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.

About Me

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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.