My recent writing has given rise to an idea that’s been bubbling quietly away underneath a lot of my gaming habits for the past few years. Gaming has always had a troubling relationship with countries outside the West.
There are dozens of potential examples I could draw from here: Rice farmers driving sports cars in Just Cause 2; xenophobic portrayals of Eastern communism from any number of Cold War-era shooters; the marginalisation of indigenous populations in Age of Empires 3 or the Assassin’s Creed series. The issue comes up to even the modern day, with Ghost Recon: Wildlands‘ portrayal of Bolivia. The central narrative focus of the game is that Bolivia is a country so crippled by the Latin American drugs trade that a Mexican drug cartel has seized control of the entire country. In a move that stinks of some sort of White Saviour complex, the US is then forced to send in its own Covert Ops team to do a job that seemingly no one else could do. It’s a damaging and insensitive piece of design, that the Bolivian government have threatened legal action over.
But what I’m interested in looking at within this article is not the problems the Western games industry seems to have with the modern day, but with its relationship with Ancient South America, particularly the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilisations.
The portrayals of these people differ slightly depending on whether we see them from a modern or contemporary perspective. Modern perspectives, most visible from the Tomb Raider: Legend trilogy and its ilk, show these civilisations off as simultaneously advanced and archaic. Enormous temples carved into mountains house intricate puzzles that contain levels of automation that the West itself didn’t achieve until the 19th century, while still exhibiting the relative simplicity of the time through the use of an aesthetic that points towards the ancient traditions of the civilisations in question.
More contemporary depictions, like those shown in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, or Age of Empires 3, play towards a more archaic exploration of these worlds. Whenever the action strays south of the Equator (largely thanks to the action of Conquistador-era expansion), we’re brought face to face with the people who are supposed to have built these temples. Occasionally, the two different aspects of these portrayals are brought together, with South American civilisations living in developed cities, flanked by huge temples. But often, the same people who are supposed to have built these enormous structures are shown scurrying through underbrush, dressed in loincloths and covered in tribal paint, like some sort of Western pastiche of a Latin caveman.
The problem, I suppose, comes from the fact that Western gaming wants Latin America to be two things. On the one hand, it wants a savage indigenous population who it can effectively ‘other’, offering the player a variety of different ways to exploit them. On the other, it wants a civilisation advanced far beyond its time, capable of housing level designs that would be out of place in Europe or America. Crucially, the people behind these designs are now entirely absent (showcasing the lack of interest in the civilisation itself), but what it left behind should be almost entirely intact, having weathered so little over the centuries that all the moving parts and protruding ledges that the level requires to function are still intact.
Western gaming wants Latin America to be two sides of a historical coin that it never was in the first place, simultaneously far more and far less advanced than the civilisation that would eventually come to destroy it. The player is then able to be the force that contributes to the destruction of these civilisations on one occasion, while then profiting from that destruction on another, hundreds of years later.