Culture  /  Media Criticism

Against the Grain?

Native farming practices and settler-colonial imaginations in the video game "Empire: Total War."

Creative Assembly’s 2009 game, Empire: Total War is a 4X strategy game—Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate—that allows players to take over one of the “Old World” empires and conquer the world in the eighteenth century. Players can take over a variety of kingdoms in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, or the Maratha Confederacy, and fight, build, trade, negotiate, and occupy lands on three maps: North America, the Mediterranean, and the India subcontinent. But of the three maps for play and conquest, North America offers no Native polities for the player in the base game. The Native groups represented are given ahistorical territories, tribes, and polities are subsumed into oversimplified landmasses representative of colonial treaties like Fort Stanwix and Hard Labor rather than existing land claims and interrelations, and deliberately turned into “primitive” cultures. Among other areas, this is particularly apparent in the depiction of Native agriculture, something that has been repeatedly debunked in scholarly literature. All of this is, of course, a representation of ongoing white supremacist mythologies, the narrative of settler-colonialism that demands replacement of indigenous peoples—much like in the game itself. Native groups are put in place only to die. Quests are given to destroy them. Playing as them is impossible. They are made to be backwards, whose structures must be leveled by their conquerors in order to “progress.” And this is, of course, not limited to Empire: Total War—these problems exist in Greedfall (2019), This Land Is My Land (2021), Civilization VI(2016), the Red Dead Redemption series, and most other pop culture representations of Native power and culture.

This fundamental flaw proceeds to bleed into everything else. The game cannot conceive of a reality in which Native polities were wealthy, advanced, prosperous, and powerful. One of the many absurd and egregious examples is agriculture. The starting farming structure available on Native-controlled lands is called “subsistence farming,” and the game describes it as such:

An area set aside for the care and cultivation of livestock and crops. Livestock and crops were a valuable commodity, allowing the population to grow without relying on what food can be found by hunting and gathering. They provide a constant food source, more than the meat brought in by hunting parties. Although the processes involved in keeping farms went against the grain of Native Americans’ religion, they did keep crops. They tended to favour corn, beans, and squash, crops they referred to as “the three sisters.”