperialism, if only on a smaller scale than a canonized, widely read novel like Heart of Darkness. As Said puts it, “cultural forms like the novel or the opera do not cause people to go out and imperialize” (81). They can serve a purpose, alternatively, by making us aware of imperialism in an immediate sense, as long as we are willing to make the proper connections.
The ending to Colonization can be taken in several ways. When the American Revolution succeeds and we are rewarded with a graphic that features hats thrown in the air, and victory fireworks in a night sky, the celebration takes on an ominous tone when one considers what might follow it. The player has learned to colonize, to dominate and to do so independently. R. W. Van Alstyne makes it clear that the real United States has had imperial ambitions since its very inception; he writes, “Even as early as March 1783 the United States was, to [George] Washington, a ‘rising empire’” (1). That is exactly the independent state we have won in the end – one with its guns aimed outward in all directions, ready to begin new conquests.
We should not fault Sid Meier for treating ruin and genocide as inevitabilities. Tunnel vision is necessary in a computer game. It is a simulation, and this one enacts it brilliantly. The game demands that a player take on the impulses of real-life colonization. It can make a gentle, nonviolent player of computer games into an Indian-killer, just as the roles of overseeing the New World purportedly did to their holders several hundred years ago. As Memmi states it, “The economic meaning of a colonial venture, even if it is realized after arrival, thrusts itself upon us no less strongly, and quickly” (4). Sid Meier enacts this by programming a computer’s behaviors and its minute reactions to a player’s actions. There is an accomplishment in that.
A proper sequel to Colonization might devote itself to the American seizure of Mexican territories, or the invasion of Iraq. There are, of course, games that take place at these moments, and this view of Colonization has potential to offer insights into them. Van Alstyne argues that Northern victory in the Civil War solidified American imperialism, as it established a precedent for forcible appropriation of people and territory. It is appropriate, then, that Sid Meier followed Colonization with Gettysburg!, a game simulating the Civil War (Coleman). The New World that the player owns at game’s end is a ravaged one, and the methods used in order to effect this can spell only a similar ruin for the rest of the planet, for the parts that Sid Meier’s map leaves poignantly out.