Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Civilization and the New World

Simon Rogers, the impresario behind Pelgrane Press, has challenged me to write a colonization game. The basic framework of the challenge is this:

  • It's a role-playing game, not a god game. You play a character.
  • The fate of the colony is intertwined with your actions as a character in that colony.

So I've been doing my homework. I'm not done yet, but it's been instructive. I've taken another look at Jared Diamond's Collapse, and read popular accounts of recent scholarship in pre-Columbian history, as well as some of the ethnohistory upon which those accounts draw. I'm also reading a textbook on cultural ecology. But I've also been looking at criticism of the computer game Civilization, and I’ve begun to think of my colonization game as the anti-Civilization, a post-colonial game. I want to talk a little bit about what that means, because it directly informs the game I want to write.

McKenzie Wark's Gam3r 7h3ory (later published as Gamer Theory) includes a chapter on Civilization III. Wark sees the game as exemplifying an artistry that marks a movement from the novelistic and topical (e.g., James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans) through the cinematic and topographical (e.g., John Ford's Stagecoach) to the strategic and topological. I read Wark as saying that the topical organizes itself by categories of idea and experience (i.e., the historical: these things took place) whereas the topographical emphasizes spatial configurations: this butte, that arroyo, these things took place here (i.e., the geographical). The novel is topical; the movie, topographical—more or less.

But the strategy game, according to Wark, is topological, more or less. Recall that topology is that branch of mathematics in which a coffee cup is equivalent to a doughnut because they are both toroidal (i.e., have a hole in them). Wark goes on:

Any and every space is a network of lines, pulsing with digital data, on which players act and react. In work and play, it is not the novel, not cinema, not television that offers the line within which to grasp the form of everyday life, it is the game.

So the point he's trying to make, or so I gather, is that as a genre the strategy game obviates the specificity of history and geography, extracting from them a general system of causal relations that is available for manipulation and experimentation, like a puzzle or a machine. Idea gives way to place gives way in turn to network. In Civilization, “the frontier” is simply the boundary of the system, which a la Nicholas Luhmann, seeks to extend itself to the edge of the visible environment.

Gamespace turns descriptions into a database, and storyline into navigation—an interface to line upon line of data. Sid Meier, known as a voracious reader, turns history and anthropology books into strategy game. Civilization III even comes with its own ‘Cyclopedia’, a one-eyed reference work for to a parallel world. But this is more than the remediation of old forms into new. Rather, the algorithm consumes the topographic and turns it into the topological. In the database, all description is numerical, equivalent in form. Everything within it can be related to or transformed into everything else. A new kind of symmetry operates. The navigation of the database replaces a narration via description.

The teleology of Civilization is thus one of constant expansion, incorporation, development, and progress; a panoptical cybernetics concerned with information and control. But besides being a metaphor for and instance of what Wark calls “gamespace,” the game also incorporates the ideology of American exceptionalism, an “allegorithm” of manifest destiny. As Christopher Douglas observes in the journal Postmodern Culture:

Civilization III and its predecessors posit the land as both inhabited and not inhabited by populations that seem to be on the land yet somehow, paradoxically, don't occupy it . . . Here one meets the first paradox of the American national symbolic staged by the game. American mythology has it that the Americas were essentially empty of inhabitants prior to colonization by European powers. What the Civilization series stages is the contradiction between this comforting “national fantasy” of the virgin land and the reality of the complex aboriginal societies all over the Americas.

Douglas reads the algorithms of Civilization and finds it “infused with an American ideology that is comforting insofar as it justifies genocidal practices and the stealing of land by positing an empty virgin continent that is paradoxically populated by what the game manual calls ‘minor tribes’ that can't improve the land and tame the wilderness.”

The irony is that this new genre—so postmodern, so sophisticated—exactly replicates the hoariest Victorian notions of civilizing the savages and taking up the white man’s burden. It’s not even funny, especially in the context of recent findings about pre-Columbian and early post-contact history in the Americas.

These new histories underscore the agency of native peoples in shaping the landscape in the centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans and in responding to their incursion from over the seas, as well as expanding our understanding of the diversity and complexity of the social, political, and cultural responses to the upheavals brought about by disease and dispossession. They also remind us that, at least in the earliest post-contact period, many colonies failed, by virtue of the indolence or ignorance of the colonists, the hostility of natives or other colonial powers, the indifference of backers, and similar causes.

So the game I want to write stands the ethos of Civilization on its head. Rather than seeing the New World as a virgin territory, untouched by human hands, and destined to exalted by the civilizing imperative, I want to imagine it as a site of contact between two Old Worlds, one European (and African) and the other American, a crucible without aim or end. I want it to contest rather than reinforce the myths of the American frontier, allowing us to re-imagine the New World in which we live. That would be a powerful and satisfying game.


Matthew D. Gandy said...

I recommend reading Josh Roby's critique of Avatar: Some very interesting notions regarding mistaken assumptions of aboriginal needs and power disparities.

Seth A. Roby said...

You should probably check out Sid Meier's "Colonization," which has a whole lot more economics and fight-for-freedom and a whole lot less conquering.

Bill White said...

Hey semioticity -- Thanks for the link! I like Josh's read on _Avatar_ and think he's largely correct. It isn't the movie it thinks it is.

Seth -- I used to play a lot of _Colonization_ once upon a time, and as I recall it largely tapped into the same ethos. You had these Indian villages that would give you food if you were starving and to which you could send your colonists and have them learn a useful skill. If you sent them missionaries, you might win converts who would come to your colonies and start working. Eventually, though, the native villages get upset at the development occurring around them and start raiding your colonies. They'd steal horses and guns, and get even harder to deal with. The lesson, from a managerial standpoint, was eliminate them as soon as possible. It was just more efficient.

Anonymous said...

A lot of my design work concerns itself with colonialism (all of it), so I'm familiar with the phenomenon you speak of. To me, the hard part is fitting the actual historical situation of many agents with different agendas into the format of a roleplaying game.

Because, if you put all of the PCs into one team and one colony, you've relegated all those other viewpoints to NPCs, presumably run by the GM. It becomes the GM's job to portray them as people deserving of respect rather than play them as strawmen and black hat badguys. Make the players the colonized and you get the same problem in reverse.

The GMless/GMful (drink, Ryan!) format, with every player a different viewpoint, still fails, if partially, because the six players at the table only gives you six viewpoints, and that quickly and easily collapses into two or three sides. Adding additional viewpoints, played as NPCs by the players, again relegates these voices to inferior positions relative to the "main characters" of the story.

And there's the rub, really: assuming you're aiming for a story worth telling and experiencing, a focus becomes necessary. Focusing on one or even some of the stories involved (ie, "the main characters") means not focusing on the rest — and when those viewpoints you're not focusing on impinge on the viewpoints you are focusing on, their participation in the story is, by definition, less developed. It's nigh-impossible to turn somebody into the Other.

Perhaps there is some value in designing to encourage empathy or exploring perspectives not your own, even if it is to gain tactical advantage or something similarly banal or hegemonic. What forces, what pushes and pulls, can you install in the game to make the perspectives of people not in your group worth exploring?

Seth A. Roby said...

@Bill you may be right; I remember all the good parts but don't remember the natives becoming *inevitably* problematic. The challenge, then, is to find out if you can find a scenario where the massive technological advantage of one side doesn't lead inextricably to armed conflict. Maybe without the imperialism angle that would work, but then you have to wonder why the colony is there at all. Refuges?

Bill White said...

Seth -- I remember at one point going into a game very deliberately trying to leave the Indian villages alone, and having a tough time holding on to that intention. So much easier just to wipe them out! I remember doing it successfully once; I built roads all around the villages so that I could move my wagons around Indian raiders blocking the path, I sucked up the inevitable raids without reprisals, and I got to the end of the game. I had it set on "Easy," though.

Josh -- Thanks for those comments; they are thoughtful and useful as hell. I am thinking that I will try to focus on the experience of characters who for one reason or another occupy a liminal space because of mixed loyalties, a divided heritage, and so forth. I am not sure exactly how that will play out, since I want to avoid the Magical White Boy motif, but that seems to me to be the only path not immediately destined for failure.

Reverance Pavane said...

Actually I'd read topographical as being able to be mapped, or, more accurately graphed [NB: the mathematical structure of nodes and weighted connections rather than the pretty picture type of graph that shows connections between multiple axes of data.] This creates a data structure that can then be traversed (and more importantly optimised). The importance is on the weighting of the relationships within the graph.

Topical, on the other hand, is weighting the values of the nodes without considering their relationship. So the only measure of indexing the nodes is by the perceived innate value (which may differ according to the person assigning it a value).

For example, the Romans placed a high value on farming, whereas the Germans placed a low value on farming. This provided a natural border to Roman expansion. It requires creating a cultural shift in the Germans to a more Roman model of agriculture to enable this shift.

But converting the Germans shifts from the topical to the topigraphical as the clan ties and relationships start getting involved.

You can probably assume that a culture is dynamically stable. The major influence of the outsiders is then to destabilise the existing graph, forcing it to a new equilibrium. [In other words the player colonists are probably not part of the existing action/reaction matrix but instead influence it; how they influence it determines the meta-effects on the cultures, and whether it rebounds against the colony.]

Hmmm. The whole project sounds very interesting.

[And yes, I agree that Civilization could only have been written by someone heavily influenced by 19th Century America, for a number of reasons.]

Bill White said...

Reverance --

Interesting! I like the notion of the topical as being about the valuation of nodes in isolation. But are you conflating Wark's concepts of the "topographical" and the "topological"? He identifies them as different things.

You can probably assume that a culture is dynamically stable. The major influence of the outsiders is then to destabilise the existing graph, forcing it to a new equilibrium. [In other words the player colonists are probably not part of the existing action/reaction matrix but instead influence it; how they influence it determines the meta-effects on the cultures, and whether it rebounds against the colony.]

This is useful. I've begun to imagine the game as taking place at a node that becomes the intersection of two such graphs -- the colonizer and the colonized -- and capable of exerting influence back toward both (probably asymmetrically, but definitely reciprocally)

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.