Home > Uncategorized > Civilization VI, Problem Spaces, and the Representation of the Cree – A few thoughts

Civilization VI, Problem Spaces, and the Representation of the Cree – A few thoughts

Civ VI CreePC Gamer published a short article on the controversy stirred by Civilization VI’s release of the Cree as a DLC civilization led by the historical leader, Poundmaker (Poundmaker Cree Nation leader criticizes Cree portrayal in Civilization 6). Reporter Andy Chalk quotes Cree Headman Milton Tootoosis’ assessment of the harmful depiction of the Cree:

“It perpetuates this myth that First Nations had similar values that the colonial culture has, and that is one of conquering other peoples and accessing their land,” Headman Milton Tootoosi said. “That is totally not in concert with our traditional ways and world view.”

“It’s a little dangerous for a company to perpetuate that ideology that is at odds with what we know. [Poundmaker] was certainly not in the same frame of mind as the colonial powers.”

And Chalk notes that Civ VI’s representation of the Cree as a playable civilization is problematic because it seems to suggest that the Cree were just another global player in the ultimate arena: world civilizations struggling to dominate the globe.

This news article struck me because it seems to illustrate very well the tendency of historical video games to model and portray the past in terms of historical problem spaces (McCall 2012 & McCall 2012). In a historical problem space, as I have suggested it, historical happenings are portrayed in terms of

  • Players, or in the physical world, agents, with roles and goals generally contextualized in space
  • Choices and strategies the players can implement in an effort to achieve their goals
  • The outcomes of choices and strategies (especially their success) are shaped by
    • The affordances of the space (which can include quantifiable resources, cultural frameworks, psychological tendencies, etc.)
    • The constraints of the space (which can include finite quantifiable resources and scarcity, cultural frameworks, psychological tendencies, etc.)

This focus on historical problem spaces is a natural consequence of video games, in general, being about contested spaces (Jenkins and Squire 2004).

All methods of representing the past are problematic insofar as none can actually fully recreate the past, and the historical video-game vision of the past as sets of problem spaces is not wholly devoid of analytical value. But there are consequences, ways that the historical problem space approach shapes the way that the game models the past, and the controversy surrounding the inclusion of the Cree in Civ VI provides an illuminating glimpse of some of those consequences. To be fair, I have not played Civilization VI yet, but I have managed to play all the other iterations beginning with my purchase of Civilization I in college at the start of the 90s, and spent the last decade using Civilization IV in my classes. A glimpse of the Civilization VI victory conditions confirms that the main outlines of the problem space have not changed:

  • The player ostensibly takes on the role of a specific historical leader for a civilization, though since the leaders have undreamed of control of their civilizations and live for 6000 years, the player is really more the disembodied guiding intelligence of the civilization.
  • The goals of the player are to achieve victory by developing the material and monetary culture (the core food, production material, and wealth resources, which allow the production of culture, research, etc.) to such an extent that it outperforms rival Civilizations and comes to dominate militarily, culturally, religiously, or scientifically. It is worth repeating: though more recent iterations of Civ allow smaller Civilizations to win, the name of the game is material and geographical growth and expansion that dominates the rest of the globe in one way or another. The teleological bent of these games has perennially been a concern of designers, since the game can lose its appeal if players feel they must focus exclusively on a particular type of victory from the beginning of the game.
  • The space in which the player competes to achieve victory conditions against AI civ players is a world map with physical geography and resources looming large. The map provides resources and routes, the spaces to locate cities and the exploitable resources that make those cities strong (or weak)
  • Elements in the space that can afford or constrain (help or hinder) include: resources, topography, rival civilizations (note one of the less-salutary effects of a historical problem space is a player can tend to see other agents as instrumental elements rather than agents), units, buildings, cities, barbarians, wonders, etc.

Again, I have not played Civilization VI, but this characterization, certainly valid for Civ I – V, seems sound in its basics (let me know if you disagree).

Okay, so here is where we get to the analytical point. The designers of Civ VI, when they chose to incorporate the Cree, or any historical other leader and people, already had a fully functioning historical problem space, realized through game mechanics and options, that required:

  •  a leader
  • competing with rivals on a more or less equal footing (generally in Civ, all players start with the ability to build a single city on the first turn)
  • in a physical geography
  • for some form of domination.

Since the game is, as all successful video games are, a closed functioning system, a closed functioning historical problem space in this case, it cannot be easily redesigned to accommodate a new problem space, a new set of roles, goals, environment, and affordances and obstacles.  The historical criticism of the Cree portrayal is spot-on, but understanding why the Cree are portrayed this way in the game requires understanding the historical problem space the game models. That space, once created by the main designers of Civ VI, powerfully shapes the way new characters/new Civs appear in the game. Chalk notes, “Civilization 6: Rise and Fall appears set to portray Poundmaker and his people in a favorable, and relatively non-warlike light: Cree strengths lie in diplomacy and trade rather than military power.” This suggests that the designers at least were aware and attempted to represent the Cree leader in historically authentic light (insofar as any of the Civ leader thumbnails are historically authentic). But the fact remains that the problem space as the designers conceived it, dictates how dlc agents’ will be portrayed and function, just as it dictates worthwhile goals, and the means to achieve those goals. So, Poundmaker cannot but be portrayed in some light as a competitive, expansionist, materialist, empire-builder (whether geographic, religious, cultural, or other forms of empire), because that is what the player-agents and roles of the Civ VI defined problem space are.

Please note: nothing in this essay is meant to assign or absolve responsibility for how the past is represented, or misrepresented by the game. The point is simply this: to better unpack analytically and systemically how and why a historical agent is portrayed a particular way in a particular historical game, understand the historical problem space the game designers have developed and the pressures it inevitably puts on the historical content.

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