colonialism as mode via simulation

by ibull

q: can you explain about ‘[colonization games] offload the labor of making a world out of tedious tasks to the player?’

a: okay, here’s my thesis: what we’re calling colonization games are both a genre (set of aesthetic relations and conventions that dictate appearance) and mode (a means for ‘doing games’ in terms of meta design and the construction of agency via gaming/playing).

all games rely on player input. colonization games do not have special ownership over that convention of simulated experiences. however, simulated experiences are differentiable on the basis of how player input is supposed to advance a narrative, constitute a world, or otherwise ‘progress’ (move) through a system. my hunch here is that colonization games distinguish themselves on the basis of how much they rely on players to build the world using tools that could only reasonably build a colonial society. while a simulated narrative ostensibly about a colonial society (idk… something like Assassin’s Creed?) may rely on players to think like a colonist in order to accomplish tasks and progress through the narrative, an open-ended game environment with almost no narrative is capable of engaging with the same premises (beliefs, ideas, assumptions, verifiable information, etc.) that rationalize and naturalize colonialism by limiting the possibility space determined by game mechanics and object relations within the simulation.

let’s think through something like minecraft for example. it’s basically a crude physics engine with a simple aesthetic. the things they choose to include as part of that simulation are political, certainly, but more important than the representational aspects of this fantasy (colonialism as genre) are the mechanical conventions that support and make possible ‘being’ or doing in the world (colonialism as mode).

we know that ‘survival mode’ is dictated by the popular imagination of what a western man must survive and how he must survive it. this doesn’t need to be written down; the game relies on aesthetic conventions and object relations to allow players to enact this fantasy without being explicitly told about it. object relations are a sort of grammar that players have with the game simulation. we learn how to ‘speak’ with the game by learning the object relations and manipulating them.

i suppose that by saying this, i’m also arguing that there is an inherent relationship between the grammar player’s develop with the simulation and the surface of their enjoyment and engagement with the game. these grammars are not necessarily unique; in fact, a lot of first-person shooters basically offer the same way of ‘speaking’ in a way that roughly translates across different games on the same platform. colonization games (as mode), similarly, operate on the same grammatical basis. the world is an array of objects, most you manipulate and some you cannot. you demonstrate your ‘being’ in the game by how you acknowledge and manipulate object relationships. sometimes objects can affect you (often in terms of damage or healing), but seldom in a truly permanent fashion and never in an unanticipated fashion. the player-object relationship is characterized by player control (as in, something that can be manipulated or avoided), as opposed to object control (which would deny player agency). at some level, a colonization game (as mode) is enacted through a particular grammar to articulate a specific value system that prioritizes control over all else.

even as a sandbox, creative environment, Minecraft prioritizes player control over an imaginary earth-like landscape over all other possible canvases. when players remove the landscape, they are left with grammatical conventions that also prioritize control: killing/farming mobs, placing blocs, and constructing machines.

okay, back to the question: can you explain about ‘they offload the labor of making a world out of tedious tasks to the player?’

at present, and i welcome correction here if you think i’m wrong, colonization games (as mode) typically rely on players to flesh out the perceived world (in a way that answers the question ‘where is Minecraft’) rather than the game developers. colonization games (as mode) naturalize the rationality of colonial imperialism by stranding players in a relatively empty simulation and rely on players to muddle through the grammatical conventions of the world to tell their own story through that framework, a story inherently about identifying oneself through colonial conventions (the possibility space of the world). games that do not rely on this mode, i believe, front-load the labor of world-building and storytelling on the shoulders of game developers, who are given more responsibility to articulate object-user relations, even if those relations are not actionable in the game. Steve’s gender, for example, is ‘in the game’ of Minecraft and yet it is not; it does not exist as an object-user relationship. Still, it does affect how users make choices about their representation and actions in the game. as gender is part of the social grammar for relating to others in a colonial society, the situation was never whether or not Steve’s gender was represented in game, but how the translatability of gender-based assumptions should inform game play and community membership.

when games leave the details of narrative, as well as the contents of worlds up for debate, they leave players to make normative choices about how the world aught to be. when players are only left with select tools to dictate how that world is, they invariably express their agency through the reproduction of colonial imperial grammars.