Landscapes of Empire: Coloniality, Agency, and Opacity in Game Design

In recent decades, an increasing awareness of the prevalence of colonialist and Orientalist themes in modern board games have led to calls for “de-colonizing” the hobby. Critiques of the imperialism and Eurocentrism implicit in Sid Meier’s computer game series Civilization have now been joined by critical analyses of colonialist themes in board games like GoaVasco de Gama, and Maracaibo.

The response from board game designers and publishers has been mixed. On the one hand, it can be observed that the pushback against the depiction of colonialism in games has led to a kind of “pre-colonial regress,” leading to an explosion of games like Daniele Tascini’s Tzol’kin: The Mayan Calendar (2012) or David Turczi’s game of temple-building in ancient Egypt, Tekhenu: Obelisk of the Sun (2020). Of course, the mere avoidance of colonialism as a historical theme or setting does not ensure that a game is free of complicity in the extractive practices of colonialism, in particular practices of cultural appropriation and exoticism (two characteristics that are very much on display in Tascini’s designs).

A second kind of response can be identified which might be termed “revisionist.” Revisionism in historical board design challenges the emancipatory myths associated with colonialism by showing the grimmer realities of the colonialist past, as in games like Scott W. Leibbrandt’s Colonialism (2013), in which players assume the roles of generic Western powers competing for influence and resources in the “unindustrialized regions of the world,” or Amabel Holland’s 2018 board game This Guilty Land, set in the years leading up to the American Civil War, in which one player assumes the roles of Justice (representing abolition) while the other seizes the mantle of Oppression (representing the pro-slavery cause). At their most “simulationist,” these sorts of “serious” games can devolve into a recapitulation of the trauma historically experienced by colonized populations, especially when the latter are not represented as playable characters or factions. At their most abstract, conversely, such games minimize the agency of colonized and enslaved peoples through their absorption by impersonal game mechanics such as “protest” or “revolt.” This is especially true of games featuring “push your luck” strategies where colonialist exploitation brings short-term benefits as well as potential costs: these might include uprisings by discontented “subjects” in civ-building games like Vlaada Chvátil’s Through the Ages (2006), or penalties accrued for engaging in the slave trade, as in Carl de Visser and Jarratt Gray’s 2018 board game, Endeavor: Age of Sail.

We can also identify a third kind of response on the part of game designers to the call to decolonize board games. This third response encompasses playable representations of colonialism as it was – or counterfactually, could have been – resisted or suborned by its ostensible subjects, as in games like Peer Sylvester’s King of Siam (2007), R. Eric Reuss’s Spirit Island (2017), Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir (2018), or Bruce Mansfield’s counter-insurgency (COIN) game, Gandhi: The Decolonization of British India, 1917-1947 (2019). The difference in these designs is that the games seek to restore agency to the colonized, thus inverting many of the traditional colonialist tropes found in modern hobby board games like Catan (1995) and Puerto Rico (2002). Within the hobby board gaming community, these are the games that are most often cited as examples of successful efforts to “decolonize” board gaming, but they have so far received little in the way of critical attention within games studies. With this paper I hope to make a small contribution to this effort, by exploring the applicability to analog games of concepts and theories of postcoloniality that have emerged from studies of video games as cultural artifacts. Through a comparative analysis of Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir and Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I hope to show how a postcolonial lens can shed new light on the complex interrelationship between a game’s historical setting and the material and technological affordances of the medium.

In her book On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender, and Space, Soraya Murray argues for the usefulness of the Visual Culture studies approach to the analysis of video games, which she contrasts with mainstream game criticism’s excessive fixation on advances in video game technology. Complementing rather than replacing the theoretical perspectives developed by scholars of new media and game studies, Murray suggests that the interdisciplinarity and methodological diversity of Visual Culture studies affords a wider scope for critical investigation of the ideological and cultural dimensions of games, including their representations of gender, race, and empire. In her examination of Hideo Kojima’s 2015 game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, for example, a transmedia Visual Culture framework enables Murray to examine the game’s visual representations of Afghanistan through the lens of postcolonial critiques of landscape painting and literary studies of the depiction of America as wilderness. In this way, she is able to draw connections between the medium-oriented approach of new media studies and the critical interrogation of games’ political and cultural significations.

The fruitfulness of Murray’s approach is demonstrated by her critique of the theory of spatiality developed by Michael Nitsche in his book Video Game Spaces: Image, Play and Structure in 3D Worlds. When Nitsche compares video game space and cinematic space, it is to argue for a fundamental difference between the mediums, one which implies a relative impoverishment on the part of video game design: “virtual cameras can mimic […] real-camera behaviors in their presentation of video game space without any physical restraints. […] There are no lenses, filters, shutters, no iris or film stock [… ] yet all these elements are responsible for a range of cinematic effects and the development of cinema’s form. Without these defining features, virtual cameras lack an important incentive for artistic development: the creative encounter with the limits of the technology” (Nitsch p. 91). By contrast, Murray argues “digital media present their own limitations and aesthetic languages” (p. 157), which in the case of The Phantom Pain fosters what she calls an “identification with the computational” on the part of the player/viewer. Such an identification, she writes, is based on “calculation, processing and problem-solving, and encourages a framing of the landscape through this rationalizing lens” (p. 157) – a lens that she associates with the “colonial paradigms and frontier ideologies” of a video game space which “organizes the representation of land through its use-value for the player” (p. 161), like the fictional Afghanistan whose wildlife and minerals are represented as untapped natural resources in The Phantom Pain (p. 164).

For Murray in fact, it is the shared dependence of cinema and video games on the technical limitations of their respective mediums that highlights the specific differences between a cinematic language of form associated with visual realism and a “computational” mode of visibility attuned to the exploitation of use-values. For all its borrowings from the codes of cinematic realism, Murray argues that space in The Phantom Pain is ultimately framed by this colonizing, computational gaze, which she connects to the historic function of landscape painting in promoting and justifying European imperialism (pp. 169-172). At the same time, the rocky, scrub-filled landscapes rendered in The Phantom Pain suggest an analogy with the mythic representation of the American West in canonical paintings and films (pp. 174-175), which ideologically validated westward expansion as a fulfillment of the doctrine of “manifest destiny.” Thanks to its slippage among these different visual and cultural registers, the Afghanistan portrayed in the game can serves as a stage-setting for the symbolic re-enactment of a variety of “primal scenes” of imperialist violence and counter-violence, from settler-colonial violence against Indigenous peoples along an expanding American frontier to the post-9/11 “war on terror.”

Through such comparisons, Murray shows how the expansive openness of the Afghan landscape traversed in The Phantom Pain indulges player fantasies of an all-encompassing perceptual mastery and control of space. Building on Murray’s analysis, I would suggest that The Phantom Pain’s panoramic vistas also indulge a different kind of fantasy. The lapidary clarity of mountain ranges and canyons redoubles the game’s informational architecture as a space of meticulous visibility, in which the “mediated space” of the game’s fictional Afghanistan and the “rule-based space” of its algorithmic structures reinforce one another (Nitsche). This is seen most clearly in the contrast between the vast open spaces traversed by the protagonist and the informational space of maps, menu options, and status notifications found on the iDroid “heads up display,” whose navigation increasingly displaces movement through a fictional three-dimensional space as a core element of gameplay.

Considered in this light, the hyper-visibility of this landscape – all exposed rock and windswept plains – functions as a mirage that conceals the actual opacity of the game’s underlying rules as well as its in-game decision trees, whose true complexity only reveals itself gradually over the course of gameplay. Such opacity has long been identified as a feature of video games that differentiates the medium from board games. As Nitsche writes of video game world-building, “The better this world operates, the less the players have to understand the code logic underneath […] A game world does not ask interactors to understand the internal computer processes and the mathematical logic of the code.” In contrast to digital games, it has been argued, "the nature of board games implies a transparency regarding the core mechanics of the game and the way they are interrelated."

In practice, of course, such distinctions tend to break down. Thus we find that, in contrast to the spectacle of pure visibility presented by The Phantom Pain’s painted canyons and steppe-lands, the board game Pax Pamir (2015) presents us with a very different representation of Afghanistan. Here, the convulsions of nineteenth-century imperialist power politics are reflected in a game space whose “real” transparency (i.e., open information, player-enforced rules) is difficult to keep in view thanks to the ingrained habits of players. An outgrowth of designer’s Cole Wehrle’s dissertation research on the British Empire, the game offers a meticulously researched, ground-level perspective on the so-called “Great Game,” the political and diplomatic confrontation between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia at the beginning of the 19th century.  Players are invited to assume the roles of the leaders of different Afghan political factions forced to navigate the shifting “winds of colonial power” as British and Russian interests jockey for influence and control.  At the start of the game, each player randomly draws a card that determines their initial loyalties, which can be British, Russian, or Afghan (representing loyalty to the Durrani Empire of Ahmad Shāh Durrānī and his descendants, who were historically deposed by the Barakzai faction in the years leading up to the first Anglo-Afghan War).  Over the course of gameplay, players share control of the military, economic, political, and intelligence capabilities of the empire to which they’ve pledged loyalty, while seeking to maximize their influence with whichever empire seems likeliest to come out on top.  More than one player can be loyal to the same Empire, but only the player who has the most favor with the Empire that prevails will win the game, so loyalties will change and alliances shift as players build up armies, secure roads, vie for the allegiance of local tribes, and dispatch spies to undermine or assassinate their rivals.

Among fans of historical simulation games, the first edition of Pax Pamir attracted immediate interest and attention for its unique theme and detailed historical research. Equally innovative was its gameplay, which combines elements of stock market games with the triggering of actions from a personal tableau of cards that players build and modify over the course of the game. However, the two-tiered victory condition, which requires players to continually monitor which Empire is currently dominant as well as the amount of favor each player has with that Empire, turned out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand it makes the game state highly dynamic, so that sudden reversals of position are possible and the game’s outcome remains uncertain until the very end. By the same token, however, it makes the game state unusually opaque, despite the fact that the cards in each player’s tableau are visible to all. Although this is partly due to the sheer number of factors players have to take into consideration each turn, it is equally a consequence of the double-think required of players who are used to playing the colonizers, not the colonized, in board games. The difficulty of tracking the game state in Pax Pamir led the designer to revisit and refine the game’s victory conditions in the game’s second edition (2019), which introduced a Victory Point track in place of the “sudden death” mechanics that determined the outcome of the game in the first edition.

The critical and commercial response to the second edition was overwhelmingly positive. Even among fans of the first edition, there was near universal agreement that the designer’s changes significantly improved the gameplay. It is possible to argue, however, that the opacity of game states and player positions in Pax Pamir captures something that the more streamlined and “playable” second edition of the games left out: namely, the confusion and uncertainty of historical actors confronting the limits of their knowledge and agency. More specifically in the case of the nineteenth century Afghanistan, this opacity mirrors the lack of understanding of local realities demonstrated by these imperial powers, and their consequent inability to anticipate developments or efficiently exercise control. It is through this experience of confusion and lack of control that the player comes to occupy something like a “third space,” both Afghan and European, colonizer and colonized.

In this respect, the gameplay of the first edition of Pax Pamir represents the opposite extreme from the fantasies of visual and strategic mastery presented in The Phantom Pain. Whereas the visually gorgeous, wide-open spaces of The Phantom Pain connote only a semiotic void, a completely smooth space organized around the imperatives of visual surveillance and instantaneous movement, Pax Pamir conveys a density of incident and information that verges at times on visual and semiotic impenetrability.

In conclusion, one might ask if the “bottom-up” view of colonialism presented by Pax Pamir goes far enough in fulfilling the requirements of a decolonizing theory and practice of games. Can games be described as “anti-colonialist” which continue to base their core mechanisms and interactions around models of competition and achievement derived, in some degree, from the structures of colonialism? After all, while the players of Pax Pamir are challenged to assume the identities of rival Afghan leaders, the building of power by European empires and the currying of favor with said empires still represent the core mechanic by which players win the game. In this way, the capabilities and strategies of the Durrani Empire (the “native” Afghan faction) are made essentially symmetrical with the Russian and British Empires: no allowance is made for any significant difference in legitimacy or capability between regimes committed to Afghan sovereignty and those that are allied with European colonial rule. This calls to mind the analysis of the realtime strategy game (RTS) Empire: Total War outlined in Souvik Mukherjee’s The Empire Plays Back: Video Games and Postcolonialism: “[It] is possible for players from erstwhile colonized countries to defeat their historical colonizers in ETW and thereby challenge imperialist historiography […] However, in so doing, they also adopt the same expansionist logic of empire that was posited by the real-life colonial powers.” In this connection, Mukherjee cites Gayatri Spivak’s critique of the concept of decolonization: “The displacement of the colonizing powers from the colonized space still involves a logic that is similar to that used by empire.” Yet, even though Mukherjee concludes that according to the logic of conquest and domination encoded in real time strategy games, “there is no end to empire and its extent,” he also affirms that even within the game-space of empire, there is always what postcolonial critic Homi Bhahba calls a “third space,” that is “a challenge to the limits of the self in the act of reaching out to what is liminal in the historic experience, and in the cultural representation of other peoples, times, languages, texts” (Bhahba 2011, p. 10). This is a space, according to Mukherkee, of negotiation rather than resolution: it is also perhaps a space that lies outside the rules of winning and losing the game, a space equally remote from the ideological representation of empire, and its technologically-mediated reality.



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