Video Games and the Colonial Power Fantasy

In Monster Hunter World, most people agree, you kind of play as a dick. You and your hunter fleet arrive in the "New World" and it's only minutes later that it's time to go irreparably maim, kill, and turn the local monsters into hats. And I'll be god damned if it isn't some of the best fun you can have. But it also cuts to the quick of a common trope in games.  That is the colonial power fantasy. Though Monster Hunter World is a good game, it does nothing to interrogate how problematic its narrative is.

Where Does Colonialism in Games Appear?

There is a tendency to downplay the history colonization in the real world. So it should come as no surprise that it's a bit difficult to pin what colonialism looks like in a game.  Partly because, it looks like a lot of things. In survival games like Starbound it's traveling across the galaxy, mining resources from many planets. Then establishing bases of operation using these resources to benefit the travelers and not the indigenous inhabitants.

 The space travelers seriously never even help out.

The space travelers seriously never even help out.

In Pikmin, it's Olimar crash landing on a planet and manipulating an indigenous species to do his bidding. From putting themselves in mortal perils to carrying objects for Olimar, these Pikmin are treated as slaves. This is excused by the game by reinforcing how stupid they are whenever it can. And treating Olimar's treatment of the Pikmin as the natural thing to do given his situation.

The constant is the player exercising control over a place or population which is presented to them as unclaimed or needing to be controlled. The other constant, the player is never made to feel critical of their actions.  Colonialism framed as the correct course of action. No on in the Oregon Trail video game ever questions the ethical ramifications of manifest destiny. In typical video game fashion, it is presented as the thing to do, therefore you do it. This gives birth to an uncomplicated fantasy of colonialism which is a flavor of power fantasy. 

Another Kind of Power Fantasy

The belief of publishers and developers alike is, people play video games, primarily, to feel powerful and/or in control. In the recent release Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, the protagonist Evan, goes on a quest to become the literal king of the world. He travels the world getting countries to sign a charter giving up their status as sovereign nations and agreeing to recognize him as their king. And people agree to it. He manages the economic, political and military operations of his kingdom. Throughout, nobody makes a serious objection to a 10 year old becoming the king of the entire trucking world.

 He has the innocent boy haircut so it's fine that he's trying to take over the world. Right?

He has the innocent boy haircut so it's fine that he's trying to take over the world. Right?

This is a classic power fantasy built for young boys. It makes no sense and it's arguably a dangerous sentiment. There should never be a king of the world. And any nation trying to "unite the world" should met with extreme skepticism. But this point goes without comment because Evan is posed to the player as an innocent and benevolent ruler. As though he would never abuse his power if made king of the world. It's pure fantasy and it's difficult to take the game seriously because of it. But it's still entertaining. But just like with any other power fantasy, just because it is empowering or entertaining does not mean the colonial power fantasy should not be looked at critically.

The Power of Complicating These Fantasies

Most games are uncritical of their own narratives. A war game, doesn't typical question if the war is right. A game about colonizing the new world, doesn't explore whether doing so does right by the original inhabitants. These games take problematic stances and then allow the player an nonjudgmental playground to enact those stances. This has worked for the last 20 years of gaming history. But, it's old and shitty. 

 Spec Ops is seriously so good.

Spec Ops is seriously so good.

It's time for video games to evolve past giving players a free pass to be shitty. Though there's an inherent appeal to these power fantasies, I can't deny, that doesn't mean it doesn't warrant interrogation. It's time that games become critical of colonialism rather than simply enabling players.