Cuban Africa

I recently played Victoria II, a Paradox game that’s a lot like other Paradox games, only even less fun. It’s a grand-strategy game that attempts to simulate world history from 1836 to 1935. In practice, there isn’t much to do, and even less that is comprehensible.

What Victoria II does have is one pretty map. There are many other maps, but they are all ugly and useless, such as the one displaying administrative efficiency (I don’t know what that means), one displaying railroad construction (they get built so fast I tend to not need to know where they’re getting built), a terrain map (I don’t think this one ever affect my decision-making, even though it’s the default), and more. But there is one good map, and it’s the world map:

Wow. Look at that map. Look at that text wrapping around that land. Wow.

As far as I can tell, the main reason to play Victoria II is to generate screenshots like that one, i.e. to create giant ahistorical labels on a map. People online apparently frequently seize extra territory just so that the lettering formats better.

That bit of whimsy aside, Victoria II does do a good job of giving a cursory depiction of colonialism.

Classic colonialism was the process of extracting resources from somewhere and sending them back to a central somewhere else (usually in Europe or North America). This almost always involved the overt seizure and nationalisation of foreign territory. The “Dutch East Indies” and “New England” and, in this case, “Cuban Africa”, were all clients of a parasitic relationship wherein there was one overall host–the Netherlands, England, or Cuba–that,  far more than any other nation-state or governing body, controlled the extraction of profit. Colonialism was a question of which government of a  nation-state or shadow government of a nation-state would reap the benefits, and land and empire were the fundamental metrics used.

Victoria II does a reasonable job of depicting this. As the president/autocrat of Cuba, I and I alone control Cuban Africa. Maybe someone will conquer it, or maybe a wave of French worker will migrate to there, but it is still my land. I get to make policy decisions in accordance to my economic needs. That screenshot is not my save file, but if it was, I would probably be focusing my attention on expansion, in an attempt to seize the mineral assets of Congo, south of the current administrative borders (the actual process of colonization in this game is, sadly, abstracted to a progress bar analogous to one you’d see when installing a new program).

So that all works, basically. Victoria II is the 19th century history of nation-states, and 19th century colonialism is nationalistic colonialism, so it’s easy to map. That’s because nations are easy to map. Nations have discrete colors on a map, with discrete boundaries, and large labels over them. What was colonialism? This. Like everything in life, it’s more complicated than that, but that map is a good place to start.

Neocolonialism, by contrast, is much harder to map.

Neocolonialism is a complex cocktail of background financial and political decisions conjured by a global potpourri of rich people. It’s far more subtle than its ancestral waves of colonialism were. If you look only at the geographic boundaries of nation-states, it’s invisible. For example, African countries nowadays don’t have any foreign prefixes attached to their names. If you didn’t know better, you’d assume their governments are similarly autonomous.

But it is real. This is neocolonialism:

Look at how wordy that damn image is. Without the text, it’s a picture two people, probably in some magazine ad because they look way too happy. The whole irony of it is that the effects of neocolonialism are blatantly on display, and we don’t notice. But with the text, it’s a complicated mess.

And this is the closest analogue we have to that brutally elegant map of colonial Africa.

I’m struggling with this phenomenon in the development of my game’s UI. Currently, this is the basic look:

Southeast Asia is red because a crisis has developed there. Europe has a white outline because it’s Europe’s turn to make a policy decision. (We are, as the bottom text explains, waiting for the Prime Minister to propose a policy, which we’ll then vote on.) Africa looks shiny because I’m mousing over it. The bottom left panel holds all of Africa’s information, including a pie chart of the distribution of player-owned assets. Currently, no one has bought African bonds. The various icons, and the white line between Europe and Southeast Asia, all affect bond value and industrial output.

It’s foreseeable that the UI will change, and often, but for now this is my best effort at depicting neocolonialism. This is not a game where your name or your country’s name will span a swath of terrain, because you don’t directly control any land, and almost always have to share control with other players. Power is equated with how many of a country’s 10 bonds you currently possess, and whether you have more than other people. Each bond then corresponds to a vote in Parliament. All of this makes the pie chart on the bottom-left the most informative depiction of how well you’re doing in any particular country.

It looks really different than Victoria II, and it plays very differently too, even though they’re about related processes. I’m trying to make a game wherein making decisions for nationalistic reasons is not only a bad idea (which it is, if you want to make money), but also a nonsensical idea. I’m trying to make a map that in no way implies that you actually control these territories, but does strongly imply the tools at your disposal to control a country’s economic policies for your personal benefit. The UI design for my game is not just a design challenge for me, but an attempt to visually represent neocolonialism in the most immediately meaningful way possible.

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