Review: Neocolonialism – Subaltern Games by Matthew Rosegreen

Review: Neocolonialism – Subaltern Games

Matthew Rosegreen, Computer Science (Games Technology), NTU

12 November 2015

Neocolonialism is a strategy game based around the impact of neocolonialism and globalization. However, while most game developers would look at this as inspiration for a game in the style of SimCity that relies on the player maintaining a healthy economy, Subaltern Games invites the player to exploit it by becoming a world leader and then making self-serving business decisions. The player is able to buy PM votes as if they are shares in a company and, as the name suggests, use them to develop the facilities in that continent that will earn the most money. For you.

The game then gives the player the option to liquidate their votes into money that can be stored in a Swiss bank account, and if that last sentence made you feel like a Bond villain then you now understand Subaltern’s motives in creating the game. The tutorial makes frequent nods to the audience that you’re doing terrible things to this virtual world for your own gain. This helps to convey the anticolonial (or more specifically anti-neoliberal) agenda.

As a whole, this game has an excellent way of using its main mechanics to make statements about the economy and convey a nihilistic view on political leaders that gets the player discussing it with other people. The way that the game approaches the issue of global capitalism is not unlike the delivery of similar topics on other media platforms such as films, television or fictional publications.

The AI players are given the names of businessmen and potential leaders. After being introduced to the chat feature in the tutorial, I was looking forward to seeing what tactics they would deploy and how they would try to compete with me. Then I saw an empty space in the top right corner where the “chat” button used to be and realised that it was only possible to do that against human players in online matches. This is an issue, as the AI’s actions during gameplay can only be seen via a text-based log (which wasn’t on display by default) and most of them just repeatedly bought votes in the same area as each other, allowing one AI to lead and make all the financial decisions (thus winning the game). None of the AI players even considered creating a dictatorship, a concept that I thought was a clever gambling system that would either make you the continent’s sole benefactor or create a coup which would sink your votes. In other words, the competitors’ names felt hollow because of the lack of personality that factored in their decisions. I felt like I was playing against Agent Smith from The Matrix.

The aesthetics of the game fit its theme well. The bleak world map looks like a corporate presentation and the music is uneasy but calm enough to focus on strategizing. However, the information boxes clutter the screen and cover over sections of the map; if they were all put on a separate pane on the side of the screen, it may have been easier to follow. Another part that lets it down is the “Game Over” screen, which just blurs out the screen to show a static message of who won and each player’s scores. The game could have culminated in a more interesting way, especially since we don’t actually see the supposed ruination of the world which would have given your actions more impact.

It is a great demonstration of how, even in the hands of the public, those who can control the economy will go to great lengths to gain privilege, regardless of how it can negatively affect others. I think this is mostly thanks to the fact that videogames inherently give the player an empathetic view of the character they assume. As a part of this phenomenon, the player usually models the character with relatable features (in this case the name of the character and their logo) and feels the need to justify some of the automated decisions that the character makes; walking a proverbial mile in this leader’s shoes may have led you to believe that your character has treated one country (relatively) well and is now entitled to an extremely one-sided benefit from them. Mainly, this reasoning is concocted because the player doesn’t want their virtual ambassadors to look like ignorant warlords. It’s an effective way to get people to understand the motives and actions of those to who they may otherwise be indifferent and to question whether they would act differently under the same circumstances. I hope to see more views, whether they are political or otherwise, expressed utilising this method in future games.

If Subaltern Games were to revisit development on the game, they would only have to correct the AI’s decisions to reflect individuals instead of a hive mind and give the tutorial more depth (perhaps temporarily showing AI player’s decisions to illustrate game mechanics) to make this an entertaining game to strategy gamers and people who have an interest in postcolonial studies alike.