The Barbarians are coming…

I recently read a discussion about barbarians and their representation in games which reminded me of the classical article “You Have Unleashed a Horde of Barbarians!”: Fighting Indians, Playing Games, Forming Disciplines by Christopher Douglas, published in Postmodern Culture in 2002.

In the article, Douglas argues how games are not only formed by our culture, but also shape our expectations of the real, our view of history, nationality, race, and economic justice. This should come as no surprise to anyone who, for instance, has followed historical discussions on any forum for a historical game. For instance, we now have a generation of people who believe that ancient battles occured like in the Total War games, that War dogs were a key component in Roman armies, and that Britons ran around hurling heads at their enemies. The tendency to confuse games and reality is not limited to history; e.g., one will often find people discussing real life (european) football transfers based on experiences from Football Manager. Games shape what people believe is real; whether it is people arguing world history based on a world view they have gotten from Europa Universalis or justifying their interpretation of a historical battle based on Total War or DBM.

Douglas’s article goes a layer deeper and examines how mainstream strategy games (Civilization II & III) reflect the preconceptions of culture.One is in the dealing with Barbarians; the “native indians” of Civilization (as distinct from the “Native Indian” factions):

Civilization III and its predecessors … posit the land as inhabited and yet not inhabited: populations which seem to be on the land but which, paradoxically, don’t occupy it.

Briefly put, Douglas suggests that the game reinforces our (American/Western) cultural viewpoint of a world where:

In these games, the fact that the Indians are understood not to truly occupy the land is linked to the Native inability to develop technology. That is, they propose that indigenous populations improperly take up space in the empty land precisely because they don’t develop technology, and therefore aren’t nascent civilizations.

Among other ideological effects, Civilization III makes inevitable, natural and universal several Western-centered ideas of technological progress, the use of the land, and the opposition between “civilization” and “savagery.” In this way, historical specificity is forgotten, and the game reinforces the sense that those who have been displaced were only ever natural obstacles erupting randomly from the wilderness to block (American) civilization’s advance. Because these ideas are coded into the game rules they appear as an inevitable historical rules.

Douglas recognizes the altenative history potential in a game where the Aztecs or Zulus can conquor Madrid or London. But as he notes:

… a second kind of ideological work this performs is produced precisely because of the possible alternative histories. Things might have turned out differently because the game constructs history as a level playing field. So why didn’t the Iroquois conquer the Americans? Why weren’t the Indians able to colonize London and its outlying areas? Because those colonized peoples didn’t work as hard as or didn’t have the noble spirit of we Europeans. The game has abstract radical potential, but it is circumscribed by how things really turned out. That radical potential thus works ideologically to reinforce the notion of cultural and maybe racial supremacy.

In summarizing the article using these few quotes, I am of course simplifying the argument radically; I recommend reading the article yourself, it it tickles your interest (the wayback machine is useful, if you don’t have university access to Muse). I certainly found (re)reading the article interesting. Over the next couple of posts, I intend to write a little bit about some of the historical ideology/cultural preconceptions that exist in our games, and my thoughts on their implementation in Imperium.