This is the newest post in our fourth week of our roundtable on science fiction and imperial history, co-edited by Marc-William Palen and Rachel Herrmann. You can read our call for posts here, and the other posts in the series here, here, here, here, here, and here. Posts will run twice a week until the second week in July. We look forward to hearing your thoughts!
If you were to tell the children and adults who first bought copies of legendary PC game designer Sid Meier’s Civilization in 1991 that they would still be playing some version of this classic game of imperial expansion almost thirty years later, they probably wouldn’t have believed you. Yet the record-breaking franchise, now in its sixth iteration, has continued to ensnare generations of PC gamers with its epic sweep, imaginative scope, and highly addictive turn-based gameplay that allows you to take an ancient empire to conquer the world—and then colonize the stars.
Yet Civilization’s staying-power also sits uncomfortably with an incipient opposition from those opposed to its imperial overtones, and provides a fascinating window into the persistent, underlying colonial assumptions of modern-day society.
While the game has developed and expanded in complexity over the decades, the essential elements have remained the same since I’ve been playing. Players assume control of a world civilization in 4000 BCE, playing as one of that civilization’s most significant leaders, and lead it over the millennia into the near future, as far as it can be reasonably imagined. As the game’s first iteration in 1991 put it, “a great leader [is required] to unite the quarreling tribes, to harness the power of the land, to build a legacy that will stand the test of time: a Civilization.” Cities are founded, world wonders are constructed, economies are grown, and war machines spring to life.
Mahatma Gandhi of India, Augustus Caesar of Rome, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, Tokugawa Ieyasu of Japan, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Enrico Dandolo of Venice, among many others, have all been playable characters at various points in the series. There are many avenues to victory, from husbanding the arts and sciences for a cultural victory, to having other world leaders consent to a diplomatic victory, to ruthless military extermination of rivals for a domination victory. But the joy of the game for many players is less to win than to have fun simply following the arc of each individual game, where the history of “civilization” (itself a problematic term for colonial history) unfolds in a way that it never has before, and never will again.
Civilization is what game designers refer to as a 4x game, built around the four pillars of exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination: an acronym that could just as easily be taken as an elegant distillation of the very essence of colonialism. What is it, then, about colonialism, and its underlying logic of exploration, discovery, settlement, and infinite expansion, with its close relationship to capitalism, that is so deeply compelling to so many millions of gamers around the world?
The Civilization franchise can safely be called one of the most influential, addictive, and beloved creations in the canon of world gaming, and praise from industry figures and players is almost universal. Countless mods, wikis, forums, and spinoffs over the years have given expression to the fanatical reverence for the series. In 2007, Henry Lowood, curator of the History of Science and Technology collections at Stanford University, even included the first Civilization games in a digital canon of culturally and historically significant games as part of a preservation project sponsored by the US Library of Congress.
Yet a discordant note was sounded early this year when Milton Tootoosis, headman of the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, found out that the likeness of their namesake, legendary Cree chief and peacemaker Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, known to English speakers as Poundmaker, had been developed for Civilization VI as the leader of the newly introduced Cree civilization. Poundmaker died of illness contracted during a stay in Canadian prison after being convicted of treason in the aftermath of the 1885 North West Rebellion, and his depiction in the game wearing a British military jacket may have ruffled some additional feathers. Tootoosis angrily denounced the inclusion as an act of cultural appropriation. In his comments to the conservative daily paper The National Post, Tootoosis categorically denied that consent had been given to use Poundmaker’s likeness in the game. His chief objection was that:
I think that’s potentially very dangerous for a lot of young naive people, and maybe older naive people; this colonial notion of expanding an empire, using military power to take over a community, to access their land and extract the resources go with it. That’s a big, big problem we’ve been trying to resolve through talks around this notion of truth and reconciliation. We are, as First Nations people, still trying to work our way out of this model that’s been a catastrophe for First Nations people, not only in Canada but throughout the world. Some people could potentially understand or equate the notions of imperialism and colonialism to the values of our people.
2K Games, the company that currently develops the franchise, refused to comment on the issue, and as of publication of this article, has not removed the likeness of Poundmaker from the game.
This emergent anti-imperial critique illustrates the extent to which old-fashioned colonial assumptions underlie the Civilization franchise.
Simply put, Civilization gamifies and glorifies colonialism, making it aggressively fun, and working within embedded assumptions that it is natural and inevitable: indeed, synonymous with the very idea of “civilization.”
And yet this tension has been ignored, or at least dealt with quite awkwardly, over the course of the game’s evolution.
Indigenous leaders have always numbered among the game’s playable civilizations. Montezuma of the Aztecs and Huayana Capac of the Incas have remained potential leaders for a player to control from the beginning. As early as Civilization II one could play as Sitting Bull, leader of the nebulously defined “Native American empire,” whose cities included the highly problematic Wounded Knee. Civilization III introduced Hiawatha of the Iroquois. Civilization V introduced Pocatello of the Shoshone.
Added to which a remarkably naive expansion pack, 2008’s Civilization IV: Colonization, explicitly marketed European expansion into the “New World” as a playable addition to the game. A more sensitive recent mod for Civilization V, called “Legacies of Colonialism,” expanded the playable canon to include not just a multitude of indigenous nations, but also the settler states of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
Tootoosis’ intervention appears to be the first time that anyone from an indigenous community has called out the fundamental assumption at the heart of the series that “civilization” necessarily entails agricultural, sedentary cultures, with states, standing armies, and advanced technology, and which aggressively seize the land of others. Yet do these characteristics an imperial power make? Some of the recent scholarship on colonialism in North America has demonstrated that hegemony and imperialism can take other forms than the European model. Pekka Hämäläinen has recast the Comanche of the southern Great Plains in the nineteenth century as an imperial power, who may not have sought to establish “large-scale settlement colonies,” or left architectural testimony to their previous might, but who nonetheless “created a deeply hierarchical and integrated inter-societal order that was unmistakeably imperial in shape, scope, and substance.”
Through a complex system of “violence, diplomacy, extortion, trade, and kinship politics,” the Comanche made themselves the dominant player in the Mexican North and the American Southwest for over a century, without building the kind of formal territorial empire that is Civilization’s only model. Hämäläinen also encourages us to revisit the histories of the Powhatan and the Haudenosaunee confederacies to broaden our understanding of what empire really means. Why should the only model of conquest and expansion recognized by the gaming industry, as represented in Civilization, be the standard European one?
While there may be a certain satisfaction to developing intercontinental ballistic missiles as the leader of a futuristic Iroquois civilization, and nuking a defenceless, medieval United States (as is possible within the game), ultimately, Civilization forces indigenous cultures into a mold created by other societies, with other definitions of “civilization.” Apparently only what Jared Diamond terms “rooted, agrarian societies” in Guns, Germs, and Steel count as civilizations in the game. Societies based on hunting and raiding, like the Comanche, or even societies with different conceptions of agriculture and permanent settlement to the Eurasian model, like the Iroquoian speaking peoples of the St. Lawrence valley, with their semi-permanent settlements and hoe-based agriculture centred around corn, beans, and squash, are harder to fit into this mold.
Would today’s indigenous communities revolt at having their history presented, as Hämäläinen presents the Comanche or some scholars have presented the Haudenosaunee, as histories of imperial expansion and domination? Certainly Milton Tootoosis would reject such a characterization, and one suspects that indigenous historians like Georges Sioui, who has done pioneering work on the Haudenosaunee’s old enemies, the Wendat, would do the same.
Yet if empire is the wrong lens through which to view something like the Haudenosaunee “Covenant Chain” system of alliances, as some of the more recent scholarship holds, what is the right lens? How can complex hegemonic systems of tribute and alliance like those built up by the Haudenosaunee, the Mexica, or the Inca, be understood and appropriately rendered in a computer game? Recent scholarship has noted the disconnect between the system of tribute and alliance that constituted the fabric of the Mexica empire, and the instinct of Cortez and his fellow Conquistadors to interpret the war they were fighting along the same lines as the Castilian Reconquista. How can indigenous agency and even active participation in conquests, like that which Michel Oudjik and Matthew Restall have sought to restore to the conquest of the Mexica, for example, be adequately interpreted by designers?
The scholarship of Bruce Trigger, Richard White, and Michael Witgen on the complex nature of cultural, social, and political exchange in the “Middle Ground” of North American empire has emphasized how blurred formal lines of control and hierarchy can be in colonial contexts, and how different from the clear-cut border expansion that underlies the Civilization franchise. Can this complexity ever be as fun and satisfying in a game as sharply defined borders and clean wars? If scholars are themselves divided over what constitutes a formal empire, and how empire can best be understood, how can game developers be expected to sensitively render an imperial expansion, with due regard for nuance and shades of grey? Is such a thing even possible?
The antiquated stereotypes of indigenous cultures in the Civilization series is not only evident in their dubious co-optation into sedentary, technological, playable civs, but also in what is arguably their true appearance in the game, as imagined by its initial designers: as roving “barbarians”: hyper-aggressive non-playable units that appear throughout the game to trouble the human players. These units don’t develop distinct cities or cultures, they are spawned only from nomadic “camps,” and players eventually kill them off or push them to the fringes of the habitable world. Ultimately, runs the underlying assumption, the world can only be conquered by cultures that conform to a very specific, mostly Eurocentric, culturally hegemonic definition of “civilization.” Other ways of ordering a society are excluded from the game’s consideration by its very structure.
This isn’t to suggest anything malicious in the Civilization franchise’s design and development, or that any of its avid fans are actively racist or engaged in conscious cultural appropriation. The point is simply to note that the values and assumptions that underlie the game’s very construction and play are rooted in the assumptions of the former European settler society, the United States, that gave birth to the game in the 1990s.
As the recent GamerGate controversy over the intrusion of feminism and social justice movements into the world of game design and development indicated, many gamers are disaffected white men anxious to preserve one of the few cultural arenas left to their near-exclusive use; a realm of escapism rarely, if ever, subject to political considerations or intersectional analysis. The in-joke current in the PC gaming community of referring to themselves as the “PC Master Race,” as opposed to the presumably less intelligent and sophisticated console gamer, illustrates the extent to which this community has been sheltered from the political trends sweeping the rest of the contemporary cultural environment.
What is it about games built around, as Tootoosis summarized it, “expanding an empire, using military power to take over a community, to access their land and to extract their resources,” that so many people find so deeply psychologically compelling? And how might a game like Civilization seek to subvert these tendencies to highlight some of the uncomfortable psychological terrain on which it rests?
The designers of the game are clearly aware of these tensions, as they are actively introducing models for civilization that differ from the standard model. Venice is a playable faction, for example, but is never allowed to formally own more than one city. The Huns are a playable faction, yet do not found or occupy cities in the same way as other civilizations, having a culture and economy more accurately historically focused on raiding and tribute. If the complexity of Eurasian political, social, and economic models can be rendered satisfyingly enough in the game, perhaps this same imaginative scope could be applied to the many indigenous societies of the world, and how they operate within the game in terms of mechanics?
And following on from this; what would a decolonized strategy game look like? How might it play out in practice? Would it even be possible to design a strategy game that didn’t revolve around classical European notions of conquest, expansion, and discovery? Would anyone want to play it?
A good place to start might be to ask indigenous game designers themselves, who are beginning to make their voices heard in Canada and around the world.
The slightly more esoteric and avant-garde world of tabletop roleplaying, for example, has already produced the splendid Dog Eat Dog. Designed by Liam Burke, a Pacific Islander who grew up in Hawai’i, the game viscerally exposes its participants to the brutality of colonialism. Ehdrigor, another tabletop RPG, is “crafted to take inspiration from the myth and folklore of tribal and indigenous cultures around the world,” rather than “fantasy seen through a Euro-medieval lens.” A group of academics at Concordia University in Montreal have recently received a grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to support the Initiative for Indigenous Futures, which, among its other projects, will provide “Aboriginal youth with critical cultural and digital media tools to empower them to craft a destiny of their own choosing.”
Given the immense cultural currency of video games, and their popularity among children, who, as the Civilization franchise demonstrates, will be playing these games for decades to come, perhaps this is a task to which an aspiring game developer should set themselves? To reimagine strategy gaming to subvert the paradigm of exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination? In other words, if we want to challenge the continued hegemony of Eurocentric colonialism in the real world, it may be useful to acknowledge and reorient the extent to which its assumptions underlie the realms of seemingly apolitical entertainment afforded by the world of PC gaming.
 Hugh Dempsey, “Biography – PĪTIKWAHANAPIWĪYIN (Poundmaker) – Volume XI (1881-1890) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography,” accessed May 20, 2018, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pitikwahanapiwiyin_11E.html.
 Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), p 3-4. See also Francis Jennings, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from Its Beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744 (New York: Norton, 1984).
 Ibid., p 15.
 Jared M Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: Norton, 2005).
 Jane Mt. Pleasant, “The Paradox of Plows and Productivity: An Agronomic Comparison of Cereal Grain Production under Iroquois Hoe Culture and European Plow Culture in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Agricultural History 85, no. 4 (2011): 460–92, https://doi.org/10.3098/ah.2011.85.4.460.
 Georges E. Sioui, Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1999).
 Daniel K Richter and James Hart Merrell, Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600-1800 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), Introduction.
 J.H Elliot, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p 21.
 Matthew Restall, Laura E. Matthew, and Michel R. Oudijk, Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007).
 Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815, 4th ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), Michael Witgen, “The Rituals of Possession: Native Identity and the Invention of Empire in Seventeenth-Century Western North America,” Ethnohistory 54, no. 4 (October 1, 2007): 639–68, https://doi.org/10.1215/00141801-2007-025, Bruce Trigger, Natives and Newcomers: Canada’s “Heroic Age” Reconsidered, 1st ed. (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986).
 It might also be worth asking why the colonial processes that gamers enjoy so much, not just in Civilization, but in several other strategy games, such as Europa Universalis, Empire: Total War, or Pride of Nations, are so much fun.