Geographic Determinism and Video Games 1

This past weekend, I had a brief, wonderful conversation with Kwasi Mensah at the No Show Conference. He’s a cool guy who asks cool questions.

I was busy explaining the mechanics of Neocolonialism, and he asked me why sub-Saharan Africa is one region, suggesting that I was conflating what should not be conflated–at least not without seriously thinking why I’m doing it.

I don’t have a good answer.

I defined the regional boundaries in Neocolonialism without thinking it through enough–they’ve stayed static since the very earliest build, when I had considered it something I would re-think at a later date. I do know that the current number of regions, eleven, works well for gameplay purposes, and I don’t want to deviate too far from that quantity.  I could, of course, subdivide the world to an infinite degree of geographical distinctions, but after a while, that wouldn’t be useful or fun or meaningful. To make a good game, or even a useful macroeconomic simulation, things need to be modeled at, well, a macro level. But to say that the line has to be drawn somewhere is not the same as to explain why the line is where it is.

Then, Kwasi and I also talked about geographic determinism.

Currently, the game has the same beginning each time you play. Each region always starts with certain structures, which subsequently affect their industrial capacity. North America, for example, always starts with a Mine and a Factory, while Central America starts with just a Mine–North America always starts wealthier than Central America.

Kwasi questioned this design decision, once again for socio-political reasons. Just what do I mean to express, anyway?

In my imagination, my video game takes place some time in the 20th or 21st century, and the starting map is meant to vaguely reflect the global distribution of wealth as it stands today. However, I now see that there are some very problematic conclusions that someone could hypothetically draw from North America being always wealthy and, say, India always being poor. My game isn’t meant to be geographically deterministic because geographic determinism is a really harmful and stupid and crappy way of thinking about things–in my game, you’re not supposed to think that India is poor because of some intrinsic idiosyncrasy. As far as the game is concerned, India is poor mainly because you, and the horrible capitalist, and all of your horrible capitalist predecessors, made India poor.

I do not know if I want to change this aspect of the game. I could implement a random setup, but I might lose some of the intended message–people that I’ve demoed the game for and with often light up with comprehension when they see how the starting wealth of North America inevitably leads to exploitative practices elsewhere. The current start setup reflects the present day in a way that a random setup would not. Perhaps all it needs is some additional conceptualization–maybe there could be several start options, like 2012, 1946, 1968, and Random.

Bottom line: there are aspects of my game that are lazily thought-out and they shouldn’t be. I will work on it.

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