Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization - 20/20 hours

I hit a bit of a roadblock when it came to settling a new world in the late 21st century (I just now realized how absurdly optimistic that mod's timeline was). Once my colony reached a certain degree of size and complexity, the game would crash. Repeatedly. I thought I isolated the particular building responsible for the problem, but it was my primary factory, so not using it wasn't an option. The choice was either painful turn-by-turn micromanaging or giving up the save entirely.

So, for the last three hours, it was back to the real world for me. This was not entirely easy for me, but I decided that if I was going to do this, I was going to do it all the way. I found and downloaded a mod that purported to add a whole bunch more realism and detail to the game, including the original's most glaring and unforgivable omission from the history of the time period - African slavery.

It really was an incredible mod. I played on the gigantic map of the Americas, and the attention to detail was amazing. Geography that matched the scope of the continents', Native villages in more or less the same location as their namesake tribes, a whole slew of new resources and products that add depth and texture to the Columbian exchange, and complex mechanics for forced labor - you don't just have African slaves, you can enslave the natives (or buy their captives when they raid each other), or import indentured servants and petty convicts from Europe, and the mechanics and what you can do with them depends on their race and the circumstances of their capture. Your slaves can even escape, and then you have to redirect one of your military units to slavecatching duty in order to bring them back.

If you don't mind the feeling of having to shower afterwards, it's a great simulation. It makes me wonder about the nature of evil, and the way video games can transform humanity's terrible deeds into grist for entertainment.

It's not uncommon in video games for you to play an antihero, or even an outright villain. This is not something I'm ordinarily squeamish about. I've played the Saints' Row series. I love the Saints' Row series. And a big part of the reason I can stomach (and even laugh at) the Boss' depraved violence is that it's just a video game. It doesn't matter.

The process should be the same for Colonization, right? And I think that's why the game is so troubling. Slavery doesn't matter? Colonialism doesn't matter? Sure, it's not real slavery or colonialism, and those weren't real Africans and Native Americans I was victimizing - they were, in fact, pixels and code, a wisp of logic and a picture to tell me what's going on . . .

But I think they're more than just that. I think they're icons for the idea of slavery and the idea of colonialism (this may be helped along by the highly abstract and bloodless nature of the strategy genre), and those ideas do matter. The Boss from Saints' Row may well be as depraved as any historical slave trader, but the difference is we know that, on a visceral and instinctual level. The problem with Colonization is that you're playing the villains, but the game, our society, and even the player themselves (and I'm including myself in this) don't think of it that way.

As much as we say slavery is bad, slave owners don't get the kind of media treatment we reserve for other antisocial types like gangsters or drug dealers. Yes, sometimes they'll show up as villains and be hilariously, heavy-handedly vile - they'll either be leering sadists or literal inhuman monsters like Republic Commando's Trandoshans or Mass Effect's Batarians, but the actual act of keeping and holding slaves is rarely directly interrogated. "Slaver" isn't an identity, it's a profession, one that can only be performed if a person is deeply broken.

Yet when slavers aren't monsters, they're barely acknowledged at all. It's treated instead like a quaint historical blindspot, something that people just did, you know, way back then. Yoda was just as bad as those Trandoshans, but he's still Yoda. Thomas Jefferson was not a boss fight in Assassins' Creed III.

You can base a compelling work around a terrible person. You can even take advantage of the way people identify with protagonists to make the reprehensible seem sympathetic (or at least understandable), but slavery and colonialism don't get that sort of treatment.  We want Walter White to triumph over impossible odds. We want Tony Soprano to get his shit together for once. We can enjoy watching them, root for them, and even, in some weird way, love them, precisely because we know that they commit evil deeds for profit and pride. That's what makes their shows such compelling drama - we can recognize the humanity in those who should repulse us.

Which is why saying that Colonization is an "antihero" type game doesn't really work. We have no trouble recognizing the humanity of the settlers and the slave owners. In fact, many of them are our greatest heroes. What we have trouble with is being repulsed by them (even if we disavow what they do in the abstract).

Thomas Jefferson is not depicted like Tony Soprano, despite the fact that his slaves were kidnapped from their homes, tortured, beaten, humiliated. The women were raped. Children were torn from their mothers. Husbands were separated from their wives. They'd each and every one been uprooted, had their humanity torn apart, and wrung through a system designed to degrade and disenfranchise them, all so the they could live a life of toil without end, so the "master" might have leisure time to pursue his gentlemanly hobbies and intellectual pretensions. They bled so the guy holding the whip could live in a magnificent palace. Yet Monticello is not treated like a den of iniquity, nor a torture pit, nor even a complex distopia. Instead, it's on the fucking nickel.

That's why Colonization doesn't work. The story of slavery is not a European story. The story of the conquest of the Americas is not a European story. It is the story of an alien invasion. Of an unstoppable imperial power that came out of nowhere and took what it wanted, hurt who it wanted, and lived where it wanted. It was relentless and rapacious, and those who could fight against it could still only manage a losing rearguard action or bloody insurrection. Those who could not fight fell completely under its power, and could only hope for a far-off deliverance.

Who's the hero in that sort of story? Who do you want to win? You write a story like that, and it's natural that you'd want to hear about the plucky underdogs, the guys who fought the system against impossible odds and managed to win, if not complete victory (the centuries-long European colonial advance sadly did not have an exposed thermal exhaust port), then some measure of moral victory, to affirm the power of human dignity.

You only tell the story of the villains when the heroic tales become trite. When people start congratulating themselves for rooting for the white hats, as if that weren't the easiest thing in the world. When it becomes necessary to remind people that humans are not monsters, but they can act monstrously when they forget other people are humans.

You can play Thomas Jefferson when it becomes time to rehabilitate Thomas Jefferson. When the obscenity of his wealth has become so dominant a feature of his biography that you forget his good points. When "he also said 'all men are created equal,'" is not a defense, but a surprise. That's when the paradox of the man becomes interesting.

We aren't there yet as a society. And though I've focused strongly on slavery, because that was the most striking feature of the mod I played (and it really was an incredible mod - it delivered just about everything I could ask for in a historical simulation), the same thoughts go double for colonialism. The virtuousness of the settler ethos is so ingrained in our culture that I couldn't even think of a single, specific person to embody its contradictions (or it could be that Thomas Jefferson is really just the perfect didactic subject).

Taken as a game, Colonization is great, and Colonization with the Religion and Revolution mod is even better, but I think I'd need to live in a different world to truly enjoy it. It would only really feel like playing the villains in a world where we remembered the heroes' names.