In the turn-based strategy game Civilization 6, small, nameless villages give their discoverer a random reward: gold, research points, and upgrades. After that, as the community calls them, the goody huts disappear without a trace. They make way for the civilizations, which the player will now continue to expand round by round.
In terms of game mechanics, these goody huts fulfill a valuable and vital function: They motivate players to explore the world map early on and keep the otherwise always the same early game of the strategy game fresh with the randomly determined goody. The replay value increases, a good thing. The problem, however, lies in the depiction of these goodie huts in the game world – because it is deeply racist.
It’s a problem that affects many games with historical scenarios and pops up again and again, especially in the strategy genre trimmed for efficiency and number-pushing: expansion and exploitation are constantly taken over here almost without comment or criticism, the two of the four essential components of the 4X genre with eXploit and eXterminate mean exploit and eradicate. Like so many things in the genre, this brings back unpleasant memories of the imperialism of the European colonial powers.
Other games ignore or hide such problematic parts of the story, such as Anno 1800, whose otherwise very detailed depiction of the past, real-life slavery is conspicuously absent. There are often understandable reasons for this because which construction fan would enjoy being forced to traffic in human beings instead of sipping rum?
But there’s one way that fun and historical authenticity can go hand in hand: ethical game design can make games better, educate players, and prevent racist portrayals. Paradox Interactive’s Victoria 3 shows how it can be done better because enslaved people play an essential role there.
The native village as a symbolic image
The gift villages in Civilization 6 always have the same look: huts with thatched roofs, arranged in a circle, with a fireplace in the middle. The inspiration for this depiction is not fictitious but comes from natural history: African roundhouse architecture. Not only a historical architectural style of the African continent but also a stereotype often quoted by colonial powers, which was supposed to symbolize the supposedly wild and uneducated African population.
Civilization 6 adopts this narrative almost faithfully with the design of the gift huts, which face the players’ civilizations and have no agency of their own. They are nothing more than warehouses ready to be plundered. And yes, this statement made here between the lines of the game design is just racist – there is no way around it. This doesn’t automatically mean that the Civilization 6 development team is racist, but rather that nobody noticed this problem at first—neither the developers nor the specialist journalists.
But why actually? Why has this observation remained undiscovered for so long? Is it not discussed in any reviews of the game or in columns or reviews and comment columns that have appeared about Civilization 6 since the 2016 release? The answers to these questions are uncomfortable but open up a meaningful, overdue discussion about how many games work and are built.
The 1990s are over
An attempt to explain the deafening silence: The Goody Huts have always existed and are no longer noticeable. Keyword not seeing the wood for the trees, especially when those trees are as old as the Civilization franchise itself.
The first part of the series was released in 1991 and already placed Goody Huts in its game world. So more than 30 years ago and at a time when games were far from being seen as a cultural asset and games journalism was exclusively product journalism. They weren’t interested in racist stereotypes but, above all, in playing fun and the range of functions. A blind eye has never really opened up to this day because it has always been like that with these huts. That wouldn’t be a good excuse, but an apology nonetheless.
However, this attempt at explaining is on shaky ground if you look past Civilization to the current game shelf. There are many other negative examples here that illustrate that outdated stereotypes are repeated repeatedly, and at the same time, hardly anyone recognizes them – or wants to recognize them. And this problem is particularly striking in the depiction of history in games. The silence surrounding the Goody Huts in Civilization 6 is not the exception. It’s the rule.
Case Study Slavery in Video Games: A Taboo?
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of these issues in the games industry, which, with the help of historical consultants and its research teams, is increasingly trying to avoid racist game design and disturbing historical images. This new, contemporary type of game design describes itself as ethical game design. It has excellent potential to bring our games into the 21st century and make them simply better, more interesting, and more complex.
Ethical game design does not mean giving up artistic freedom but dealing with specific social and historical issues with care and respect. This can mean offering content warnings for potentially disturbing scenes in a game like The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe – or not hiding the social phenomenon of slavery in a historical global strategy game like Victoria 3, but instead reflecting it as a game mechanic.
The development team Paradox Interactive announced in a detailed blog post well before releasing the latest Victoria part that slavery should play a significant role in in-game mechanics. According to Paradox, there are two good reasons for this: slavery plays such an essential social role in the setting of Victoria 3 – the world in the 19th century – that the topic cannot simply be ignored. In addition, with the claim of offering a complex simulation, the game wanted to depict all social classes of the time. And that’s also why enslaved people should not simply be ignored as a population group and social class.
So slavery should now be interwoven in the final game as a complex mechanic with the other aspects of the economic and political simulation – just like slavery in the authentic 19th century was an important factor for the politics and economy of its time.
In concrete terms, this means that players can allow slavery and thereby receive certain advantages – economic productivity in agriculture increases, lower living costs, for example – but at the same time have to accept serious disadvantages: Diplomatic relations with other countries that condemn slavery are severely strained, tax payments are falling, and players constantly risk civil unrest and protests.
Surprisingly, we all agreed very quickly within the team. Nobody wanted to make a historical game in the age of industrialization without including slavery, which played a big part in the dynamics of the time.
That says Mikael Andersson, Game Designer of Victoria 3, whom GameStar was able to win for an extensive interview. However, he can also understand why slavery plays little or no role incomparable other titles, as he explains to us:
Usually, games are pure escapism fantasies, and a theme like slavery doesn’t lend itself to that. This can also become an ethical minefield for historical strategy games: the whole topic is complex and politically charged.
According to Andersson, when you design a game, you inevitably have to take a perspective, which, especially in the context of slavery, opens the door to criticism and wrong decisions: All in all, a lot of work and a lot of risks, so I can understand that this topic is avoided unless it is necessary.
For Victoria 3, however, the theme was one that the development team felt could not be ignored – and the Victoria community took this decision with interest and, for the most part, positively. This is particularly pleasing to Andersson and his team, who have put a tremendous amount of work into trying to make slavery a balanced, thoughtful, and ethical feature:
How do people become enslaved? What countries do donations get their slaves from? Can societies also get rich with slavery? What happens to enslaved people on a plantation destroyed by a natural disaster? We first had to find answers to these and many other questions, which are either technically, politically, or ethically very complex, Andersson tells us in an interview.
Rethinking takes work
But this work seems to be paying off: After publishing the blog post about slavery in Victoria 3, fans were positively surprised – and historian Dana Hollmann is also impressed by the development team’s approach.
Hollmann is a research associate in the global history department and researches, among other things, the transatlantic slavery economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. GameStar talked to her for over an hour and a half about depicting slavery in digital games using a few case studies.
Hollmann considers it fundamentally essential and relevant to look at video games with historical settings and analyze how these titles deal with history – but not just to compare the game with history books. The historian is concerned with more:
Games shape our image of certain social groups, just like films, books, and series. Even if you think you’re smarter: being presented with certain representations repeatedly shapes and shapes our world of perception and our view of history.
Against this background, the historian likes Victoria 3’s approach to the big topic of slavery – also because enslaved people not only appear as a complete and ambivalent feature in the game but because they also have their own identity: It’s always a big one Problem when those affected, like the slaves here, are not given their voice and identity. If you look at them from a paternalistic perspective, from above, and if you also say: I’m going to do something good for them now. It is essential that this group also has the opportunity to make their own decisions and to be shown.
For the historian, this shows a respectful approach to the setting that the development team chose itself. And for players, the inclusion of slavery as a feature means that they are presented with a more complex and, therefore, more exciting simulation.
However, Victoria 3 is an exceptional example: Other games that also choose historical locations have shown little sensitivity to this topic in the past. Among them: is the traditional economic simulation Anno 1800 and the already mentioned Civilization 6. Both games decided to ban slavery from their digital worlds – and precisely in the case of Anno 1800 based on false facts.
When asked by a viewer in a live stream in 2017, the creative director of Anno 1800, Dirk Riegert, explained that there would be no slavery in the game. Firstly, slavery no longer existed in the 19th century, which historians refuted several times. Although Great Britain banned the transatlantic slave trade in 1807, it was tolerated even in the British colonies for 30 years more.
In 1865 a civil war was still being waged in the USA over the right to keep slaves. Slavery is not a social phenomenon that disappeared from people’s minds and their societies overnight by law.
The second reason is moral: you don’t want to make players feel uncomfortable. It’s even supposed to be uncomfortable. Dana Hollmann can only marvel at this justification: Of course, you should feel uncomfortable playing an economic simulation in the days of slavery.
According to Hollmann, hiding slavery as a topic and game feature at the moment is nothing more than a reinterpretation of the story, omitting topics that the development team did not dare to tackle. This was a massive misjudgment for the historian: There has to be an argument in a game like this. There’s no question about it. It has to do with ethics and responsibility before history, and anyone who has a spark of humanity sees that too.
For this reason, the historian appeals to development teams to consult historical consultants more often to support development. These experts could help with research, make it easier for the development team to process large amounts of information, and offer help with classifying complex topics. At the same time, Hollmann points to the possibility of label fraud: Just because games were developed with historical consultants does not mean that they are now beyond all doubt:
You have to take a close look at it from case to case and ask: To what extent did the advice given by these people have any consequences? But at least in these cases, you can recognize a good intention.
But there are not only moral arguments for Hollmann’s point of view: the historian also fears that the constant rewriting of history in the media will change our view of history and anchor errors. She is always astonished that even some students who take part in Hollmann’s seminars are surprised at the role slavery played in Europe.
Slavery: Not a United States phenomenon. European nations established their colonies, imported slaves into their cities, and traded the resources harvested by cheap labor. And here we are talking about people who are already interested in the subject and want to study it, as the historian points out.
Not mandatory, but worth considering
The expert’s recommendation is clear: if games choose a setting anchored in real-life history, they should also address the themes associated with that historical chapter. Finding interesting game-mechanical possibilities for implementing this would then be the task of an ethical game design.
But of course, that’s just a recommendation: Freedom of art is paramount. Development teams can let off steam with their games as they see fit, such as allowing baby murders in Crusader Kings. And some fun, despite their historical location, want to entertain above all, spread a good mood, fulfill fantasies of omnipotence – and there is hardly any room for a complex topic like slavery. Mikael Andersson, who played a crucial role in the slavery feature for Victoria 3, also understands Daür but, at the same time, points out:
Nevertheless, I believe that it is our responsibility as developers to make our games with sense and reason and respect and then send them out into the world. As with so many things, there are no fixed rules as to how this should look and work in the end. But it’s essential to try to do the right thing as best you can and then be open to feedback and critical discussion.
And with that, the game designer is addressing an important topic that is firmly intertwined with the idea of ethical game design: freedom of art means artistic freedom and that there can be a critical discourse about this art. And this discourse, in turn, can only arise if we players not only play but also occasionally think about what we are playing.
Of course, we can all keep having fun with Civilization 6 and occupying goodie huts to give us an early advantage in the game. However, this fun in the game does not rule out pausing for a moment after the gift huts have disappeared and asking yourself why you have never been surprised that the huts look the way they do – and what stories video games tell between them Lines know whether they want to or not.