International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: Depictions of Colonialism and Oppression in 4X Video Games

International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: Depictions of Colonialism and Oppression in 4X Video Games

[Alonso Gurmendi is a contributor for Opinio Juris and Assistant Professor at Universidad del Pacífico Law School, in Lima, Peru.]

I am a long-time fan of 4X games. For the uninitiated, that stands for Explore, Expand, Exploit & Exterminate Games – a (lame) 1990s pun turned game-genre, coined by Video-Game reviewer Alan Emrich who wanted to promote his Master of Orion review by saying it was “Rated XXXX”. To use Emrich’s original definition, 4X games are those in which “players must rise from humble beginnings, finding their way around the map while building up the largest, most efficient empire possible.”

To give a more enduring example (the last Master of Orion game to be released was in 2001), think of the Civilization series, created by video-game guru, Sid Meier and developed by Firaxis Games. In Civilization, a player starts the game as a simple settler lost in a vast, unexplored, map. The player is expected to build a city with his Settler in the most strategic location possible – access to fresh water, a port, natural resources nearby, possibly mountains that can serve as a defensive landmark, etc. From there on, it is up to the player were the game goes – and how they win it.

Players can invest in research and development until they acquire sufficient technology to start a space exploration programme that allows them to establish a human colony on Mars (a “Science Victory” in the Game’s jargon). They can build monuments and landmarks to attract tourists from other “civilizations” in the game until there are more foreigners visiting your country than locals visiting their own (a “Culture Victory”). If a “Great Prophet” emerges in one of their cities, players can establish a religion and use apostles and missionaries to spread it throughout the game. If they convert at least 50.1% of every city in the game, they achieve a “Religious Victory”, and so on. Of course, the option of a “Domination Victory” is always open, through the conquering of all of their rivals’ capitals. You get the idea.   

By now many will have anticipated where this post is going. Words like “empire”, “civilization” and “domination” are being thrown around cavalierly, while gamers who invest in academia literally win by going full Elon Musk. Yes, the 4X game industry is incredibly problematic and, as I will argue, portrays an idealised version of the world, free from hardship, that is uncritically affecting how generations of young nerds approach the world they live in and the legal and social rules that bind it. (“Nerd”, by the way, is always a compliment in my circles, never an insult).  

This is not to say, of course, that 4X games do not at least try to convey a sense of the international. In addition to the series’ traditional “Diplomacy” function, where players can trade and sign border agreements, 2016’s Civilization VI, the latest of the series, incorporated a new “Casus Belli” function to try and replicate in-game international law mechanics. Players who fail to declare war through a justified casus belli are punished with a “warmonger” penalty, which will make other non-player characters more reluctant to engage with them through diplomacy.

Civilization VI’s somewhat Grotian concept of a “Formal War”, for instance, “can only be declared after some diplomatic incident (such as denouncing or being denounced by another leader at least 5 turns prior).” As the game progresses, casus belli become more complex. A “Liberation War” can be declared, without a warmonger penalty, when an enemy “civilization” captures a city from one of your friends or allies. But then, of course, things get problematic. A player who researches “Nationalism” in the technology tree can then unlock the “Colonial War” mechanic to “declare war on a power that is two or more technology/civic eras behind” with only half the normal warmonger penalties. In fact, in Civilization VI, colonialism is a specific “Civic” that players can research and unlock – a sort of ladder of “civic progress” for players to upgrade their civilization’s stats and unlock specific “Policy Cards” that grant them bonuses.

When researched, “Colonialism”, the Civic, allows players to boost their game with up to three Policy Cards: “Colonial Taxes” (which “provide cities that aren’t on the same continent as your original Capital with a sizable Gold bonus”), “Native Conquest” (which “yields additional Gold sums each time they (…) kill enemies”, provided that the attacking unit belongs to a more advanced era than the attacked unit) or “Raj” (which grants +2 Science, Culture, Faith and Gold bonuses for each city-state the Player is a Suzerain to).

Of course, it is not the in-game existence of these concepts that I find troubling – after all, a game that simulates human history will include controversial subjects. The problem lies, instead, on the framing, where researching a fundamentally oppressive ideology grants enormous benefits and no negative consequences. Games like Civilization perpetuate an image of history based on “eternal progress”, where each step in the ladder – even those that increased suffering and oppression – is a necessary hurdle in an overarching story of civilizational success. Disturbingly, for instance, 2005’s Civilization IV included the “Civic” of “Slavery”, which “allows its adopter to finish production by sacrificing a city’s population” through a process informally called “Whipping” by some players. In addition to the loss of population, the only negative effect of figuratively whipping a city’s slave workforce to death was a +1 Unhappiness penalty for 10 turns.

Civilization, while the most popular 4x franchise, is not alone in the perpetuation of these distressing features. Blue Byte’s Anno 1800, the most recent game of the famous Anno series, is premised on the idea of controlling an undescribed Victorian-looking East-India-Company type colonial developer. Or, as the developers describe it, a “tongue-in-cheek celebration of mercantilism, in which time, place and identity blur”, but where the game as a whole is expected to “define the 19th century as an era of industry, discovery and revolution”.

The developers’ vision of a sanitised, comfortable version of Victorian times is the other side of the 4X colonialist coin. Unlike Civ VI, where the oppression is re-read as actually good for you, in Anno 1800, oppression simply does not exist. In a now-deleted Ubisoft forum (Ubisoft is the game’s publisher), the developers said that slavery would be entirely left out of the game: “We don’t think that a game like Anno, and also we as developers, can cover this topic in an appropriate way”. Instead, they said, they wanted to focus on delivering a “fun strategy experience” for gamers. As Prof. Nicholas Radburn told PC Gamer Magazine in 2019, this idealized version of the 19th century risks that players “will assume the cherry-picked version of the past is close to reality”. And this is very unhelpful.

For example, when players eventually “discover” land in a Spanish-speaking Caribbean-looking “New World”, they can build colonies to exploit rare resources. These islands, however, are completely empty, without any semblance of an indigenous community. The player simply appropriates the land, even though the local worker force, called a “jornalero”, is clearly not white nor fluent in English. The player skips the colonial violence and simply rips its “benefits”.  

Similarly, where the game does choose to portray oppression, it does so in yet again a sanitised approach. In a 2018 pre-launch blog post, Anno 1800’s developers discussed their vision for how to portray the in-game working-class characters. They described it in these terms:

The 19th century worker. Downtrodden, disillusioned and outspoken. Each a dormant volcano ready to spout its hot lava of protest (…) until it becomes the nigh-unstoppable fire-tide of revolution. However, thankfully in ANNO 1800, it doesn’t always have to be like that. (…) Perhaps you happen to be the one employer enlightened enough to lift the burden, to be the humanitarian, the progressive.

The idea that 19th century working conditions were simply the result of lack of enlightened employers reduces the struggle of the working class to a call for patience. Employers just needed some time to catch up with the times! As if workforce exploitation was a thing of the past today. There are no unions in Anno 1800 and no 40-hour week demands. All the player can do is increase or decrease the workers’ productivity in exchange for increased or decreased worker happiness. The game does include a “Riot” mechanic if happiness becomes too low, and the population “can revolt against a player’s leadership” by refusing to work and pay taxes or even setting buildings ablaze, but this simply falls very short from adequately representing the kind of oppression characteristic of the 19th century and the sacrifices incurred to resist it.

This is not to say, of course, that Anno 1800 does everything wrong. Some of the mechanics are particularly interesting. For instance, to progress in the game, the player needs to satisfy their populations’ specific needs. Each class of people has different needs. Players start building farmers’ huts, who need basic access to clothes and fish. Once satisfied, farmers turn into workers, which, in addition to one type of food and clothes, need sausages, bread, soap and schooling to advance to the next stage: the artisan. But each farmer who becomes a worker leaves the pig farm that provides workers with sausages. This means players will need to build more impoverished farmhouses if they ever want to continue the supply chains that will enable them to turn their workers into artisans; their artisans into engineers; and their engineers into investors – the higher echelon of the Anno 1800 social pyramid. In fact, at a certain point, progress from artisan to engineer is impossible without first setting up a “cotton plantation” in your “new world” colony.

This is a good metaphor to illustrate not just the concept of class and systemic oppression, but colonial exploitation as well. No matter how much you want to improve the welfare of your city, you will always have to force a considerable number of your inhabitants to lower standards of living, as farmers and workers, so that other, wealthier and elitist classes, can exist. Likewise, you will always need to keep your colonial population impoverished, as either “jornaleros” or “obreros”, exclusively dedicated to the production of raw materials to export to your metropolis. This is not an easy process (supply chains can be massive) and the fluctuations of the in-game economy players themselves create frequently lead to either revolts from the working classes or increased poverty in the form of artisans and engineers converting back to workers or farmers. Noticing the existence of this “class” mechanic, the approach to sanitised oppression becomes even more frustrating, though, as an artisan who becomes a worker will not really care about the lack of social mobility in your city.

4X games need to be savvier in the ways they approach and portray the oppression and violence of the past. They also need to be braver. First of all, like with Anno’s class mechanic, they should fully abandon the idea of history as a ladder of eternal progress. Not all steps are steps forward and some steps forward required stepping over someone else. In fact, I would argue, 4X games are ideally predisposed for this, since “winning” does not necessarily need to mean reaching to the top of every ladder.

One very recent game that incorporates interesting ideas is Amplitude Studios’ Humankind, released in August of this year. In Humankind, players do not win by finishing technology races first or by attracting more tourists than the other. They win by accumulating “Fame”. Each era of Humankind rewards specific actions. If the player chooses a “Militaristic Culture”, they will be rewarded for going to war and killing enemies, but if they choose an “Aesthete Culture”, they will be rewarded for generating “Influence” (one of the game’s currency, or “yields”, in gamer jargon, alongside “Money”) through a focus on culture, trade and diplomacy.

In fact, Humankind is perhaps unique in that declaring war is actually pretty difficult in the advanced stages of the game. The player needs to accumulate grievances and demands against a non-player character to excite its own population into supporting the war in the first place. If borders are stable and nations have no historic grievances, building support for a war can take several turns. Once at war, however, the player is trapped: war will not end until one of the two nations runs out of war support. In other words, the tides can turn on the player, as they may have already achieved their war objectives but are unable to force surrender on the enemy. War is not the “easy” path to victory it is in other 4X games.

Another creative addition by Humankind is its Climate Change mechanics. Once players arrive at the industrial age, specific buildings will generate global pollution that affects stability in the players cities. Players can choose to address climate change by reforesting or switching to cleaner industries, but this will take time and allow other players to develop faster. If all players choose to ignore the climate emergency, and pollution levels reach 100,000 points, the game ends, triggering the “Rending the world unfit for human life” End Condition, and everyone loses.

Humankind is not a perfect game. It still includes a “Colonial Office” as an “Emblematic District” (a special building that grants special bonuses) of Great Britain, that grants +10 Money per turn. At the same time, it does incorporate interesting mechanics that, alongside the Anno 1800 class mechanics, can serve as a model for future games. Situations where everybody loses due to collective action problems, or where the point of view switches from the dominant class to the oppressed class, or where oppression is seen as a cost rather than a benefit, or an abandoning of a Hobbesian world of war of all against all, would be welcomed additions to the 4X genre. History is not a story of never-ending progress from the stone age to contemporary times. It is the intertwining of different stories of different peoples that mix, secede, migrate, revolt, resist, unite and even rethink themselves. A simulation of human history should follow this same model.

Now, of course, I don’t have all the answers. I am not a game developer. But I do think there is much in international legal scholarship and anticolonial studies that can be incorporated into 4X games through creative in-game mechanics that would be incredibly attractive to gamers like myself. More than a final answer, this post seeks to be the beginning of a conversation – and why not, a collaboration, between international law, anticolonialism, and 4X. I for one, would be happy to be a part of that process.   

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