Socialist Games Reviews: Neocolonialism

Even from the developer logo, we get the impression
that Neocolonialism might explore economic issues in a slightly more mature way than
our last outing. For once we have a game that actually could
sort of be described as an example of cultural marxism, albeit the neo or post-marxism inspired
by the Frankfurt School. The ‘subaltern’ is a term of critical theory
and postcolonialism literally meaning below the alternate, that is, a group that is so
oppressed and marginalised in global society that they do not even have the ability to
create an alternate narrative like the educated proletariat do. A typical example would be the historical
African peasant; illiterate, tied to the land, and without a meaningful ability to engage
in civil discourse even as a disempowered party. In fact, the term is traditionally defined
as so stringent that even fact that I am playing this relatively obscure game now contradicts
the idea of it being ‘subalternate’, but still, it seems to suggest an educated and thought-provoking
analysis so with that lesson over we’ll just have to see what the game itself delivers. Neocolonialism is described by Subaltern Games
as a game where you “buy votes, make free trade agreements, manipulate the IMF (the
International Monetary Fund), extract wealth, ruin everything”. Watching the video will show you basically
how the game works, while I give a rundown on my thoughts over audio. Essentially the goal is to channel as much
wealth as possible into your swiss bank account by the end of 12 turns as one of a number
of bourgeois individuals or families whose influence reaches globally at the highest
levels. To me it sounds like an interesting concept,
but once the game begins you start to see that this is hardly an in depth simulation. Far from being an actor in a dynamic and richly
detailed world, you see that it is really more like a very basic board game, with the
only entities being yourself and your opposing players. You will use your working capital to buy votes
according to a simple formula based on the amount of mines and factories in the region,
and must try to be elected prime minister so that you can improve the region’s profitability
and then cash in your votes for score in your swiss account. If we take into account the title of Neocolonialism,
some of the exclusions are baffling. To explain why I’d like to talk about what
exactly the term means, but while I do, I’ll show off one particular irritation I had with
the game, which is how long it takes for the turn to end when only one player can afford
to buy and sell votes and everyone else has to wait for them while continually pressing
pass. In short, Neocolonialism is a paralell to
the outright colonialism of earlier ages, where it was accepted that naked military
force was a legitimate way to gain resources for your nation from foreigners, especially
if they were a different race or religion from yourselves, and imperialism rarely needed
to be justified other than smiting or converting the heathens. As political and moral philosophy became more
nuanced in the early modern era, the worst excesses of early industrial society abroad
were painted in terms of ‘civilising’ the poor ignorant natives, who could not be trusted
to run their own affairs, and the worst genocides covered up and obscured. As colonialism slowly gave way to the foundations
of modern neocolonialism, domination and suffering began to take on an economic instead of military
aspect. Famines were justified in terms of the free
market, as in British India where many more people starved than before colonial rule due
to global market economics and bourgeois rulers forcing farmers to switch to cash crops, such
as in the Bengal famine of 1770, which by very rough estimate is thought to have killed
10 million people. The lack of accurate figures can perhaps be
attributed to the phenomenon of the subaltern. To mercantile capitalism the powerless Indian
peasantry were not people, nor even a particularly valuable asset like opium poppies or indigo
dyes to be counted carefully in warehouses and husbanded, but were merely an abstract
variable affecting produect yields like rainfall or soil quality. Colonial adminstrators had no inclination
to expend the effort to calculate the level of human suffering, and illiterate rural Indians
did not have the capacity to make accurate records which would survive or travel back
to the west. Today, there is no more British Empire or
French Africa, but wealth still flows from the third world to the ruling class of the
first. How? Kwame Nkrumah (pronounciation), first Prime
Minister of independent Ghana, was inspired by Lenin’s analysis of imperial exploitation
to codify Neocolonialism, which he called ‘the last stage of imperialism’. In short, neocolonialism utilises corporate
power and neoliberal international policy to strangle the real economic growth of vulnerable
nations through shady loans taken out by desperate, weak, or corrupt leaders and one sided deals
imposed to steal the national resources that belong to the people, often by threats relating
to these mounting debts. A basic template for how it works is this;
the young and insecure nation with a dire need for capital is seduced by either international
banks or non-governmental lenders like the International Monetary Fund and offered billions
of dollars to develop basic infrastructure. This money is almost never enough to develop
a sound, self sustaining economy, especially in a country with weak institutions that is
new to democracy, so eventually it runs out, and the lenders now start to make threats,
wanting some guarantee that they will be paid back. Thankfully, multinational corporations coincidentally
choose this moment to offer a solution; a 50 or 100 year long lease or outright purchase
of all the nation’s resources like gold, oil, diamonds, precious metals, and even water. Of course, the corporation will pay a fraction
of the commodity’s worth, and will either be tax exempt, or use tax evasion methods
like transfer pricing to avoid putting money into the coffers of the national government. In the long run, this collusion means the
country is bankrupted, and may even take out more loans to try to solve the situation,
continuing the cycle. In this way, the priceless national resources
are stolen from the people and flow directly into the pockets of the bourgeoisie without
even the expense of foreign military domination. Indeed, neocolonialism is arguably a much
more effective form of exploitation than the historical method, as well as being much easier
to obscure and justify. Who said video games can’t be a form of art
that has the potential to teach, like great movies? Well, in this case, me, because none of this
theory is in the game other than the title! If you’ve been watching the video while I
monologued, you should notice that almost every element that could make this a thought-provoking
game is missing. Perhaps the most glaring flaw is the complete
negation of the title itself; on the game board and in play, there is no difference
whatsoever between the first and third world, or any difference between the regions at all,
except that some of them start with factories, some with mines, but over the course of a
typical game this situation can just as easily become reversed. In fact the two regions that have the least
possible building spots and are therefore the least valuable are Central America and
Australia, with the most valuable being China and Africa. Whether you interpret being a more valuable
region as being better to economically exploit, or a more valuable region as being more wealthy
historically, it doesn’t make sense either way. In essence it’s as informative about economic
exploitation as a game of Risk is about imperialism, and I’ve even seen board games based on the
Risk formula which have had more political content, like War on Terror. The most quote unquote subversive element
of the game is really the map, which,as you can see is upside down, or a ‘South-Up Projection’. The developers explained on their Kickstarter
that the purpose is to; “exemplify the north-south dichotomy of the world, wherein the southern
hemisphere is generally poorer than the northern hemisphere.” It is perhaps possible to make the argument
that the typical North-up projection is simply the manifestation of historical Eurocentric
bias, and certainly it began that way, but on the other hand, the vast majority of the
world’s population lives in the Northern hemisphere, and a compass points ‘up’ towards the North
too. I’m not saying that the map is really that
much of an inconvenience like some people seem to find it, and perhaps it would be a
sort of cute statement if that weren’t seemingly the only thing the game had to offer in terms
of political analysis. Instead, it just comes off as a meaingless
contrarian statement that attacks nebulous cultural ills instead of actual concrete problems
of exploitation. Of course, it is a relatively rare game that
really critiques society, but when taking inspiration from such lofty concepts I would
have expected better. Even if we put aside the concept of neocolonialism
and treat the game as more of a general critique of capitalism, it fails to mention things
that games that do not claim to be political do. For example, environmental damage is not modelled,
as it is in Simcity, Anno, and countless others, the workers and citizens of the world are
not shown even in the most abstract way, and debt is not featured. In a way, a business simulation game where
you can borrow money and fall into a cycle of debt is a better representation of neocolonialism. At the end of the game, we are told that ‘the
world is now ruined’ in a pithy little text box. Okay, but how? We have not seen any of the affects of our
actions. We have not destroyed the planet or exploited
the workers, just shuffled icons around an upside-down map. Of course, you could claim that is some deep
satire on how the ruling class sees the world, but you would never think of it that unless
you brought that interpretation into the game. The game itself doesn’t really send any message,
even if it thinks it does. Besides the game ending message, there is
only a random quote on the menu screen which provides a little flavour, but why couldn’t
that have been spread throughout the game? Of course this is a game, and gameplay is
the most important question, but I think the lack of depth actually harms the gameplay
too. A game against the AI is painfully dull and
seems a little unfair, since the AI will make deals with each other to trade votes which
you can’t do. Ultimately though, the AI doesn’t present
much of a challenge, and although I’m sure the game is more fun online with friends,
that’s always true, and what are the chances of putting together a match with a decent
number of players in such an obscure title? The inclusion of more world-building and complexity
would have made the game better even if we put aside the politics. Many games use the environment as a key mechanic,
for example the sci-fi colonisation sim Imagine Earth where the most powerful buildings damage
the planet you compete on, but too much exploitation will flood all players’ cities and end the
game. In other games you must balance production
and taxation against the unhappiness of the people or face riots, but this too is absent. One thing that I did appreciate was the crisis
system, where each turn a random region undergoes a crisis which causes a building to be destroyed,
buildings to be devalued, or some other disaster which causes the IMF to intervene, controlled
by a random player. In theory their job is to help the region,
but in practice what they will do is determined by their own personal interests. If they have a controlling stake in the region
they can choose to build a factory to increase its value, but if a rival is Prime Minister
they can instead sabotage the economy by destroying a mine, or benefit themselves by creating
a trade route between it and one of their own regions. If there were more smart, cynical little inclusions
like this I wouldn’t have been so dissapointed. If this were a free game I would have been
more lenient about the lack of substance, but it launched with a 10 dollar pricetag,
even if it can now be gotten for a dollar on sale. Overall, I think it deserves a 5 out of 10
for gameplay, because I’m sure it is relatively fun to play online with friends you can do
deals with and gloat over, and the game is decent for what it is. In terms of socialist content, I have to slap
it with an underwhelming 3 out of 10, because all of the meaning you could get from the
game has to be either inferred or is delivered in a clumbsy tell don’t show sort of way. I can see what the openly leftist developers
were trying to do and I respect it, but I just wish they had taken a bit more effort
and done a better job. Thank you for watching and I hope to see you
next time on Socialist Games Reviews, or Leftist Games Analysis, or Political Videogame Critique,
or whatever I end up deciding on calling the series. To see the previous and next video in the
series, click here or here, or if you’re on the playlist you should go to the next video
automatically. If you have any feedback please let me know
in the comments, or if you have a reccomendation on what game I should do next. If you have a different take on the game than
me I would be interested to hear it. Of course, I would much appreciate it if you
could share this video if you enjoyed it! Finally, thank you to Spin and RedLurker for
helping to proof this video.

  1. Well done mate, solid analysis, good narration. One thing I can say though, try lowering the volume of the Game itself, it was hard to you over it at times. Other than that, it was well edited, and you explained Neocolonialism as a concept rather well.

  2. Excellent commentary. Now I now what subaltern means and you explained it in 1 sentence too. If only you had mixed the audio slightly different though. The game's music and sounds kind of drown you out in multiple occasions.

  3. So what you're saying is that Communist China, whose leader mastubates with a Marx-branded artificial vagina, is just as bad as King Leopold II of Belgium?

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