Internationales Zentrum für Ethik in den Wissenschaften (IZEW)

The Ethics in 4X Gaming

by Nikhil Murthy

04.11.2021 · The second half of 2021 has been a moment in the sun for the 4X genre. The normally very niche genre recently had a couple of high-profile releases in Old World and Humankind and it's always exciting to see new games in the genre. Unfortunately though, new games don't always mean new perspectives and the colonial underpinnings of the genre remain untouched. Therefore, I built Nikhil Murthy's Syphilisation to try to bring a post-colonial viewpoint to the genre and in doing so hopefully demonstrate the truths that the genre tends to overlook and to show the space in it still left unexplored.

Firstly, for those unfamiliar with the genre, what is a 4X game? A subgenre of strategy games, most famously the Civilization series, they revolve around the building and management of an empire. However, given the designs of these games, that management becomes less a stewardship and more an unchecked hurtling towards greater and greater consumption in the service of world domination.

The idea of winning is a natural one for a videogame, but one that ends up unsavoury when used for a game that asks you to run an empire. Firstly, winning is problematic in itself, whether in its encouragement of military expansion for the sake of national glory, or more insidiously in its presentation of culture and religion as axes through which one people can win over all others. This is an idea that uncomfortably reflects one of the most common justifications of colonialism; that it is meant to bring enlightenment to a savage population unable to find it themselves. The falsity of that argument is hopefully self-evident to the reader and my hope is that through games like Syphilisation, it can become self-evident to the player as well.

The second issue with winning is that it implies an ending; a point where you can pick up the pieces and put them away before the next game. However, the real world does not allow for such cleanliness. Officially, the British colonization of India ended in 1947 with a win for those who fought for freedom, but the effects of that colonization are still inescapable 75 years later. It is the fate of each generation to pick up the pieces from where the previous one left them.

Finally, when there can be only one winner in a game of history, then history itself must be presented as a zero-sum competition. Many people subscribe to this belief in the real world, feeling that their country can only succeed if some other countries fail, but this precludes the idea of a cooperative world, one in which we all strive together for the common good. This is the biggest difference that Syphilisation brings to the table. By changing the end of the game from a binary win/loss state to something nuanced with lots of space for multiple winners and for a future beyond the game, it fundamentally changes the decisions that a player takes over the course of the game.

Similarly, a common trope in video games is to always give the player higher and higher numbers. When those numbers are experience points or hit points, they are innocuous, but when they represent unrestrained industrialization, the mechanic feels out of touch. It is thus that even when these games represent climate change, they cannot make it an existential threat as the game is so dependent on these ever-increasing numbers. By not only allowing climate catastrophe, but also implementing the spiralling that comes before, Syphilisation changes how players treat the environment.

Given the amount of influence the medium has on the message, the challenge of making a postcolonial 4X game is fascinating. Designing alternatives to systems that have colonialism deeply rooted in them is rewarding both as a game designer and as a human being. It was very interesting to build out a fluid view of technology rather than one that progresses every forward rather than one marching ever forward to the present day. It was fascinating to build out a representation of the will of the people governed rather than just that of the player and the Great Leader they represent.

Most fundamentally, I tried to build some space in Syphilisation for empathy. By placing people in the role normally filled by empires, I reframe the decisions in the game to interpersonal ones that players can better relate to. By taking away the zero-sum and binary nature of other games in this space, I put less pressure on players to be Machiavellian. The master's tools will never fully dismantle the master's house and there is a lot of space left in this game for selfishness. The player is even expected a little selfishness of their own every now and again. However, Syphilisation tries to represent the costs and contradictions that come with it.

What I hope for is, even if the game falls short for some players, that it will at least ask them to think about what the current set of standard systems imply. We, as players and as designers, don't have the literacy with videogames that we have with other media and so we too often let systems go unchallenged simply because we lack the framework to inspect them. By building a game in conversation with other games, I hope to help people develop the skill to ask these questions themselves. Much of the statement of the game is to push back against narratives that privilege some over others. It would do no good to then just set this game on the throne.

This is how we can get to games that do more than just reproduce what other games have already said. This is how we can make games that can envision a future and a present other than the ones we currently have. This is how we make games that know what they want to say and then say it.

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