I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, far from Indian Country but not from Indians. Despite this, I didn't know a single Native person. My exposure to Native America was limited to the usual things- history textbooks, films, television, and videogames. In my mind, American Indians sort of were those historic exotic far off people who existed on paper and on celluloid but not in real life.
I was recently reminded of one item that had a huge impact on my upbringing and prominently featured American Indians. It wasn't a movie or television show or book, it was that most modern of mediums- the videogame.
As a prototypical pre-teen and teenage male, I played my share of videogames. While I occasionally dabbled in racing simulations, first person shooters, and sports games, nothing could beat a good strategy game. Among many great titles, nothing could compare to the critically acclaimed Civilization series.
The gameplay involves controlling a distinct civilization from the stone age through the atomic age. It's like the board game Risk on steroids where you move your armies and expand your empire across the entire world. You research technologies, conduct diplomacy, and build Wonders of the World.
The Civilization series is also a perfect example of "greatest hits" history. Just as musicians release their greatest hits album, so have popular forces created a "greatest hits" list of history. I'm talking the Pyramids of Giza, Roman armies, Alexander the Great, medieval knights, the Great Wall of China, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment etc. etc. All the best-known names, ideas, and objects that just scream Civilization!
How many Wonders can you identify from this Civilization III screenshot?
The Civilization series has always included real civilizations in its format. You can explore the world as the ancient Romans, sail the high seas as the English, or develop the atomic bomb as the Sioux!
The American Indian in Civilization
On one hand, I fault the Civilization series for essentially stereotyping every major civilization and history in general. This became most apparent with Civilization III when each civilization was given two unique qualities and a unique unit which provided bonuses and affected gameplay. Previous to this, each civilization was essentially equal with just superficial differences in naming and color.
So for example, the Egyptians are considered a "religious" and "industrious" civilization, (cause they built big pyramids and had big temples), the English are "expansionist" and "commercial" (cause they had a big empire and were good merchants), and the Germans are "scientific" and "militaristic" (cause they invented stuff and liked to invade countries). Check out the full chart here to see what I mean: Civ III chart
Here are the Civilization III stats for the 4 Native civilizations:
Aztecs- militaristic and religious (later changed to agricultural and militaristic)
Iroquois- expansionist and religious (later changed to agricultural and commercial)
Hiawatha- leader of the Iroquois from Civilization III
Incans- expansionist and agricultural
Mayans- agricultural and industrious
(notice how they're all termed agricultural but otherwise follow the pattern seen above)
Here are the unique units for the 4 Native civilizations:
Aztecs- Jaguar warrior (OK)
Iroquois- mounted warrior (Really? Apparently, the Iroquois stood in to represent all of Native America in Civ III. So their "great leaders" include Tecumseh, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull. Click here)
"Iroquois mounted warrior"
Incans- chasqui scout (OK)
Mayans- javelin thrower (nothing more unique?)
On the other hand, despite being based on real history, the beauty of the Civilization series is your ability to write a new history. It's every history buff's dream come true. You can send the Spanish Armada to invade China, surprise Germany with a "blitzkrieg" of French tanks, or send your Iroquois musketeers to subject the native English population on some newly discovered continent! Gotta love anachronisms!
Iroquois leader Hiawatha circa the European Renaissance
The series did hit a bump in the road with Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword which represents the 550+ distinct Native North American nations as one generic Native American Civilization. As the official game website explains:
The "Native American" civilization in the game represents the empire that would have formed had these disparate people ever united.
Ouch! But if you read the rest of the text it comes off a little better. Click the link > civilizations > Native American Empire
Still, this didn't stop some enterprising modders from correcting this wrong with their new mod:
Annoyed about the fact that Native America got bundled into one? Thought the Totem Pole was inappropriate? Then I give you: Native America Expanded for VD 6
The Apache Empire: a user-created civilization
In the latest reiteration, Civilization V the series has gotten better in expanding beyond the Western world. You can play as India, Japan, China, Songhai, Siam, Aztecs, and Iroquois. Despite the attempts to define each civilization with two distinct qualities, the series otherwise treats each civilization equally. Everyone starts in the Stone Age and so has an equal chance of ruling the world. It's a refreshing take on history that Iroquois and Aztec civilization is placed on the same level as Roman or American civilization.
Civilization IV: Colonization
The Civilization series has numerous expansion packs and spin offs that recreate distinct historical periods ranging from the Ancient World to World War II. One recent stand-alone release was Civilization IV: Colonization. Here's a description from the game's website:
Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization is a total conversion of the Civilization IV engine into a game experience in which players will lead a European nation on their quest to colonize and thrive in the New World. Players will be challenged to guide their people from the oppressive motherland, discover a New World, negotiate, trade and fight as they acquire great power and battle for their freedom and independence.
Essentially, this is the standard American historical narrative in video game form. Europeans come to the Americas to flee oppression and strike it rich, all while engaging in the exciting activities of discovery, trading, and fighting. You must:
Sustain peace and support your followers as you engage in advanced negotiations with natives, other colonists and the hostile homeland -- Trade resources, gold and land as you build the foundation for a self sufficient and powerful colony.
I have never played this specific game but am sad to see the Native civilizations treated as minor characters. I remember one "New World" scenario for Civilization III where you could play as either a European power or one of several Native civilizations, each fighting for territory with a real chance of winning. Now that's historically accurate!
"Chief of Teton - Sioux" from Civilization IV: Colonization
I played these games throughout my youth without giving them much thought. I know they definitely spurred my interest in history but did they influence me in any other way? Are my views and feelings toward real peoples and "civilizations" affected by years of building digital empires and waging artificial wars? I can only wonder...
Here's a good take on Civilization IV: Colonization from the Newspaper Rock blog:
And one from Variety.com:
And for a more general look at American Indians in video games: