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Full Steam Ahead: Age of Empires III

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 9 Hours.


The Age of Empires series of games is special to me. These are the games that introduced me to the real-time-strategy genre. Age of Empires got me interested in the classical empires of Persia, Egypt, and Greece. Age of Empires II brought the stories of medieval leaders to life: Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, and Saladin. Age of Mythology took the well-balanced, carefully crafted gameplay I had come to love, and transported it to the world of Norse, Egyptian, and Greek legend.

So, let’s make no mistake: Age of Empires III is fun game. It is a well-balanced real time strategy game, and part of one of that genre’s most consistently excellent series.

Now watch as I spend most of the rest of this article barely talking about the game.

The Spanish home city, and title screen of Age of Empires III.

Age of Empires III is set during the era of new world colonialism. In the initial release of the game, the only civilizations available for play were European colonial powers. Gameplay was split between a home city, which let you send various shipments of supplies and troops, and the colonies themselves, which were all set in the American continents.

In these new world maps, the player would encounter small camps and settlements of Indigenous peoples, including Iroquois, Aztec, Cherokee, Cree, and many others.. Invariably, these groups would do nothing. They would ignore the player and their colony, until the player built a trading post on their land.

At this point, the player would be able to create Indigenous warrior units from various Indigenous peoples of North and South America. These new units were completely controlled by the player, and didn’t even count against the colony’s population limit.

Things changed a little with the release of The War Chiefs expansion, which made Iroquois, Aztecs, and Sioux fully playable civilizations in their own right. These civilizations were portrayed have unique ways of building their settlements and populations, differentiating them somewhat from the European civilizations. Furthermore, the game does get credit for portraying the Aztecs as a complex, developed society, a courtesy not always given to Aztecs in popular media, especially games. However, the base gameplay remained the same: conquer the Americas by colonizing the land and controlling the Indigenous population.

For what it’s worth, the player never has to choose to engage the Indigenous peoples. The player is never required to build a trading post, or to train Indigenous warrior units. They can choose to focus their efforts elsewhere, building their own warriors, or improving their settlement. The player, if they really wanted, could spend the entire game without ever giving the first nations of North and South America a second thought.

However, I believe that we ignore our Indigenous peoples too much already.

Currently, in Canada, Indigenous peoples are far more likely (disproportionately so) to experience homelessness.

In addition to the most often regarded definition of homelessness, the struggles of Indigenous homelessness include isolation from familial, spiritual, communal, cultural, and geographic ties. These experiences stem not only from the unique worldview of Indigenous peoples, but also from the systemic efforts of a colonial government completely unwilling to accept said worldview.

I am writing this post, and indeed, all of my posts have been written, from the comfort of a home that lies on Treaty 7 lands. This treaty, made between Canada and the region’s First Nations, placed the control of present day southern Alberta in the hands of Canada, while removing Indigenous populations to reserves.

The reserve lands of Treaty 7, and indeed of all the treaties, were unsuitable for the lives and needs of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis alike. These lands did not fulfil the promises made by the Canadian government. In recent years, it has become a well-known but often ignored fact that clean, safe drinking water is not available on many reserves. While there are currently no long term drinking water advisories on Treaty 7 reserves, there are 75 reserves which don’t have ready access to drinking water.

A land of lakes, rivers, and with a populace immensely proud of its public healthcare system, is failing to provide even the most basic essentials to the Indigenous populations of the same land. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, in part, that everyone has the right to an adequate standard of living and the necessities thereof.

Of course, it would be remiss of me to cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and not mention that the Government of Canada, until recently, had not adopted, and in fact objected to, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, with at least one Indian Affairs Minister claiming that the declaration could not be adopted, since it conflicted with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Although a playable civilization after the expansion, the Iroquois and Sioux don’t get a home city. Instead, they get a tribal council.

I don’t know exactly what the readership of this blog looks like. But I’d bet solid money that most of my readers are Canadian. Chances are my readers are familiar, if not experienced themselves, with at least with the general ideas I’ve presented here. These facts are in the news, maybe not every day, but certainly with high frequency. Of late, the efforts made for reconciliation with and recognition of Indigenous peoples have been a consistent element of Canada’s national discourse. However, this discourse needs to be more than a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Too many people have suffered, and continue to suffer, for that to be acceptable.

I have tried to write this post many, many times. There are countless other failings, countless other abuses of trust, that I can’t possibly do justice. Suffice to say, the effects of colonialism on the Indigenous peoples of Canada are not restricted to the colonial era. These are not just the failings of our ancestors, of our grandparents and parents. These abuses have continued into our lifetimes, and without our action, their effects may be felt for generations to come.

To get this back to the subject of games, for a moment, let’s talk about the capacity games have to teach. I’ve talked about this with some of my teaching and gaming friends, about how the repetitive and  easy to understand nature of games and game mechanics can make them valuable tools for learning. Previous entries in the Age of Empires series taught me a lot about world history. Another game I’m playing right now, InFluent, uses games as a method to solidify and strengthen my vocabulary in a foreign language. Well-designed games can do amazing things to teach and reinforce knowledge, sometimes without it being obvious that they are doing so.

I didn’t think very much about games and what could do in 2005, when Age of Empires III was released. I didn’t think very much about the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Canada at that point in time, either. Suffice to say, I hope, I really hope, that I didn’t internalize the game’s treatment of Indigenous peoples as justifiable.

It strikes me that in Canada, we have tried both of the options that Age of Empires III allows for with regards to Indigenous peoples: subjugation and ignorance. Neither one of these strategies works, and more importantly, neither one is right. While our options as players are limited within the world of Age of Empires III, surely we have more freedom to explore, engage, and reconcile with Indigenous peoples

In any case, for a series that was able to teach me so much about other parts of the world, Age of Empires III let me down. To give an example, where previous games excelled in presenting historical campaigns and experiences as a way to tell the stories of the civilizations involved, Age of Empires III instead included an original story as their campaign, featuring a multigenerational quest to protect… the Fountain of Youth. There are plenty of interesting stories that actually happened; I very much wish the developers had included them.

Conversely, It feels like the developers actively chose not to acknowledge the realities of colonization experienced by Indigenous peoples. Whether this was a conscious choice to avoid controversy, or a lack of effort, I don’t know. As with lots of things, I’m left disappointed, but hoping for better. Good thing hope is a renewable resource.

This post was incredibly hard to write. There are countless other elements that I didn’t talk about here, mostly because I would not have been able to do them justice; even what I have written, I could not possibly have managed relying solely on my own experiences. For that reason, I wish to express immense gratitude to Tiffany Morris and B. C. King, who acted as sensitivity readers, providing immeasurably valuable advice and guidance. If you would like to help, True North Aid has a list of charities dedicated to helping Canada’s Indigenous peoples; Make a donation, or get involved yourself.



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